SYNGE, J.M. The Aran Islands. With drawings by Jack B. Yeats. Hand-coloured. Dublin: Maunsel, London: Mathews, 1907. pp. xii, 190. Finely bound at the Chelsea bindery in recent full dark blue morocco, covers framed by a single gilt fillet enclosing on the upper the author and title in gilt. Spine divided into six compartments by five gilt raised bands; title and author in gilt direct in the second and third, all ruled by double gilt fillets. Gilt inner dentelles. Marbled endpapers. Original blue printed wrappers bound in front and rear. Top edge gilt, others untrimmed. Housed in a leather entry slipcase. Apart from minor spotting a near fine copy.
John Millington Synge (1871-1909), was born in Rathfarnham, Dublin, educated at T.C.D. and was a founder of the new Irish theatre with Lady Gregory and W.B. Yeats. Synge first met W.B. Yeats in Paris in 1896, where he was studying French literature and living in poverty. According to Yeats he advised Synge in lofty terms: “Give up Paris. You will never create anything by reading Racine and Arthur Symons will always be a better critic of French literature. Go to the Aran islands, live there as if you were one of the people themselves; express a life that has never found expression”. He followed this sound advice and two years later Synge spent some months there.
The book on offer here ‘The Aran Islands’, is a poetic and compelling account of life on the lonely, barren and windswept islands off the Galway coast. Synge recalled his first impression of them: “I have never seen anything so desolate. Grey floods of water were sweeping everywhere upon the limestone, making at times a torrent of the road, which twined continually over low hills and cavities of the rock or passed between a few small fields of potatoes or grass”.
This special edition is a milestone in the history of Irish publishing and the cornerstone of any modern Irish collection. Its production is to the highest standard in every respect; paper, print, binding, illustration and colouring. No effort or expense was spared, and it must have been a costly undertaking for a young publishing house. It is the only book published by Maunsel to include hand-colouring of an artist’s work, and to our knowledge it was the first such book issued by any Irish publisher for more than half a century. The very high standard aimed at was clearly intended to make a statement about the revival of quality publishing in Dublin. It is likely that the hand-colouring was supervised by the artist himself, perhaps with the assistance of his sisters at the Cuala Press; Maunsel certainly would not have had the necessary skills in-house.