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Book Of A Lifetime: The Aran Islands by John Millington Synge

Hugo Hamilton
Friday 30 April 2010 00:00 BST

The life and writing of John Millington Synge will always remain for me the classic story of an outsider in his own country. His small travel book about the Aran Islands, written well over a century ago, has the voice of a cultural migrant crossing into a foreign place. It still acts as the rough guide for my own lifelong attempt to make sense of my surroundings, as a child of an immigrant, as a visitor on my own doorstep.

Belonging to the ascendancy order of Dublin under British rule in the late 19th century, Synge took up a suggestion from WB Yeats and began visiting the Aran Islands on the west coast of Ireland, to learn the native language and to study the unique way of life. On the first page, he describes overhearing voices speaking Irish in the small public house where he is staying. He is eavesdropping on another culture, gathering stolen observations which will go on to give his work as a dramatist such a provocative clarity. He returns with a distinct eloquence, catching a profound moment when Ireland is in the process of translating itself into the English language. "I have never heard a word of English from the women except when they were speaking to the pigs or to the dogs".

Like Synge, I may have lived too much of my own life in translation, crossing over between languages, stepping into remote places where I am lost for words and hardly understand a thing. Part impostor, part guest, I have picked up the knack for overhearing things. In fact, I may have become Synge's greatest imitator, walking through walls, seeing everything as exceptional and second-hand at once. Synge's observations still carry a boyish wonder. Over the years, this timeless, literary portrait has become part of my own experience, a grafted memory of the islands which I have visited many times but which remain ever more real in his words.

Hugo Hamilton's novel 'Hand in the Fire' is published by Fourth Estate

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