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The playboy and his muse

The working-class lover of JM Synge, one of Ireland’s great playwrights, has been airbrushed out of history. Joseph O’Connor explains how their secret affair inspired his latest novel

Molly Allgood, JM Synge’s “shockingly unsuitable” lover, by John B Yeats (detail)

In October 2008, novelist Michael Chabon wrote an account of attending a Barack Obama rally for the New York Review of Books. He described the African student’s son who would be America’s next president as “dogged and perspicacious, considerate, principled but pragmatic, driven, and oddly blessed with a kind of universal point of human connection, of the understanding of loss, in the place where the memory of his father ought to be.”

At the time, I was writing a novel based on the secret love affair between the…

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