Synge happy birthday


Rowing the beer to the island.

Born this day 1871 John Millington Synge wrote the poem below which describes how the keg of porter had to be rowed to the island of Beg-Innish though the Atlantic waters where the gannets fish.

Beg-Innish in gaelic simply means “small island”.

In 1977 Guinness made the iconic ad “Tá siad ag teacht” (They are coming) describing the same journey.  Still evocative after all these years, you can find it on Youtube.

The rowing boat they use in the still above is a traditional Irish Currach.  A high riding fragile shell made of ash frames covered in tarred canvas.  It is one of the oldest types of craft in continuous use.  Originally made with tanned ox-hide, and similar in construction to a coracle.  The Currach is a surprisingly good craft on the open ocean.  It was the workhorse of the fishermen of the Irish west coast for hundreds of years.  The design reflects the lack of large timber available, due to the scouring effect of Atlantic storms.

Light as a large canoe, the fishermen lift it over their heads and carry it up the beach to dry out after a day of fishing.  The image of fishermen with their currach brings to mind a scarab beetle and the circularity of life and death.  Many legs beneath a shiny black carapace.


Beg-Innish ; by John Millington Synge

Bring Kateen-beug and Maurya Jude
to dance in Beg-Innish,
and when the lads (they’re in Dunquin)
have sold their crabs and fish,
wave fawny shawls and call them in,
and call the little girls who spin,
and seven weavers from Dunquin,
to dance in Beg-Innish.

I’ll play you jigs, and Maurice Kean,
where nets are laid to dry,
I’ve silken strings would draw a dance
from girls are lame or shy;
four strings I’ve brought from Spain and France
to make your long men skip and prance,
till stars look out to see the dance
where nets are laid to dry.

We’ll have no priest or peeler in
to dance in Beg-Innish;
but we’ll have drink from M’riarty Jim
rowed round while gannets fish,
a keg with porter to the brim,
that every lad may have his whim,
till we up sails with M’riarty Jim
and sail from Ben-Innish.



Study of 5 mackerel by William Shackleton

Study of 5 mackerel by William Shackleton

Mackerel have a sparkle.  A very special way of catching the light.  The flash of iridescent metallic blues and greens that no photograph ever seems to capture.  A live mackerel is a work of art.  One of the great joys of my youth was catching mackerel, seeing them flash and glisten in the water, feeling the kick as they take the bait, watching them flicker and sparkle as you reel them in.

Such easy fish to catch, they will bite anything put in front of them.  A hook decorated with a feather or a triangle of shiny plastic will attract them.  When they are running you can catch them by the bucket-load.  You have to make a conscious decision to stop casting your line, because there is a limit to how many you can eat and give away.

The mackerel run in the height of summer, so for me mackerel are the harbinger of the summer.  Long warm nights, salad days, holidays, beaches, messing about in boats.  All the good stuff.

They are perfect for the barbecue, and there is no fish to rival a truly fresh mackerel.  A smear of Dijon mustard, ten minutes on the BBQ and you have a meal fit for a king.   Some green salad, good crusty bread and a nice sharp white wine to cut the oil, a Vinho Verde or a Pinot Grigio, nothing too sophisticated.

White Water; by John Montague

The light, tarred skin
of the currach rides
and receives the current,
rolls and responds to
the harsh sea swell.

Inside the wooden ribs
a slithering frenzy; a sheen
of black-barred silver-
green and flailing mackerel:
the iridescent hoop
of a gasping sea trout.

As a fish gleams most
fiercely before it dies,
so the scales of the sea-hag
shine with a hectic
putrescent glitter:

luminous, bleached—
white water—
that light in the narrows
before a storm breaks.