Dimensions: 23 × 30.5cm
Medium: Pen, ink and watercolour
Collection: Niland Collection
Provenance: Presented to Sligo County Library and Museum, 1966 by James A. Healy as a memorial to his parents John and Catherine Healy.
This is the original drawing for the frontispiece of John Millington Synge’s The Aran Islands (1907), to which Yeats contributed 12 pen and ink illustrations. The original drawings were later hand-coloured in watercolour when Yeats exhibited them.
Yeats met Synge in 1905 when the two men were commissioned to produce a series of articles on the Congested Districts Board for the Manchester Guardian. They travelled together through Mayo and Galway in the summer of 1905, Synge gathering information for his articles while Yeats sketched potential images. The meeting with Synge had a profound impact on Yeats who was impressed by the writer’s knowledge and understanding of life in the West of Ireland, and also by his personality.
Synge spoke Irish and had spent several summers living on Inishmore, as recounted in his book. While most of Yeats’s illustrations to the Aran Islands show the islanders at work, the frontispiece shows an islander standing on the coastline looking out to sea. He wears traditional Aran Island costume as described by Synge. This includes his hat, his waistcoat or bainín jacket, his flannel trousers tied with a plated crios belt and his cow-skin pampooties. According to Synge’s account of the islanders, their clothes suited their life on the islands. The pampooties, for example, enabled them to clamber across its rocky terrain. Yeats’s frontispiece emulates Synge’s combination of ethnography with his keenly felt admiration for the islanders and their way of life. The man’s confident pose and distinctive appearance lend him an air of dignity. The difficulty of his existence is hinted at by the rocky outcrop in the background of the drawing.
Written by Roisin Kennedy