Biography of John Millington Synge

J.M. Synge is one of the most famous Irish playwrights, and one of the founders of Ireland's Abbey Theatre.

Edmund John Millington (J.M.) Synge was born April 10, 1871, in rural Rathfarnham, outside Dublin, Ireland. He was the youngest of five children, and never knew his father John Hatch, a barrister who died of smallpox when Synge was a year old. Hatch’s death left mother Kathleen to raise the family, which she did following the example of her own strict and insular Irish Protestant upbringing.

Synge attended private school for four years. He was a shy boy, often in ill health. His sick days interfered with his schoolwork, so his mother hired a home tutor for him. Without the company of other boys, Synge roamed the surrounding countryside and became an avid naturalist. At the age of 16, he snuck Darwin’s Origin of Species into his bedroom, and lost his Christian faith upon reading of evolution. Synge felt this loss of faith as a shameful betrayal of his mother.

Synge did share a love of music with his mother, however. Both she and her son Samuel played the piano and concertina. Inspired by their example, Synge began violin lessons, discovering a natural ability and an excellent ear. From 1888-1892, he attended both the Royal Irish Academy of Music and Trinity College, Dublin. He did not enjoy university life, as his upbringing had left him ill prepared for so much socializing.

Synge graduated from Trinity with a focus on languages, and received music scholarships from the Academy. He then traveled to Germany to continue playing the violin. It was in Germany that Synge realized he wished to pursue writing rather than music.

In 1896, Synge moved to Paris to study languages. While there, he met fellow Irishman and poet William Butler Yeats. Synge’s relationship with Yeats would prove to be one of the most influential of his life. Yeats saw in Synge a kindred imaginative spirit, someone passionate not merely about literature, but especially about Irish literature. Yeats and Synge met regularly with Maud Gonne, the incendiary Irish revolutionary figure, and with Lady Augusta Gregory. Yeats, Lady Gregory, and Synge would later form The Abbey Theatre in Dublin.

In the meantime, Yeats encouraged Synge to travel to the Aran Islands in order to learn the Gaelic language and acquaint himself with Irish folk. Prior to taking the trip, Synge was diagnosed with Hodgkins disease and underwent an operation to remove a neck tumor. Sickly but inspired, Synge then took the trip and gathered the material for the majority of his canon. The terrain, the sea, the area’s history, the villagers’ stories, and, most of all, the villagers’ languages — whether Gaelic or their own strand of English — set Synge’s imagination alight.

In 1902, Synge joined W.B. Yeats and Lady Gregory in forming the Irish National Theatre Society in Dublin. In 1904, it was renamed The Abbey Theatre. The Abbey produced all of Synge’s plays: In the Shadow of the Glen (1903), Riders to the Sea (1904), The Well of the Saints (1905), and Playboy of the Western World (1907). None of his plays received particularly good reviews, and The Playboy of the Western World was largely reviled, sparking riots and arrests during its one-week run. Synge’s plays, with their colorful, profane imagery and their violent subject matter, offended the sensibilities of Protestant elite and Catholic Nationalists alike.

During this period, Synge courted The Abbey's lead actress, Molly Allgood, who starred as Pegeen Mike in The Playboy. The two were engaged, but Synge’s health took a fatal turn in 1908. He underwent another operation to remove a tumor, but died on March 24, 1909 in Dublin, at the age of 37. 1910 saw the publication of Synge’s Collected Works, featuring both his produced plays and the unfinished Deidre of the Sorrows.

Study Guides on Works by John Millington Synge

Synge's one-act play Riders to the Sea (1904) deals with the lives and manners of a cross-section of humanity. While the play is concerned with local matters, Synge represents these matters with a universal interest. In other words, Synge, like...