Synge on Aran

Heaney likens the wind’s erosive force to a human voice capable of equal abrasiveness in his portrayal of a much respected literary Irishman who, around 1900, spent time in exile on one of the Aran islands in Galway Bay in a vain attempt to overcome a life-threatening illness.

On Aran the elemental power of Nature overwhelms what stands in its way … Synge is of the same uncompromising stock and the final couplet summarizes the physical and emotional correspondences between the man and his adopted environment.

From all points of the compass the four winds of Aran, their sword- blades sharpened by salt off the sea, abrade the island landscape (peel and pare down). Neither the karst limestone (locked rock) nor the tough bare rind of shrivelled ground has withstood cutting-edges that, chisel-like, fashion the cliffs into round-edged shapes (bull noses). 

As are the islands, so is the population: worn by constant exposure to sea-winds (for sculpting); products of the environment, their external appearance and inner emotions synchronised (the pointed scowl .. the upturned anchor of the mouth); their features carved by the gales, the windblown  polished head flooded with thoughts of maritime misfortune (full of drownings).

Enter (there he comes now) the literary revenant, his and Aran’s joint properties identified by Heaney: Synge’s abrasiveness (a hard pen/ scraping in his head); the sharpened cutting edge of his pen (nib filed on a salt wind); his biting commentaries written in ink drawn (dipped) from the keening sea. 

  • Edmund John Millington Synge (1871 – 1909): Irish playwright poet and prose writer also a collector of folklore; best known for the play The Playboy of the Western World, which caused riots during its opening run at the Abbey theatre; suffered from Hodgkin’s disease, a form of cancer at the time untreatable. Yeats recommended he spend time on the Aran Islands in Galway Bay as a health-cure. Despite any benefit he might have derived, Synge eventually died just weeks short of his 38th birthday;
  • whets: sharpens;
  • blades: cutting edge (of a knife);
  • peel: soft outer skin of fruit or vegetable;
  • acres: standard British unit of land area (0.4 hectare);
  • locked: set in place;
  • pare down: cut away the outer edges;
  • rind: tough outer skin
  • shrivelled: shrunken, wizened;
  • bull-nose: with rounded end/ edge;
  • chiselled: fashioned with a sharp bladed hand-tool;
  • cliff: steep rock face;
  • Islanders: those dwelling permanently on an island;
  • sculpt: carve, fashion with hammer and chisel;
  • pointed: sharp-tipped;
  • scowl: facial expression of anger;
  • carved: cut into to fashion a design;
  • upturned: on its end;
  • polished head: smooth, shiny bald head;
  • drown: die underwater;
  • pen with a nib, dipped into the ink;
  • scraping: scratching sound of pen on paper;
  • nib: tip of a pen that forms the letters;
  • filed: sharpened;
  • keening: wailing (as if in grief for a dead person);
  • 16 lines of between 5 and 7 syllables; stanzas joined by 2 half lines; varied rhythms from the use of enjambed lines and full-stops in mid line; no formal rhyme scheme (one couplet only);
  • the hissing sibilants [s] of the first couplet are followed by the plosive [p] of peel/ pare; [sk] sculpting/ scowl
  • vowel echoes sometimes juxtaposed, sometimes distant: sea/ peel; locked rock; keening sea; shrivelled/ chiselled/ cliffs ;scowl/ mouth/ drownings; nib/ dipped;
  • vocabulary of sharpening and cutting edge, shaping and moulding recurs: whets/ blades; chiselled/ sculpting; carved/ polished/ filed;
  • keening bridges the gap between the sharpness of a keen cutting edge and its equal connotation of grief implicit in drownings; the abiding atmosphere is one of biting, hurting and lamenting;
  • different senses and emotions are well catered for: salt/ peel/ rind of taste; sound: pen scraping; the joint touch and textures of the erosive/ sculpting process: chiselled/ sculpted/ pointed/ carved/ polished;


  • Heaney is a meticulous craftsman using combinations of vowel and consonant to form a poem that is something to be listened to;
  • the music of the poem: nine assonant strands are woven into the text; Heaney places them grouped within specific areas to create internal rhymes , or reprises them at intervals or threads them through the text.


  • alliterative effects allow pulses or beats or soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies;
  • the first lines, for example, weave together sibilant variants [s] [z] [sh] and a cluster of plosives (bilabial [p], alveolar [t][d], velar [k] [g]);
  • it is well worth teasing out the sound clusters for yourself to admire the poet’s sonic engineering:
  • Consonants (with their phonetic symbols) can be classed according to where in the mouth they occur
  • Front-of-mouth sounds voiceless bi-labial plosive [p] voiced bi-labial plosive [b]; voiceless labio-dental fricative [f] voiced labio-dental fricative [v]; bi-labial nasal [m]; interlabial continuant [w]
  • Behind-the-teeth sounds voiceless alveolar plosive [t] voiced alveolar plosive [d]; voiceless alveolar fricative as in church match [tʃ]; voiced alveolar fricative as in judge age [dʒ];  voiceless dental fricative  [θ]  as in thin path; voiced dental fricative as  in this other [ð]; voiceless alveolar fricative [s] voiced alveolar fricative [z]; continuant [h] alveolar nasal [n] alveolar approximant [l]; alveolar trill [r]; dental ‘y’ [j] as in  yet
  • Rear-of-mouth sounds voiceless velar plosive [k] voiced velar plosive [g]; voiceless post-alveolar fricative [ʃ] as in ship sure, voiced post- alveolar fricative [ʒ]   as in pleasure; palatal nasal [ŋ]  as in ring/ ang




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