Riders to the Sea
by Irish playwright John Millington Synge, performed in 1904 in Dublin, is a one-act tragedy set on the Aran Islands in Inishmaan. It focuses on the grieving Irishwoman Maurya, who has lost her husband and five of her sons to the sea. When she gets word that one of her sons’ bodies may have been found, it sets into motion a chain of events that lead to further tragedy for the old widow and her surviving children. Written in the traditional Hyberno-English of the Aran Islands, it is considered a classic work of the Irish Literary Renaissance, when Irish literature aimed to encourage pride and nationalism in Ireland. It celebrates the hardiness of Irish people, and its central conflict is that of man against nature. There is no human antagonist—the primary antagonist is the impersonal, cruel sea that takes away so many family members. There is a deeply religious theme in the play as well, informed by Ireland’s Roman Catholic tradition. Riders to the Sea
has been adapted twice into film, most recently in 1987, and has been adapted into opera and dance performances.Riders to the Sea
begins on the Aran Islands, as Nora, a young woman, brings in a small bundle and tells her older sister, Cathleen, that they may be the clothes of their drowned brother Michael. A priest told her the body of a drowned man had been found, but they do not want their mother, Maurya to know. Michael has been missing for a week; the family has already lost the family patriarch as well as four other sons to the sea. They hide the bundle in the turf loft of the cottage. Maurya is busy planning for Michael’s funeral, consumed by her grief and lamenting that she has lost all her sons to the sea. She discusses the last remaining son, Bartley, with her daughters. Bartley is planning to go to sea to sell the family horses. Nora and Cathleen think they need the money, but Maurya is hoping that the priest will stop him due to the dangerous tides.
Bartley enters the cottage looking for rope. Maurya tries to stop him, but he is determined to create a halter for the horses for his trip. Maurya tries to dissuade him by showing him the preparations for Michael’s funeral, but he ignores her. He says goodbye to his sisters, but his mother refuses to give him any blessings as he leaves. This is significant as it is an Irish tradition that a son receives the blessing of his mother before he leaves. Maurya’s daughters are shocked she broke this tradition. As Bartley leaves with the horses, Cathleen notices that he has taken no food and sends Maurya after him to give him food and blessings. She leaves with a stick from Michael, lamenting over how the old people never leave anything behind for the young people in the family, as is customary. When Maurya is gone, her daughters retrieve the bundle of clothes from the loft to check if they are from Michael. Nora observes her own stitching on the clothing, and confirms that they are her brother’s. They now know that their brother’s body has been found and the priest has already buried him.
The sisters hide the clothes again, and they assume Maurya will be in a better mood because she got the chance to bless Bartley. However, she comes back in a panic, saying she saw Michael upon a grey pony. She could not bless Bartley due to the shock. The girls try to calm her down by showing her Michael’s clothes and telling her that her son got a proper Christian burial. As she grieves, villagers come into the cottage, carrying Bartley’s body. The pony Maurya saw, that she thought she saw Michael upon, knocked Bartley into the sea where he drowned. Maurya gets on her knees near Bartley’s corpse and sprinkles him with holy water. She says she is resigned to her fate and can finally sleep at night. After all, the sea has claimed every man in her family, and it can take nothing more from her. The preparations for Michael’s funeral will now be used for Bartley’s. The play ends with Maurya praying that her husband, his father, and her four sons will rest in peace. The curtain falls on her prayer.
John Millington Synge was a renowned Irish playwright and one of the co-founders of the famed Abbey Theatre in Dublin. The author of nine plays in his short, 38-year lifetime, he is best known for his controversial work The Playboy of the Western World
, which caused riots upon its debut in Dublin due to its controversial themes which Irish nationalists viewed as an insult against national pride. Although he came from a privileged background, most of his works were based on the world of Irish peasants in the rural areas of the country. Many of his plays are still studied in Irish literature courses today, and his cottage in the Aran Islands has become a tourist attraction. He is considered a major influence on the famed Irish novelist Samuel Beckett