Hofstra Irish Studies Program Hosts Talk on 'Riders to the Sea'

Dr. Nicholas Grene, professor of English Literature at Trinity College, Dublin, lectured on J.M. Synge’s “Riders to the Sea” on September 17, 2013 at Hofstra University.  Dr. Grene’s host was the Irish Studies Program co-directed by Dr.Maureen Murphy and Dr. Gregory Maney.

For his audience of sixty students, faculty and visitors,  Dr. Grene set the stage for Synge’s arrival on the Irish literary stage by sketching the context of Irish literature just before the turn of the 20th  century.  Great Irish actors and dramatists like Richard Brinsley Sheridan and G.B. Shaw felt that they had to leave Ireland for London to be a part of the literary centre of literature written in English. Proud of the literary heritage of Ireland and intent on developing a home for native talent, W.B. Yeats, Lady Gregory and Edward Mortyn set about in the 1890s to establish a National Theatre. Professor Grene humorously imagined that the three great Irish artists met on a wet weekend in Ireland and said, “Let’s start a theatre movement.”  Indeed they did.

It was Yeats, Dr. Grene told his audience, who advised the budding playwright John Millington Synge to go to the Aran Islands to immerse himself in the language of Ireland and to absorb its myths and culture.  Yeats urged Synge to “express a life that has never had expression,” the voice of the outlier in Ireland.  Dr. Grene made reference to other silent voices which were given voice through literature, such as the voice of Black America through the Harlem Renaissance. 

Professor Grene pointed out how Synge’s one-act play “Riders to the Sea” is infused with Synge’s experiences on Inishmaan.  The play’s props are of the island—the pampooties, the spinning wheel, the ropes, the white boards, the flannel shirts, the baked bread.  The island’s traditions and beliefs are employed in the play---keening, baking bread, the blessing of travelers, and both props and traditions are used to elevate the story to the level of universal truths imbedded in folklore. 

Ever the teacher, Dr. Grene drew from the audience any inferences and observations which had emerged from the lecture.  One young man’s hearing of a satiric voice in the play impressed Professor Grene and the audience.  Dr. Grene followed up his answer to the young man with a private chat after the session.

Clearly, the session sponsored by Hofstra’s Irish Studies Program was led by a master teacher explicating a master work.

The Irish Studies Program of Hofstra University will next sponsor a showing of the film, “Some Mother’s Son,” on Thursday, October 10 at 6:00 p.m. in the Cultural Center Theater.  Professor Maggie Burke will be the facilitator.  Contact Dr. Gregory Maney (516.463.6182; Gregory.M.Maney@hofstra.edu).   

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Tags: Aran, College, Dr., Drama, Grene, Hofstra, Irish, Nicholas, Studies, Synge, More…Trinity

Comment by Bernie Joyce on September 21, 2013 at 6:24pm

We set off. It was a four-oared curagh, and I was given the last seat so as to leave
the stern for the man who was steering with an oar, worked at right angles to the others by an
extra thole-pin in the stern gunnel.
When we had gone about a hundred yards they ran up a bit of a sail in the bow and
the pace became extraordinarily rapid.
The shower had passed over and the wind had fallen, but large, magnificently
brilliant waves were rolling down on us at right angles to our course.
Every instant the steersman whirled us round with a sudden stroke of his oar, the
prow reared up and then fell into the next furrow with a crash, throwing up masses of spray.
As it did so, the stern in its turn was thrown up, and both the steersman, who let go his oar
and clung with both hands to the gunnel, and myelf, were lifted high up above the sea.
The wave passed, we regained our course and rowed violently for a few yards, when
the same manoeuvre had to be repeated. As we worked out into the sound we began to meet
another class of waves, that could be seen for some distance towering above the rest. When
one of these came in sight, the first effort was to get beyond its reach. The steersman began
crying out in Gaelic "Siubhal, siubhal" ("Run, run"), and sometimes, when the mass was
gliding towards us with horrible speed, his voice rose to a shriek. Then the rowers
themselves took up the cry, and the curagh seemed to leap and quiver with the frantic terror
of a beast till the wave passed behind or fell with a crash besides the stern.
It was in this racing with the waves that our chief danger lay. If the wave could be
avoided, it was better to do so, but if it overtook us while we were trying to escape and
caught us on the broadside, our destruction was certain. I could see the steersman quivering
with the excitement of his task, for any error in his judgement would have swamped us.
We had one narrow escape. A wave appeared high above the rest and there was the
usual moment of intense exertion. It was of no use, and in an instant the wave seemed to be
hurling itself upon us. With a yell of rage the steersman struggled with his oar to bring our
prow to meet it. He had almost succeeded, when there was a crash and rush of water round
us. I felt as if I had been struck upon the back with knotted ropes. White foam gurgled round
my knees and eyes. The curagh reared up, swaying and trembling for a moment, and then fell
safely into the furrow.
This was our worst moment, though more than once, when several waves came so
closely together that we had no time to regain control ofthe canoe between them, we had
some dangerous work. Our lives depended upon the skill and courage of the men, as the life
of the rider or swimmer is often in his own hands, and the excitement of the struggle was
too great to allow time for fear.
I enjoyed the passage. Down in this shallow trough of canvas that bent and trembled
with the motion of the men, I had a far more intimate feeling of the glory and the power of
the waves than I have ever known in a steamer.

Comment by Bernie Joyce on September 21, 2013 at 6:59pm

I think Synge captured the experience of being in a currach accurately especially the part about the waves. You have to go with the wave not fight it otherwise the oars will be moving in the air and the currach will go no where. It is a rush and you will feel at one with the elements.

I took that photo today where all the rowers from Connemara, Clare and Donegol took part in our annual charity marathon. There was 20 boats in all which consisted of racers, naoimhógs and currachs and men, women and retired rowers participated.

Traces of Synge's Ireland still exist even in this modern age. 

Comment by Ryan O'Rourke on September 22, 2013 at 2:15am

Thanks for sharing that photo, Bernie.  I really enjoy watching the currach races here in the west.  I'd still love to get with a club somewhere here in Connemara to learn how.  As you know yourself, rowing is one of the best full-body exercises out there.

Comment by Bernie Joyce on September 22, 2013 at 9:10am

You should try Féile an Spidéal. They have a few teams there and it would be close to you. Our club is small and full at the moment so we concentrate on competitors. You should know it is a big commitment where every evening is taken up with training weather it is rowing, running or cycling. Plus your will not have any weekend off from May to August because of the races. During the winter the fitness levels have to be maintained and competitors must watch what they eat and drink. So you have to be sure that it is something you can commit to. I am not trying to put you off but you need to know that it is not a keep fit session. If you want to join a team they will want your full dedication. As I said if you ask around in Spiddal you  might be able to start after xmas when they start rowing again.   Good luck and let me know how you get on.


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