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A Nation agog with Molly Allgood: In Synge’s Footsteps in North Mayo

25/07/2010

Ireland is agog with her – with Molly Allgood. What would she have thought if she had even the faintest imagining that her name would be flying around the nation on the airwaves, on the web, in rooms and libraries where book club members gather in 2010? It seems that Joseph O’Connor’s Ghost Light has made Molly more famous than her ‘tweedy tramp’, Johnny Synge, whom she carried in her head all her days.

She did not like all the walking but she traipsed after him on the Wicklow hills while the cancer was growing within him and he told her of the strange work he was writing about a storyteller in Mayo as they tramped over the crushed butterwurt and heather. And he read her a few soliloquies from The Playboy and told her the play was driving him mad.

I went in Synge’s footsteps once to the places in North Mayo, in Mullet and Erris, where Synge travelled – briefly in 1904 – and for a month with Jack Yeats in 1905. My trip was the day of Barak Obama’s inauguration on a bleak January day in Belmullet when I listened on the car radio to Elizabeth Alexander read the inauguration verse: ‘Sing the names of the dead who brought us here.’

The drizzle was rolling in when I reached Doolough where Synge watched the girls picking cockles; a red fishing boat bobbled in the water at Doohoma where the ‘Achill boat’ once came in. This was the boat where, in Playboy, the Widow Quinn and Sara Tansey wanted to conceal Christy Mahon and whisk him away.

Though they never visited these parts together, I imagine Molly and Johnny ‘astray in Erris’ – an easier image on the imagination than the inebriated old woman meandering around the streets of London, unable to get him out of her head.

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