Glad to see The Irish Times recently publish my nomination of Erris in its Best Place to Holiday in Ireland series. This is a hidden gem in the north-west corner of my native County Mayo that is immortalised as the setting of J M Synge’s drama The Playboy of the Western World.
It covered modernity in Ireland from the 1900s to the 1970s through the visual arts mainly, but with photographers, film-makers, composers, architects, designers – and writers – all featured in a major interdisciplinary collection.
I was interested in the smattering of exhibits connected to Irish writers and showing the crossover of the literary and the visual arts. These were some of my highlights:
Samuel Beckett’s ‘Film’, written in 1962 and filmed in New York in 1963. It can be viewed here on YouTube.
John Millington Synge’s Photos from Aran, Connemara, Wicklow and Kerry. Synge bought his first camera from a fellow visitor to Aran in 1898 and it became a constant on his travels along with his bicycle.
Jack Yeats’ Book Illustrations. He and Synge spent a month together in 1905 on a tour of the Congested Districts in the west, Synge writing his series of articles for the Manchester Guardian and Yeats providing the illustrations.
Robert Flaherty’s film documentary Man of Aran (1934) The work was inspired by Synge and the wheel has come full circle with Martin McDonagh’s drama The Cripple of Inishmaan – currently on tour with Druid Theatre – set against the backdrop of Flaherty’s film.
Paul and Grace Henry Paintings of the West. The couple stayed in Achill for close to a decade and most of Paul’s autobiography An Irish Portrait (1951) centred on the island.
Elinor Wiltshire’s Photo of Patrick Kavanagh picking potatoes in Inishkeen in 1963.
Pity the exhibition is over. Another visit, I feel, would have revealed many more gems. And I loved this TV commercial for the exhibition:-
Paul Henry’s ‘The Bog Road’ was sold at auction during the week to an anonymous bidder a century after the artist arrived on Achill Island, the setting for the painting, and stayed on and off for almost a decade, endlessly absorbed with the colour and variety of the island’s cloud formations.
Henry had a fascination with writing and his autobiography, An Irish Portrait (published in 1951), is mostly about his experiences of Achill. Sean O’Faolain wrote the introduction and made the provocative statement: ‘Very few painters have written books and few of these are satisfying.’
Henry famously tore up his return ticket to London on the rocky point of Gubalennaun in Achill and between the island points of Keel and Dooagh found inspiration for many of his paintings. ‘The intensity of the emotion I got from a purely Irish landscape always puzzled and disturbed me …’
Paul Henry came to Achill the year after John Millington Synge died, admitting that there was something about Synge that appealed to him deeply and touched a chord, leading him to read Riders to the Sea over and over.
O’Faolain saw the same impulse in the work of the painter and writer: ‘Like his painting Henry’s writing is a sponge of nature …’
Maybe Henry would be pleased that his image of Achill soared through cyberspace this week, a century after he arrived in a place where he struggled to find the right image – and the right words – to convey the emotions he felt ?
There are a host of literary things to do in Erris – the area in the north-west corner of County Mayo, Ireland, bordering the Atlantic Ocean. A thrilling place for the literary inclined. Here are a half-dozen suggestions of things to do and texts to read:
- Read Seamus Heaney’s poem ‘Belderg’ at the Ceide Fields – the most extensive Stone Age monument in the world dating from 5000 years ago: ‘A landscape fossilized, / Its stone-wall patternings / Repeated before your eyes / In the stone walls of Mayo / Before I turn to go.’
- Follow in the footsteps of JM Synge and Jack Yeats who visited Erris in 1905 on their Congested Districts Tour. Read Synge’s account: ‘Belmullet itself is curiously placed on an isthmus – recently pierced by a canal – that divides Broad Haven form Blacksod Bay. Beyond the isthmus there is a long peninsula some fourteen miles in length, running north and south, and separating these two bays from the Atlantic.’
- Walk the six-mile Children of Lir Loop at Carrowteigue in the North Mayo Gaeltacht near Benwee Head after you have read the legend of the childrens’ wanderings until they found rest on Inishglora out in the Atlantic west of the Mullet Peninsula. View the one hundred metre long earth and stone mound sculpture that is part of the North Mayo Sculpture Trail.
- Take a boat from Blacksod to the deserted Inishkea Islands off the Mullet Peninsula armed with Brian Doran’s, Mayo Lost Island: The Inishkeas. View the remnants of the whaling station. Visit Ionad Deirbhle Heritage Centre at Aughleam to see wonderful film footage of men at the whaling station a century ago.
- Drive across the strand to the island of Claggan and read the words of poet Derek Mahon (‘Disused Shed in Co. Wexford’) engraved on a stone at Marion O’Donnell’s sculpture at the burial site of the anonymous dead: ‘They are begging us you see in their wordless way, / To do something to speak on their behalf, / Or at least not to close the door again.’
- Visit Geesala where JM Synge once boarded and watched girls picking cockles on the strand at Doolough which gave him the inspiration for the ‘village girls’ – Sara Tansey, Susan Brady and Honor Blake in The Playboy of the Western World. Druid Theatre group visited here in 2004 while rehearsing a 21st century version of The Playboy.
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.