The Photography of John Millington Synge

In 2007, Ciarán Walsh discovered an album of John Millington Synge’s photographs that Lilo Stephen’s published on the centenary of his death in 1971. He tracked the original negatives to TCD, and Felicity O’Mahony in the Manuscript Library 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. Shortly afterwards, Felicity O’Mahony showed Walsh the photographs Charles R. Browne took in the islands in 1892. That was the start of and the first a series of public engagement projects built around newly discovered photographic archives associated with the Aran Islands.

Ciarán Walsh, film maker, curator,, EYEBALL publishing, Kerry, Ireland, Art, Public Art, Film, Projects, John Millington Synge, Aran Islands.

This project deals with the photography of John Millington Synge. It has been curated by Ciarán Walsh to commemorate the centenary of the writer’s death in 2009. The photographs are held in the Library, Trinity College Dublin and are shown with the permission of the Board of Trinity College Dublin.

Synge bought a second hand camera during his first visit to the Aran Islands and the exhibition consists of photographs which were taken in Connemara, Wicklow and West Kerry between 1898 and 1905. There are 51 surviving photographs which form part of the Synge manuscript collection in the Library, Trinity College. Dublin. The original glass plates (23) and surviving print photographs have been restored and digitalised by the Library, TCD, especially for this exhibition. It is the first time they will have been exhibited.

Synge had intended using these to illustrate his account of life on the Aran Islands but illustrations by Jack B. Yeats were used instead in the first edition. Yeats based many of his illustrations on Synge’s photographs including the iconic drawing of ’An Island Man’ which was based on a photograph taken by Synge on Inis Oirr.

This is not social documentary photography, The exhibition deals with Synge’s photographs in terms of the arrival of a new artform (photography) and the beginning of a ‘folk’ imagination of the ‘real Ireland’ which has its origins in documentary photographs of the ‘West.’ Synge’s photography represents a seminal moment in the imagination of ‘Irishness’ which has been either overlooked or treated as mere illustration in a literary context. The exhibition is a celebration of John Millington Synge as a pioneering photographer.


Exhibitions:, Ciaran Walsh, John Millinnton Synge, Photographs, Irish Museum of Modern Art, IMMA, October 2010

The Synge photographs in IMMA on the opening of ‘The Moderns’ on 19.10.2010. Photography was not allowed so I strapped my phone to my ankle.


The critically acclaimed exhibition of photographs by John Millington Synge that was curated by Ciarán Walsh in 2009 has been incorporated into a major survey of modern art in Ireland that is currently on show in the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin. The exhibition was reproduced from the original glass plates and prints held by the Manuscript Library of Trinity College Dublin, under the direction of Felicity O’Mahony. They were printed by Dan Scully of the Gallery of Photography, Dublin, and framed by Ger Gleasure, of Tralee. The exhibition was first shown on Inis Meáin, the Aran Islands – the island most associated with Synge. It was co-curated by Tarlach de Blacam of Inis Meáin Knitwear. It was a huge hit, generating widespread coverage in the national print and broadcast media. It toured to Paris under the direction of Sheila Pratschke of Le Centre Culturel Irlandais and received an equally enthusiastic welcome. Paris, after all, regards Synge as one of its own.


The Photography of John Millington Synge on show in  Inis Meáin Knitwear, the Aran Islands. Photo: Ciaran Walsh,


The exhibition in IMMA is important. As the museum’s publicity describes it:

“The most extensive exhibition to date from the Museum’s own collection, The Moderns, will explore the development of modernity in Ireland through the visual arts in the period 1900 to 1975.  Focussing in the innovative and the experimental, it will examine this subject through a broad, interdisciplinary approach.

The exhibition will bring together exceptional examples of painting and sculpture, photography and film, architecture, literature, music and design of the period.  Curated mainly from IMMA’s Collection, it will also include superb loans from the public and private collections in Ireland and beyond.

The Moderns will explore many of the key artistic movements of the period, including the paintings of Mainie Jellett, Evie Hone and other supporters of European Modernism in the context of the iconic achievements in design and literature of Eileen Gray and James Joyce.  It will reflect the works and influence of John Millington Synge, Paul Henry and the Yeats family and external forces as seen in the work of Klee and Picasso.  The impact of the ground-breaking ROSC exhibitions in the 1960s and ’70s, and of Minimal and Conceptual Art, in the works of Brian O’Doherty, Barry Flanagan and Michael Craig-Martin, will also be examined.”

The Synge photographs continue to attract attention: Check out the  article by Ken Sweeney in the Independent:

Synge’s Photography-Exposed-At Last By Ken Sweeney, Thursday October 14 2010., Ciaran Walsh, The Photography of John Millington Synge, Le Centre Culturel Irlandais, Director Sheila Pratschke.
The Photography of John Millington Synge, Le Centre Culturel Irlandais, Director Sheila Pratschke. January 2010. Photo: Le Centre Culturel Irlandais, Paris.

Original glass plate negatives of photographs around Ireland by J.M. Synge. Previous reproductions were published in a book titled My Wallet, in 1971.


Posted on

June 10, 2024