JOHN Millington Synge and Hugh MacDiarmid were very different but both wrote vital prose about, and made a poetry out of, islands. Synge’s prose is felt and expertly measured, though it began as journalism. His book The Aran Islands (1907) is a work of art, a masterpiece of the genre, a subtle exercise in the art of self-effacement; and, as WJ McCormack says in his life of the playwright, “a testimony to Synge’s unclassifiable intellect and imagination”.

In contrast, MacDiarmid’s nonetheless invaluable The Islands of Scotland (1939) is hardly a guide and it is no work of art. It is extremely MacDiarmidian, impassioned, volcanic, and didactic. You are dragged into a vortex, or several vortices, when you embark on it and are thrown this way, and that way, as MacDiarmid turns the world and myriad assumptions upside down and inside out. His book is full of statistics and analyses and undigested chunks of quotation but also a redeeming poetry.

Both in their different ways offer radical critiques of the economic and social realities of their chosen places of stay, visit, and visitation. In the opening paragraphs of MacDiarmid’s poem “Island Funeral” (first published in the Islands book), a poem of extraordinarily measured diction, plain depiction and evocation, his world and Synge’s appear to overlap in a literary mystery and puzzle of seeming appropriation that no-one has yet succeeded in solving. So Synge and MacDiarmid make a strong pairing. They are both subversive writers whose geniuses were profoundly enabled by experiencing island life. Both also bring us round to the language question or questions.

Máirtín Ó Direáin, the Aran Islands-born Irish language poet, puts it poignantly at the close of his poem “Homage to John Millington Synge” (written in the 1950s): “The words you gathered then” he declares, “Will live on in an alien tongue.” With a nod at Shakespeare’s Macbeth he sees Synge’s contribution as a kind of holding operation, “till Coill Chuain comes to Inis Meáin” but, of course, hardly in a spirit of optimism. For Ó Direáin it is all too late: “the ways of [his] people decay” he says, and “The sea no longer serves as a wall”.

Though it’s true that while the sea wall and the language wall are both broken, and overridden by the internet, they still serve today as significant barricades to cultural invasion.

Ó Direáin applauds Synge’s achievement unreservedly but ultimately we know translation is impossible beyond approximation where poetry or the poetic are concerned. And all, or the greater part of the rest, is a matter of economics and cultural dominance. The islands of the tattered archipelago with its ragged edges, like the edge of an indecipherable flag that has frayed on the wind, still remain to themselves, in their own language, and in the languages of weather and season, as hard of access as the sea and its storms still can – and do often – render their shores.

The National: John Millington SyngeJohn Millington Synge

The wall of the sea might be broken but strait is the gate, narrow is the eye of the language needle. And then, still, we must accept, you can’t stop time, you can’t live in the past, but you can try to live in creative sympathy with it, with history and tradition, and with the present. Which is what Synge did. His two works of prose and drama are his hommage to Aran, if not reparation.

We might say the sea holds life up to closer inspection. Dramatis personae on small islands are fewer and more clearly defined as community and the sea as an agent of tragedy lends drama to their survival. Their worlds are theatres in the round. The Greeks produced dramas in the round. As indeed did the Romans. Oddly perhaps, given the true nature of those slave-holding societies, it is an inclusive, non-hierarchical democratic arrangement – indeed it has the very virtues that Synge identified in the community he found on Inis Meáin, where practical skills were common property and there was no hierarchy as it were of trades.

Synge puts it like this: “It’s likely that much of the intelligence and charm of this islands people is due to the absence of any division of labour, and to the correspondingly wide development of each individual, whose varied knowledge and skill necessitates a considerable activity of mind. Each man can speak two languages. He is a skilled fisherman and can manage a curagh with extraordinary nerve and dexterity.

“He can farm simply, burn kelp, cut out pampooties, mend nets, build and thatch a house, and make a cradle or a coffin. His work changes with the seasons in a way that keeps him free from the dullness that comes to people who have always the same occupation. The danger of his life on the sea gives him the alertness of a primitive hunter, and the long nights he spends fishing in his curagh bring him some of the emotions that are thought peculiar to men who have lived with the arts.”

This final Romantic moment here, I think rare in Synge’s work, nevertheless has a ring of truth to it (think of the great Scottish poets George Campbell Hay or WS Graham), as to night fishing and the night fisherman’s mindset. Also, we remember that Synge, when in Paris, had been reading Karl Marx, another interest he shared with MacDiarmid, if less abrasively.

The sheer volume and longevity of writing that has been devoted to the Aran Islands, from the 12th-century work of Giraldus Cambrensis (Gerald of Wales) to the great late 20th-century prose writings of Tim Robinson, is extraordinary. It’s a wonder the Aran Islands remain afloat, they have to bear such a burden.

