BBC Radio 3, 15 March 2009
J.M.Synge's plays seem ideal radio fare with their emphasis on extravagant
language characteristic of rural culture in the west of Ireland at the beginning of the previous century. In The Tinker's
Wedding he conjures up a fascinating world whose inhabitants speak Hiberno-English - a combination of Irish dialect and
colloquial idiom. Gender roles might be fixed: the women appear to know their places as wives and mothers, while the men try
to dominate them. On the other hand everyone knows how to get the best for themselves, even if that requires them to flout
the law. The Tinker's Wedding revolves round the impending marriage of two tinkers, Sarah Casey (Denise Gough) and
Michael Byrne (Stephen Hogan); but devotes far more attention to Michael's mother Mary (Brid Brennan) a Falstaffian figure
addicted to the bottle who knows perfectly well how to defend her corner. The familial conflict eventually draws in a local
preacher (John Rogan) who suffers the indignity of being bound and gagged at the end of the play. The tinkers only agree to
release him after he solemnly promises not to accuse them of being robbers. The implication is obvious: for the tinkers the
official Catholic religion means nothing; their life revolves round a close-knit family. Anyone threatening their security
deserves to be punished. While the priest invokes the wrath of God against them, we understand this is nothing more than mere
words: the tinkers can and will not alter their centuries-old way of life. The Tinker's Wedding is as much a docu-drama
as a comedy, recording in vivid detail the lives of communities that no longer exist.
Riders to the Sea might best be summed up as a meditation on death. Michael,
the patriarch of a rural family, has met an unfortunate demise; his close relatives imagine him being carried away across
the Irish Sea to a far-off destination. Not much happens in the play; it consists of a series of exchanges delivered ritualistically
(rather like Greek drama), as the characters meditate on the past, present and future. The dialogue assumes a haunting, incantatory
quality in which the sound of words frequently assumes more significance than their sense.
Both plays were separated by a specially-produced documentary in which various people
explained Synge's contribution both to the development of the Irish drama, and his role as a chronicler of fast-disappearing
ways of life and/or social attitudes. The entire production was directed by Sreven Canny.