Thursday 27 October 2016

At home in the birthplace of JM Synge

Period home has great literary importance

Published 28/08/2015 | 02:30

The birthplace of JM Synge at Newtown Villas in Churchtown
The birthplace of JM Synge at Newtown Villas in Churchtown
The living room of the apartment in Churchtown
One of the bedrooms in Churchtown
The kitchen in the apartment in Churchtown
JM Synge

Today he's a poster boy (literally) for Irish literary talent but during his brief life we detested him. John Millington Synge, who died in 1909 of Hodgkins disease just short of his 38th birthday, famously caused outrage and riots with his Dublin debut of Playboy Of The Western World - offending both Catholic Nationalists and Protestant Unionists alike.

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Aside from his acclaimed plays, poems and essays, the Dubliner was also pivotal in the founding of the Abbey National Theatre. It came into being thanks to his efforts alongside those of his good friends WB Yeats and Lady Gregory. Today it is reckoned Synge's stylised realism set the tone for great Irish works that followed from Beckett, Behan and O'Casey.

But much of Synge's character and mindset was shaped by the tragic events that occurred in the very first year of his life at the house in which he was born - 2 Newtown Villas, then in rural Rathfarnham. Today it is listed as Churchtown, Dublin 14.

Unusual by configuration, the property can only be described as a "country house duplex" with one imposing two-storey-over-basement residence stuck back end to back end with an identical twin property - both with steps leading up their main entrances on opposite sides.

A two-bedroom apartment contained in what would have been the main Synge family drawing room and their home's other entrance level accommodation is now being offered for sale for €350,000. These are the rooms in which the baby Synge would have been nursed and doted upon by his famously imposing mother Kathleen.

Born here as Edmond John Millington Synge on April 16, 1871, he was the youngest of five children. His father John Hatch Synge was from country gentry at Glanmore Castle in Wicklow and came to Dublin to practice as a barrister. His Mother Kathleen Traill was the daughter of a fire-and-brimstone Protestant rector who is described as having spent his life "waging war against popery".

But tragic events would strike the family right after baby John's birth at Newtown Villas - John Hatch Synge contracted smallpox, a horribly disfiguring disease which killed a half a million Europeans annually. He died from it in 1872 when John Millington was just one year old. It could be argued this was the pivotal event which ultimately permitted John to succeed as a playwright.

With a pension of 400 pounds a year, Kathleen moved the children in next door to her own family at nearby Orwell Park. John was always sickly and, as a result, was kept at home by his domineering mother and tutored there.

Overshadowed by her through most of his early years, he would live with her for most of his life and even take his holidays with her. For her part, Kathleen Synge was her father's daughter, a dour by-the-book evangelical who mixed only in devout circles. A neighbour wrote: "Mrs Synge conducted her household by a rule as strict as that of a religious order and supposed that her children would acquiesce without question."

What it meant was John was isolated enough to permit him to bury his mind in books, something John's brother Samuel was convinced would never have happened had their father survived. In 1932 Samuel wrote his daughter asserting that their father would have forced John into a profession and away from his ultimate calling.

"Probably our father would have arranged something for your uncle John to do besides his favourite reading - something that would have not been too much for him - but would have brought in some remuneration at an earlier date than his writing did."

The cruel irony for Kathleen was that the long hours of reading she permitted her son ultimately took him to Darwin (he kept The Origin Of The Species hidden under his pillow as a 14 year old) and, from this clandestine material, Synge abandoned his religion completely.

Today Newton Villas has been renamed Synge House and No.2 which houses the apartment, carries a plaque commemorating the building as Synge's birthplace.

The apartment is entranced via the stone steps to the hall and then to the accommodation which includes an entrance hall, a living room/dining room (the Synge family drawing room). This has the same high ceilings as the other rooms as well as decorative period cornicing and a centre rose. The fireplace is in cast iron, marble and tiles with a gas set.

The kitchen is located off the main dining room with maple units and an integrated oven and hob.

The master bedroom is double sized with built-in wardrobes and there's a second bedroom and a bathroom with Christoff units - a standalone shower and marble surface tops. Newtown Villas is now a gated residential scheme.

And nearby, the new owners can benefit from another great influence on JM Synge - the River Dodder which runs for miles in both directions, brimming with wild brown trout, king fishers, eels and even otters. As a youngster, Synge was a devoted naturalist who spent his days wandering its wild flower-clustered banks.

2 Synge House

Newtown Villas, Churchtown, Dublin 14

Asking price: €350,000

Agent: Savills Tel: (01) 6634300

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