READ MORE: The Unnameable Archipelago: A different way of thinking about these islands

SYNGE felt that burden, jealously, observing that it’s impossible to make “a fit place of a place everybody visits”. He didn’t know how impossible making “a fit place” would become. Deirdre Ní Chonghaile, the Irish language and music scholar, and native of Árainn, has written of this great mass of publications as a “cacophony”, one in which the island voices with which she works are “frequently lost”.

Among island voices surely not lost are those of Liam O’Flaherty, Tom O’Flaherty, Máirtín Ó Direáin, and Breandán Ó hEithir. The voices Ní Chonghaile refers to are Irish language folk voices, an important distinction to make, and a deep field.

The Aran Islands are atypical, but they are also peculiarly exemplary. They raise all the issues, graphically and dramatically, and soberingly, that island life on the eastern Atlantic seaboard might be our inheritance too. They occupy the interfaces between aesthetics and every day social reality; the outer and the inner; the indigenous and the non-native; language; a nexus of commercial culture; the world’s mercy (or lack of it); local work, and literary art (and filmic art); and folk art, and, one should add, myth. Variations, that is, on Louis MacNeice’s theme, which we noted at the beginning of our first essay last week.

Synge had been studying Irish in Paris; he went to Aran above all to improve his colloquial Irish as well as to restore his health, to repair his mind and his lovelorn heart. Most importantly, he went modestly. Quickly he sensed that the big island, Inis Mór, was already too much tainted by what WB Yeats in his late poem of 1938, “The Statues” called “this filthy modern tide”: “We Irish, born into that ancient sect / But thrown upon this filthy modern tide”. This is a poem that, not without many a troubling moment along the way, gives the laurel for all that is worthy in the western heritage to the Greeks, rather as does the German poet Friedrich Hölderlin, among whose elegiac works and hymns, by the way, stands “Der Archipelagus” (“The Archipelago”).

Synge retreats to the middle island, much harder of access, much more complete, contained, coherent, uncontaminated.

He pulls off a remarkable feat of genius, in just a few, relatively brief visits, at what becomes a defining historical moment for Ireland. The people are extraordinary in their hospitality to the stranger while remaining canny and humorous observers too.

The National: Hugh MacDiarmidHugh MacDiarmid

As Ó Direáin points out in his “Homage” poem, Synge didn’t “listen to the tale of the stones”; for him, “Greatness lived in the tale of the hearth”. As I’ve already said, Ó Direáin’s poem alludes to Scotland via Shakespeare’s Macbeth but does it not, now, also evoke MacDiarmid’s “On a Raised Beach”, and MacDiarmid listening to the stones? Listening, that is, to the cosmic, the infinite.

Just so, MacDiarmid in his great existential soliloquy about “Being and non-being” seems to nod at Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” – when he writes in “On a Raised Beach” (“ataraxia”, by the way, means a state of unperturbedness or of calmness): I am prepared with everything else to share Sunshine and darkness and wind and rain And life and death bare as these rocks though it be In whatever order nature may decree, But not indifferent to the struggle yet Nor to the ataraxia I might get By fatalism, a deeper issue see Than these, or suicide, here confronting me.

It may be so as to Hamlet, though one should remember too the boatman’s fear, when asked to ferry MacDiarmid to and to leave him on East Linga overnight, that the poet might be suicidal.

Listening and hearing are at the heart of Synge’s narrative. Often as we read we note him hearing Gaelic through floorboards, through a broken window, or in the next room. Such moments serve to signal to us the way Synge is placed somewhere between two languages, two worlds.

He is the intermediary between two cultures – the European and the beyond-the-pale peripheral reputedly ancient Irish, descended from the mythical (Irish and Greek) Fir Bolg, or “bag men”. He is the translator between two languages, his ear to the wall. He is, in the Coleridgean, Hopkinsian, MacDiarmidian sense, “where extremes meet”, extremes to be reconciled, to be integrated, given distilled lyric expression in and by art.

As to hearing and representation, the Irish-English of Synge’s plays has been scorned by some Irish speakers – notable among them the satirist Brian O’Nolan – as a deplorable kind of stage Irish patois. But not so by Brendan Behan, another Irish-speaker who made his debut as an Irish language poet, and a playwright who admired Synge’s plays, who knew and wrote about Árainn.

Declan Kiberd established that Synge’s language is grammatically highly informed and idiomatically accurate. Seamus Heaney is more pointed when he calls it “a new mandarin idiom”. Still, we might say that Synge had heard the language thoroughly. The key here lies in the matter of hearing and listening, in Synge’s passivity and honesty in setting down what he hears (whether pretty atrocious folk ballads or distinctive poetic expressions) and what he sees, to say nothing of his artistry.

The figure of drowning so central to “Riders to the Sea”, and the terrible, devastating fact of drowning, are held up to each other without redundancy or excess. They are, as Kiberd would say truly, “expressed”.

Next week, Andrew introduces the work of filmmaker Robert Flaherty and writer Tim Robinson