The setting of the play is a small island off the West of Ireland; the curtain rises on a cottage kitchen. Cathleen, a twenty-year-old girl, kneads cake. Nora, a younger girl, looks in from the door and asks where their mother is. Cathleen replies that she is lying down.
Nora enters with a bundle that the young priest had brought: clothes from a dead man washed up in Donegal. The sisters plan to see if they belong to their brother, Michael. The young priest on the island said that if the clothes are Michael's, then it would mean that he received a clean burial. Nora adds that they should not tell their mother about this.
Cathleen asks Nora whether she asked the priest if he thought it would be okay if their brother Bartley took the horses to the Galway fair; Nora replies that he said God would not leave her mother without any son.
The girls wonder if they ought to look at the bundle. Cathleen decides to hide it up in the turf-loft (peat used for fires) for the time being.
Maurya, the girls' mother, enters. She asks why Cathleen needs more turf and Cathleen explains about the cake, saying that Bartley might need it. Maurya replies that he will not be leaving today because the priest will stop him. Nora retorts that he will not, and that Bartley is already down seeing about the boat.
Bartley arrives at the cottage and asks for the rope he bought at Connemara. Maurya tells him he ought to leave it there because if Michael washes up tomorrow morning they will need it for the deep grave. Bartley does not agree: he says he has to use it for a halter today, because there will not be another boat for two weeks or more and he has to sell the horses.
Maurya is piqued and says there has to be a coffin for Michael, especially since she just bought new white boards with which to build it. Bartley asks why the body would wash up now since they’ve been checking for nine days, and also how she could think his own boat would be harmed. Maurya refers to the star rising in the night against the moon, saying that the horses are not worth losing her son. In response Bartley turns to Cathleen and talks to her about gathering weeds and selling the pig. Maurya is undeterred, saying that if she were left with no sons, then she and the girls could not survive.
Bartley asks Nora if the ship is coming to the pier; she says it is letting its sails down. Bartley prepares to leave, telling his family he will be back in two days. Her back to him, Maurya calls him cruel for not listening to an old woman. Bartley takes the halter and hesitates for a moment at the door. He says he must go, and falteringly tells her “the blessing of God on you” (64). He leaves. Cathleen asks her mother why she did not bless him, especially as there is already so much sorrow in the house even without him being unlucky. Her mother simply pokes at the fire.
Nora and Cathleen realize they forgot to give Bartley the cake-bread. They are distressed and blame their senseless mother for causing chaos in the house. Cathleen gives her the bread and tells her she must go give it to her son so that “the dark word will be broken” (65). Maurya is reluctant to leave the cottage, but Cathleen tells Nora to give her mother the walking stick so she can get down there.
Maurya grumbles but departs. The daughters watch her leave and then grab the bundle. Nora tells her sister that the young priest said two men were rowing a boat and one’s oar struck a body. Cathleen opens the bundle while they discuss how long it would have taken for the body to get to Donegal.
Nora is dismayed to see that the sock in the bundle is just like one she knit for her brother. She becomes more upset and wonders aloud that a man who was once a great rower and fisher is now represented merely by a shirt and sock.
Suddenly, the sisters they hear their mother returning. They hide the clothes and try to conceal their tears. Maurya comes in slowly and sits by the fire. The bread is untouched. Maurya begins to wail and refuses to answer Cathleen’s queries. Finally Maurya replies weakly that her heart is broken.
Cathleen looks outside and sees Bartley on the mare with the gray pony behind him and rebukes her mother. Maurya is still acting oddly, saying that she saw the most fearful thing. The girls ask her to tell them. She explains she went down to the spring and saw Bartley riding with the pony. As she talks she becomes distressed, and admits she saw Michael. Cathleen says that this can't be true, but Maurya explains: as Bartley was riding toward her she tried to bless him, but the words stuck in her throat and she could say nothing; she then looked up and saw Michael, dressed nicely.
Cathleen starts to wail that they are destroyed. Nora wonders about the young priest saying God would never leave Maurya without a son. Maurya scoffs and says that her husband, her husband’s father, and six sons have all died.
The women hear something outside coming from the northeast. Maurya continues to narrate how all of her sons died. She ends by talking about Patch, who was brought in dripping wet even though it was a dry day. She then stretches her hand toward the door and women begin to come in, just as they did in the story about Patch’s death.
