Born near Dublin, Synge was educated privately before going to Trinity College, Dublin, in 1888. On leaving university (1893) he intended to make music his profession, but after studying in Germany he changed his mind and moved to Paris early in 1895. Over the next few years he spent periods in France, Ireland, and Italy; in Paris in 1899 he met W. B. Yeats, who encouraged him to drop his critical studies of French and English literature and to find a subject of his own. Synge had already paid one visit to the Aran Islands (1898), and, acting on Yeats's suggestion, he returned there in 1899, 1900, 1901, and 1902. The lives of the people there, and in Wicklow and Kerry, provided Synge with the materials for books and articles but above all for his plays.
Synge's one-act plays The Shadow of the Glen (1903) and Riders to the Sea (1904) were published in one volume in 1905. Meanwhile he began writing The Tinker's Wedding, which he did not finish until 1906, and The Well of the Saints, which was first performed in 1905 in the newly opened Abbey Theatre, of which Synge was one of the directors. The Playboy of the Western World (1907), his best-known play, caused a riot at its first performances but eventually contributed to make both Synge's reputation and that of the Abbey Theatre. He died of cancer while putting the final touches to Deirdre of the Sorrows, which was posthumously published and produced in 1910. Synge also left poems, translations from Petrarch, and the books The Aran Islands (1907) and In Wicklow and West Kerry (1908).