In the archive with J.M. Synge

Drawing by Djuna Barnes ‘The Well of the Saints’

In the archive with J.M. Synge

Seán Hewitt (Institute of Irish Studies, University of Liverpool) discusses his research trip to the archives in Trinity College Dublin to examine papers the papers of J.M. Synge.

The bursary I received from the BAIS allowed me to spend a week this summer in the archives of Trinity College Dublin. This was to look at the Papers of John Millington Synge, all of which are held in this collection, and particularly to read through the drafts for his 1905 play, The Well of the Saints. I had hoped that this manuscript would provide a ‘key’ to my thesis, which explores Synge’s work as an evolving reaction to modernisation in rural Ireland.

Although some of the Synge papers have been digitised, many still require a trip to Dublin. His play drafts in particular can be long and complicated, with each revision marked with a letter (‘A’ for the first, ‘B’ for the second, etc.), and some stretching out well beyond 1000 folios. The manuscripts for The Well of the Saints are particularly interesting, being carefully lettered and showing the play in many iterations. A new digital humanities project, Synge Online, which it is hoped will begin next year, will use the manuscript for this play in order to track changes made by the author over the course of redrafting.

I was particularly interested in the manuscript for The Well of the Saints because Synge’s drafting process is quite clear in it, and because so much of the early dialogue survives. Not only this, but Synge took a version of the play with him on his travels around the Congested Districts in 1905, where he reported on the effects of distress and modernisation for the Manchester Guardian. If there was a play in Synge’s oeuvre that might best signal the effects of modernisation on his own development as a writer, this was it.

What I found was that the manuscript was littered with clues, full of references and allusions not found in the published text, and that the characterisation of both the Saint and the blind beggars shifts over time. What seemed most striking, however, after having read through Synge’s diaries, notebooks and observations on natural history, was that the text seemed to make use of a theorised interplay between spiritualism and science, between the pre-modern and the modern, which did not quite fit the binary I was expecting. That’s the great thing about the archive – it’s service as a corrective, as the most powerful critic of our own ideas about a text, as a source of access to a historical moment and a sneaking access to a writer as a mind not confined to carefully edited editions of the works themselves.

I also spend some lovely time getting sidetracked by Synge’s boyhood diaries, his notes on lectures, complete with doodles and diagrams and poignant moments of grief and awe. Of course, these sidetracks were not sidetracks at all, but new lines of research waiting in the wings. Spending time transcribing diaries and notebooks and letters gives one a real sense of the artist as a person, as someone who actually lived and talked and experienced day-to-day life, and has left me with a sense of Synge’s personality which no biography could quite capture.

The opportunity to spend a week in the archive has turned up pages and pages of notes for my thesis, and many more ideas for papers and chapters. I even found that the trip spurred on a fledgling idea for a postdoctoral proposal that I’d been carrying around unexpressed for a while. And so I’d like to take the time to extend my thanks to the BAIS, and to the librarians and archivists at TCD, for giving me the chance to have an intimate, personal experience with both the texts and the man behind them.

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