John Millington Synge (1871 - 1909), was an Irish playwright, poet, prose writer, travel writer and collector of Irish folklore. He was one of the co-founders of the Abbey Theatre and a key figure in the Irish Literary Revival. His best known work is his play 'The Playboy of the Western World', which caused riots in Dublin during its opening run at the Abbey Theatre.
In 1904/1905, John Millington Synge and the artist Jack B. Yeats were commissioned by The Manchester Guardian, an English newspaper, to write and illustrate a series of articles on the distressed state of the Congested Districts in the west of Ireland. They travelled by carriage, on foot and by hooker through Connemara and across the west coast of Mayo. Their objective was to portray the depths of poverty that was destroying communities in the area. The Guardian would go on to use their descriptions as part of a fundraising campaign aimed at alleviating such poverty.
J M Synge's papers in The Guardian provide documentary evidence of his stay in Erris and in Belmullet, where Yeats and himself were guests in the Erris Hotel. During his stay in the town Synge reported that there was "a large market in the square, where a number of country people, with their horses and donkeys, stood about bargaining for young pigs, heather brooms, homespun flannels, second hand clothing, blackening brushes, tinker’s goods and many other articles".
One of Synge's most celebrated plays was undoubtedly 'The Playboy of the Western World' for which he gathered some of his information from his visit to Geesala. It is widely acknowledged that much of the plot of 'The Playboy' evolved from a story Synge heard from an old man in the Aran Islands. The story concerned an Achill man - James Lynchehaun - who assaulted his employer, an English lady, on Achill Island. Lynchehaun was sheltered by the local people from the police and then escaped to America and became a folk-hero. The story would also be known around Mayo, particularly in the Geesala / Doohoma area where Achill people often visited.
Synge's location of the play in Erris is evident by the use of a total of 15 place names in the area throughout the play. Another reference to its location is in the Widow Quinn's solution towards the end of the play, when she wants to disguise Christy Mahon (the Playboy) as a woman and take him to the Achill boat so he could escape - as Lynchehaun did. On his journey from Belmullet to Geesala Synge observed young girls picking shellfish on Doolough strand and as he stopped and documented what he saw, he noticed that the girls were curious and suspicious of the stranger in their midst. Those same girls became the inspiration for the village girls in 'The Playboy', who were very curious about the newcomer (Christy) in Pegeen Mike's shebeen.
It is evident that this windswept coastal village of Geesala struck a chord with Synge as he saw fit to choose it for the setting of his masterpiece, 'The Playboy of the Western World', one of the greatest works of the twentieth century.
In August 2013, during the annual Geesala Festival, local drama group 'The Erris Players', performed 'The Playboy of the Western World' in the most appropriate setting possible - on "the sands below" at Doolough Strand.