John Millington Synge

94, rue Lafayette

J.M. Synge (Rathfarnham, Dublin 1871 - Dublin 1909) was a young upper-class Protestant with a not altogether clear idea of what to do for a career when he first arrived in Paris in early 1895. He had obtained a mediocre arts degree (pass) from Trinity College Dublin and had spent some time studying music and language in Coblenz, Germany. In Paris, he lived in an attic room at 94, rue Lafayette (10th arrondissement) before moving for a couple of months to 2, rue Léopold Robert (14th arrondissement) near Montparnasse railway station. He enrolled in a modern and medieval French literature course at the Sorbonne and a comparative phonetics course at the Ecole Pratique des Hauts-Etudes. In June 1895, as he was to do in future years, he spent the summer holidays with his family in Co. Wicklow.

Synge frequented a wide range of people and organisations while in Paris, including (briefly) Maud Gonne’s Association Irlandaise, before he decided that Gonne’s strident nationalism was not for him. Gonne later returned the compliment by lending her voice to those who attacked Synge’s play The Shadow of the Glen. He even attended some anarchist meetings, although his ideas seem to have been closer to agnostic socialism. (Ironically enough, in his late twenties Synge was still largely living off money sent by his mother, part of whose inheritance came from land worked by tenant farmers in counties Galway and Wicklow.)

In early 1896, Synge was back in Paris, staying at the Hôtel Corneille at 5, rue Corneille (6th arrondissement). After a trip to Italy and a brief stay in a different hotel (Hôtel de l’Univers) back in Paris, he returned to the Hôtel Corneille in October 1896. It was here in December 1896 that he met W.B. Yeats. The latter’s opinion of his younger compatriot is slightly unkind but may not be too wide of the mark.

Site of the Hôtel Corneille
“I was very poor,” Yeats wrote, “but he was much poorer. He belonged to a very old Irish family and though a simple courteous man, remembered it and was haughty and lonely. With just enough to keep him from starvation and not always from half-starvation, he had wandered about Europe, travelling third-class or upon foot…He was the man that we needed because he was the only man I have ever known incapable of political thought or of a humanitarian purpose. He was to do for Ireland, though more by his influence on other dramatists than by his direct influence, what Robert Burns did for Scotland.”

In late December 1896, Synge moved back to rue Léopold Robert where he stayed until May 1897 even though, according to his mother’s diary, he was “troubled by bugs”. During this time, while sitting with a group of Irish friends on the terrace of the Café d’Harcourt on Place de la Sorbonne (5th arrondissement, café no longer exists) one day, he was nearly knocked unconscious in a scuffle between French police and supporters of Greece’s war against Turkey. According to his nephew Edward Stephens, in the summer of 1897, Synge became anxious about his health. “His hair fell out and a large lump developed on his neck…”, wrote his nephew. This was the first manifestation of Hodgkins’s disease, or lymphatic sarcoma, from which Synge ultimately died.

2, rue Léopold Robert

He underwent an operation at Mount Street Nursing Home in Dublin in December 1897, but he was back in Paris in mid-January 1898. There, he began to attend lectures in Celtic studies at the Collège de France. From January to April 1898, when he left Paris again, Synge stayed at the Saint Malo Hotel at 2, rue Odessa (14th arrondissement) in Montparnasse.

         Synge's library reading                     ticket
Back in Paris in autumn 1898, he took an unfurnished room on the top floor of 90, rue d’Assas (6th arrondissement), for which he was to pay rent until March 1903. As usual, he returned to Ireland for the holidays in May 1899 and May 1900. During the summer of 1900, a gland formed again at the back of his neck, although that did not stop him returning to the French capital in October of the same year. But by this stage his mother was seriously worried. She wrote in her diary: “J.M. has been more pleasant and chatty than usual of late. I think his queer time in Paris always injures him, and he is so queer when he comes home and so out of all our ways, and then it wears off by degrees. I am trying to persuade him to give up his room in Paris in spring and make a fresh start nearer home.”

Place de la Sorbonne

His mother was never too enamoured at her son’s stays in Paris, writing once that she would no longer give him money “to go and live in Paris idle". Finally, her injunctions got to Synge. After a long stay in Ireland, he returned to the French capital in March 1903 to move his personal effects from the rue d’Assas and give up his connection to Paris. During the few days he was there, he met James Joyce who was staying at the Hôtel Corneille, by now a focal point for Irish writers. According to Sanislaus, Joyce’s brother, “the two had many quarrelsome discussions…about language, style, poetry, drama and literature in general.” The differences between Synge and Joyce are corrobated by Arthur Power, to whom James Joyce said "there were such heated arguments between us that in the end I had to give up seeing him." Joyce at first disliked Synge’s Riders to the Sea, dismissing it as “non-Aristotelian”, but later admired it enough to translate it into Italian. Joyce continued to engage with Synge's work well into the 1920s. According to Sylvia Beach, Riders to the Sea was the first book Joyce borrowed from her lending library, Shakespeare & Co. As for what Synge thought of Joyce, here is an extract from a letter he wrote to Lady Gregory in March 1903: 

He seems to be pretty badly off, and is wandering around Paris rather unrushed and rather indolent, spending his studious moments in the National Library reading Ben Johnson. French literature, I understand, is beneath him…I cannot think that he will ever be a poet of importance, but his intellect is extraordinarily keen and if he keeps fairly sane he ought to do excellent essay writing.

Synge died in Dublin in 1909. The Hôtel Corneille no longer exists, having been burnt down by occupying German forces during street fighting in August 1944 and thereafter converted into apartments. The apartment house at 90, rue Assas was pulled down some years ago and replaced by a modern 9-storey block of flats.


Select Bibliography
John Millington Synge (1965)
Denis Johnston

J. M. Synge—A Biography (1995)
David M. Kiely

Fool of the Family: A Life of John Millington Synge (2000)
W.J. McCormack

The Collected Letters of J. M. Synge (1983)
Ed. Ann Saddlemeyer

J.M. Synge and his World (1971)
Robin Skelton

My Uncle John, A Life of J. M. Synge (1974)
Edward Stephens