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 novelby Joseph O'Connor / May 25, 2010 / Leave a comment
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 most influential Irish playwright of the 20th century, John Millington Synge, and a younger woman, an actress at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre. The Abbey, the world’s first national theatre, was founded by WB Yeats and Augusta Gregory in the 1900s.Synge (1871-1909) was its most enduring genius. In The Playboy of the Western World (1907), The Tinker’s Wedding (1909), and The Well of the Saints (1905) he wrote works that would be controversial for decades.
For me, Chabon’s mention of Obama’s absent father shone a light on Synge too, for the dramatist was raised without a father and came to adulthood aware that it was his inheritance to belong to several warring cultures simultaneously. It’s this reverberating conflict that supercharges his writing, giving it the power to trouble and enthrall. But there’s another ghost behind his fictions that has rarely been acknowledged: Molly Allgood, his lover.
Throughout his short life, which was harrowed by illness, Synge was captivated by those who feel intensely competing allegiances. A melancholic and complicated man, the son of a hardline Protestant Dublin family, he was educated, widely travelled, and had a private income but was rarely at peace except while drifting the byways of rural Ireland, where he would converse with the hobos who obsessed him. They filled his explosive plays. He photographed them, noted their sayings. Samuel Beckett’s tramps are the descendants of Synge’s. Many of his almost daily love-letters to Allgood, for whom he wrote the central role in his most famous play, are signed with the telling valediction “Your Old Tramp.” He saw himself as a migrant among the natives, a blow-in to an Ireland of festering ambivalences. In whatever private drama he felt he was appearing, Allgood became the female lead.
His affair with her broke numerous taboos, of class, religion, and politics.…