This book is a very dark glimpse into a dying world that once existed through all of human civilization. Fairies and giants and ghost ships are as much a part of these people’s real world as is God and the police who come onto the islands to kick people out of their homes.
I do wonder, however, what Synge’s intention was to portray these people as being so simple. He does admire their skill with the boats but he spends so much time with old men who tell tales that have no point that it’s easy to think the whole island lives and thinks as these old men do. Yet the young men, Michael in particular, leaves the islands to find work elsewhere because he knows there is no future on those grey, wet rocks. And the other danger is that we get pulled into a nostalgic portrait of the islands that never really existed outside of the imaginations of these old men.
Still, there are moments that are quite beautiful and telling as to how things really are on the Aran Islands. First is the priest, whom we never meet but are always told about braving the rough sees day after day and risking his life as he tends to his flock. Though we never meet this man, I couldn’t get the image out of my head of a man dressed in priest’s black, standing upright on a small boat tumbling upon the waves in a fierce gale. I would love to have heard his story. The other telling moment was for the funeral of the young man. This was a beautiful and very sad scene where they bury him in the same spot where his grandmother had been buried and they find her skull among the black planks on her coffin. This image, coupled with the young man having lost his head at sea, is a wonderfully confusing image where the nostalgic sensibility of the old is placed on the dead body of the young that can’t carry it to any future other than the grave.
Perhaps this is why all the stories end with absolutely no point because life is, to them, pointless. Life is hard, the women wear out in childbirth before they’re even 20, the men drink and fight and die at sea for a pittance of a catch, or the lucky ones move to America and never come back, their story unfinished.