John Millington Synge | Photographer

An installation shot of the exhibition of photographs by John Millington Synge in Knitwear Inis Meáin, the Aran Islands in 2009. Photo: Ciarán Walsh.

Synge’s photographs were first exhibited on Inis Meáin – the island most associated with Synge – in 2010. Tarlach de Blacam of Inis Meáin Knitwear and Ciaran Walsh curated the show and it was a huge hit, generating widespread coverage in the national print and broadcast media. Walsh first came across Synge’s photography on Inis Meáin, where de Blacam maintains a standing exhibition of Synge’s work, including an album Lilo Stephens assembled and Dolmen Press published on the centenary of his death.

Walsh tracked the original negatives to TCD where Felicity O’Mahony arranged to have them digitised by Tim Keeffe, now head of digital services in the Chester Beatty Library. Walsh commissioned a new set of prints for an exhibition that opened on Inis Meáin in 2009, on the centenary of Synge’s death. Giulia Bruna attended the opening on and included an account of the exhibition in her book J. M. Synge and Travel Writing of the Irish Revival.

The “Photography of John Millington Synge”, Le Centre Culturel Irlandais, January 2010 (Photo: Le Centre Culturel Irlandais, Paris).

The exhibition transferred to Le Centre Culturel Irlandais in Paris under the direction of Sheila Pratschke and received an equally enthusiastic response. Paris, Pratschke noted, regards Synge as one of its own and the La Liberation newspaper published a report by Dominique Poiret in Libé Culture in which she stated:

Les photos prises par Synge dans les îles d’Aran entre 1898 et 1902 ne seront rassemblées et publiées qu’en 1971 dans un recueil intitulé My Wallet of Photographs aux éditions Dolmen Press.

Roughly translated, the photographs taken by Synge in the Aran Islands between 1898 and 1902 have not been shown in public since 1971 when they were published by Dolmen in a collection titled My wallet of Photographs. Poiret’s tagline announced the discovery that “poet and writer Synge, was also a photographer.”, Ciaran Walsh, John Millinnton Synge, Photographs, Irish Museum of Modern Art, IMMA, October 2010

The Synge photographs on show in the Irish Museum of Modern Art on the opening of ‘The Moderns’ on October 19, 2010 (photo: Ciarán Walsh)

Later the same year, the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA) incorporated most of the exhibition into the photographic component of a major survey of modernism, although, despite a request to do so, the exhibition organisers did not disclose the origins of the prints on show or acknowledge the curators involved. Instead, IMMA marketed the photographs as a major discovery and Ken Sweeney in The Irish Independent ran a story under the headline that Synge’s photography exposed at last, ten months after Poiret wrote her ‘exposé’, and over a year after similar ‘exposés’ in The Irish Times, Examiner and, indeed, The Irish Independent.

Tim Keeffe’s scan of one of Synge’s photographic negatives, probably the first print produced from the negative since P. J. Pocock illustrated Alan Price’s 1965 ‘autobiography‘ with 16 photographs. Courtesy of the Board of Trinity, University Dublin.

Walsh revisited Synge’s photography while researching A. C. Haddon: A very English savage (in Ireland) and discovered a series of connections between Haddon and Synge. On the strength of that evidence Walsh proposes that Synge followed Haddon to the Aran Islands and tried to put a literary spin on Haddon’s photo-ethnographic account of an anarchic, pre-conquest community of fisher folk. The implication is that Haddon rather than Yeats pointed Synge toward the Aran Islands and that changes one of the fundamental tenets in the scholarship of the Irish Revival.


Posted on

August 22, 2022