This summer, thanks to funding from the NWCDTP and the British Association of Irish Studies, I spent a week in the archives at Trinity College Dublin, looking at the papers of J.M. Synge. I’ve been to the archives before on shorter visits, but there’s nothing like a whole week spent amongst handwritten papers, letters, accounts, drawings, photos and other miscellanea to give you a real sense of your subject.
I spent so many hours reading everything Synge left behind, from the banal to the extraordinary, and traced the development of his genius from the smallest, most seemingly-inconsequential draft, to the masterpieces of his mature drama. At one point, I welled up after reading a little note in Synge’s diary, written when he was 13, that described the beauty of nature in such a raw and beautiful way that it seemed to give a sense of that innocent joy that sits at the heart of his work.
After all that time, I feel like I came to know him in a much more personal and intimate way than before, so much so that my PhD research has started to feel instinctive, so that I can say to myself, with some confidence, ‘this is Synge’, or ‘Synge wouldn’t have liked that’. There were also, of course, hours of boredom, where the mind becomes so numbed to slight changes of punctuation over 1000 page drafts that the whole process seems ridiculous. But then, suddenly, as the page turns, something catches your eye and the lights start flickering on in your head and a little epiphany happens.
I came back with hundreds of pages of notes, transcripts, and corrections and additions to be made to my thesis, and with a real sense of urgency. For a while, it felt like I really was working with a ‘hard gem-like flame’ and now, back at home, it often seems hard to recover that excitement or feeling of absolute purpose. But then, again, reading through the notes I made, all the small parts coalesce again and I feel, finally, as if I know what I’m about to do.