John Millicent Synge

John Millicent Synge

In Brief

The absent presence of the contemporary Irish playwright John Millicent Synge hovers about the literati in Scylla and Charybdis, and Buck Mulligan parodies the style of Synge's characters' speech. Later, in Oxen of the Sun, that style irrupts briefly into the paragraph written in the Gothic mode as Haines recalls Mulligan's mocking imitations of western Irish speech.

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Synge (1871-1909) was an Anglo-Irish Dubliner, but he made a literary career out of imitating the speech of Catholic peasants in the west of Ireland. After reading Darwin at age 14 and losing his faith in Christian teachings, he put his faith in the Irish people. From 1897 to 1902 he spent his summers in the Aran Islands, learning the Irish language, collecting folklore, and hearing ancient pagan beliefs persisting in modern Catholic mouths. Riders to the Sea, a masterful one-act play written in an Irish-inflected English, was performed in early 1904. Synge's most famous play, The Playboy of the Western World, was not performed until 1907.

Stephen hears Synge mentioned as one of the important agents in the Irish Revival: "Synge has promised me an article for Dana too. Are we going to be read? I feel we are. The Gaelic league wants something in Irish. I hope you will come round tonight. Bring Starkey." Mulligan mocks Synge's growing importance: "Shakespeare? he said. I seem to know the name. . . .  To be sure, he said, remembering brightly. The chap that writes like Synge." (Gifford notes that this "Dublin literary joke . . . had its origin in Yeats's hyperbolic assertion that Synge was another Aeschylus.")

Soon, Mulligan launches into an imitation of Synge's way of writing: "It's what I'm telling you, mister honey, it's queer and sick we were, Haines and myself, the time himself brought it in. 'Twas murmur we did for a gallus potion would rouse a friar, I'm thinking, and he limp with leching. And we one hour and two hours and three hours in Connery's sitting civil waiting for pints apiece. . . . And we to be there, mavrone, and you to be unbeknownst sending us your conglomerations the way we to have our tongues out a yard long like the drouthy clerics do be fainting for a pussful." He concludes his performance by warning Stephen that "The tramper Synge is looking for you, he said, to murder you. He heard you pissed on his halldoor in Glasthule. He's out in pampooties to murder you." Gifford glosses pampooties as "Moccasins made of undressed cowhide and worn by Aran islanders. The implication is that Synge has gone native."

Mulligan's in-joke about Synge being a murderous savage may play some role in triggering Stephen's recollection of meeting the playwright in Paris: "Harsh gargoyle face that warred against me over our mess of hash of  lights in rue Saint-André-des-Arts." Synge was known for being violently argumentative. He also apparently did a lot of dressing in black: "Mournful mummer, Buck Mulligan moaned. Synge has left off wearing black to be like nature. Only crows, priests and English coal are black." These dark elements seem to have much to do with the presence of Syngean speech in an otherwise Gothic passage in Oxen.

In that passage Haines, who is confessing to the murder of Samuel Childs, burbles, "This is the appearance is on me. Tare and ages, what way would I be resting at all, he muttered thickly, and I tramping Dublin this while back with my share of songs and himself after me the like of a soulth or a bullawurrus?" Gifford identifies "soulth" as Anglicized Irish for "an apparition or ghost," and "bullawurrus" as Irish either for "the smell of murder" (Brendan O'Hehir, A Gaelic Lexicon for Finnegans Wake) or "the spectral bull, with fire blazing from eyes and nose and mouth" (P. W. Joyce, English as We Speak It in Ireland). These words are in keeping, then, both with Synge's interest in Irish pagan folklore and with the Gothic theme of ghostly apparitions. And Synge's aggressive personality blends with that of Manfred the murderous tyrant and Haines the shooter of ghostly black panthers.

JH 2014
Drawing of Synge by Jack Yeats, 1907. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Synge's "harsh gargoyle face." Source: Wikimedia Commons.