Cristin Kelly

Article: Martin McDonagh’s Inishmore

Martin McDonagh’s Inishmore
By Cristin Kelly

A week of sweeping fogs has passed over and given me a strange sense of exile and desolation. I walk round the island nearly everyday, yet I can see nothing anywhere but a mass of wet rock, a strip of surf, and then a tumult of waves. . . . Wherever I turn there is the same grey obsession twining and wreathing itself among the narrow fields, and the same wail from the wind that shrieks and whistles in the loose rubble of the walls.
J.M. Synge, The Aran Islands

London-born Martin McDonagh first got to know his Irish heritage as a child, spending summers in western Ireland with his parents. These visits made a strong impression on him, shaping his playwriting as an adult. Three of his plays, including The Lieutenant of Inishmore, are set on the Aran Islands, a group of three islands at the mouth of Galyway Bay, which are known for their remoteness and have often been romanticized in literature. In her travelogue, Ireland Revisited, Jill Uris says, “An Aran saying, “Solitude without loneliness” lures a number of visitors to the island to listen to the purest Gaelic spoken and to see, hear, and smell the sea mists roll over the islands as a protective shield from the outside world.”

McDonagh’s impression of the Aran Islands steers away from the romance of solitude, highlighting instead a bleak picture of modern island life: desolation, isolation, and boredom. Critic Ben Brantley notes, “The Lieutenant of Inishmore takes place, like so much of McDonagh’s work, in a drab rustic cottage that seems to have been created with the malicious intention of boring to madness whoever might live there.” Of his impressions of the Galway region, McDonagh says, “the remoteness, the wildness, the loneliness” of the land, “always stuck in my mind.”

These hard-scrabble characteristics of the land have shaped life on the islands. Playwright J.M. Synge observed, “Life in the Aran Islands has always been bleak and difficult.” 17th century Catholic settlers had to adapt themselves to the raw climatic conditions and develop a survival system of total self-sufficiency. They mixed layers of sand and seaweed on top of rocks to create fertile soil, constructed unique boats for fishing, and built thatched cottages from the materials available or through trading with the mainland.

Today, the Arans are known as a last haven of a traditional Irish lifestyle, but as McDonagh underscores, there exists an awkward balance with modern life. It is only very recently that the islands have had reliable electricity and communications. There has been a decline in Irish speaking among the young, which some blame on the introduction of English television in the 1980s. Many younger islanders leave for the mainland when they come of age. In his plays, McDonagh shows the lack of opportunities that especially plagues the youth of the Aran Islands. This problem is noted by Jill and Leon Uris. “For young people, there is little respite from boredom. . . . Enough tourists and islanders have returned with tall tales of the outside world to evoke curiosity. Many islanders will leave. A lesser number will return to stay.”
Inishmore, which is home to the unruly cast of characters in The Lieutenant of Inishmore, is the largest of the islands with a population of just under 900. These characters are products of McDonagh’s anti-sentimental view of life on the islands. As Brantley says, “his characters are defined almost exclusively by the restlessness born of boredom or the warped sense of accomplishment of killing.”

McDonagh’s Irish heritage puts him in the unique perspective of being a cultural insider to the islands, yet his London upbringing provides the lens through which he writes about rural Ireland. Nicholas Hynter, Artistic Director of the National Theatre in London says, “No one who isn’t Irish could have caught that world so dead-on right. But there is in Martin also a kind of alert, sarcastic, cocky, South London street voice–the side of him that is ruthless with sentimentality. That’s something that is much more Camberwell than Connemara.” It is this dual perspective with which McDonagh has created his view of modern life on the Aran Islands.

“The Aran Islands.”
O’Toole, Fintan. “A Mind in Connemara.” The New Yorker. 6 March 2006.
Synge, J.M. The Aran Islands.
Uris, Jill and Leon. Ireland: A Terrible Beauty. Bantam, 1978.
Uris, Jill. Ireland Revisited. Doubleday, 1982.


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