Cathleen asks her mother again about how she could have seen Michael, handing her the clothes. Nora looks outside and sees men carrying something with water dripping off of it. Cathleen whispers to the women, asking if the men are carrying Bartley. The women say that they are.
The men enter and put Bartley on the table. A woman explains that his pony knocked him into the sea and he was washed out to the white rocks. The women wail and Maurya kneels at the head of the table. She raises her head and says that, finally, there is nothing else the sea can do to her; she need never pray or cry again when the wind blows and she will not care even when other women wail.
Maurya drops Michael’s clothes on Bartley’s feet. She speaks to him, saying it is not that she has not prayed for him but now she will be able to rest. She kneels and crosses herself.
Cathleen asks an old man to make a coffin with the fine white boards. He wonders how Maurya forgot to buy nails. Cathleen sighs that she is old and broken.
Maurya spreads Michael’s clothes beside the body and sprinkles holy water on them. Nora whispers to Cathleen that their mother must have loved Michael more than Bartley because she wailed insanely when he died. Cathleen attributes it to her mother being tired of crying.
Maurya asks God for mercy on the souls of Michael and Bartley and all her deceased sons. She adds that Michael had a clean burial in the north and Bartley will get a fine white coffin; what more is there to desire, especially in such a short life?
Riders to the Seais short, has very little plot, and has next-to no character development; despite these characteristics (or perhaps due to them?), it is a potent and absorbing work that is a hallmark of the Irish Literary Renaissance and one of Synge’s most important contributions to drama written in the English language. The brief work features capacious, resounding themes of humanity vs. nature, traditional religion vs. modernity, the community vs. the individual, and the particular vs. the universal.
As part of the Irish Literary Renaissance (see the “Other” section of this study guide), the play recreated the spirit of the Irish language in English through using Gaelic speech patterns. It also celebrates the dignity and stoicism of the people of the Aran Islands: this depiction is intended to ameliorate contemporary criticism of these people as backward and primitive. Indeed, while the poverty in which Maurya and her family live, together with the fact that the island seems extremely far removed from the mainland’s industrialization and modernization, suggests that they are lagging behind, the universality of their sentiments and suffering elevate their archaic existence to one that is much more resonant and impactful.
That suffering and sorrow are what lend themselves to the play’s categorization as a tragedy, though it lacks some of the essential hallmarks of that genre. Ruth Fleischmann writes, “Many elements of the play remind one of the classical tragedies of antiquity: the compelling structure, the foreshadowing of the tragedy and its inevitability, the element of guilt which is not personal guilt, the stoic acceptance of fate, the great simplicity and dignity of the main character.” The characters do not possess any flaws (e.g., pride, anger, lust) that bring about tragedy, however: the tragedy lies in the implacable, insurmountable power of the sea and of fate.
The sea’s adversary, Maurya, is not a nuanced or well developed character: instead she is the archetypal suffering mother, an exemplar of the Virgin Mary in the Pieta, that iconic Christian image of maternal suffering. She has lost her father-in-law, husband, and four sons to the sea thus far. At the opening of the play she is sure that her son Michael is gone as well, and is fearful that her youngest, Bartley, will be next. She sees herself at constant war with the sea, and with this body count it is no wonder. As critic Denis Donoghue writes, “to Maurya the Sea is the Enemy, the destructive principle, destroyer of human and family continuity.” She feels its powers deep within her bones and her children’s scoffing and protestations can do nothing to mitigate it. And, of course, Maurya’s awe of the sea proves to be “right," for she does indeed lose her remaining son. The sea has emerged victorious in this cruel game and it is only after it officially does so that Maurya can find peace in the acceptance of her profound losses. While her words of “it’s a great rest I’ll have now, and it’s time surely. It’s a great rest I’ll have now, and great sleeping in the long nights after Samhein” (70) may seem perplexing or even callous, in fact they make a great deal of sense given the cessation of this lifelong struggle.
The perplexity at Maurya’s behavior and beliefs is most clearly observed in her children. Nora, Cathleen, and Bartley are openly skeptical, and sometimes quite derisive, of their mother. This is due to the fact that, as critic Judith Remy Leder notes, the play can be read as is more than just a work about noble primitives: “It is an account of a cultural battle…[and we should view] the play as a psychologically accurate representation of turn-of-the-century Irish peasants, rather than as an idyllic, romanticized picture of them.” Maurya is on one side of encroaching modernity and her children on the other. Maurya believes in signs and omens. Her world is small and circumscribed, hence her reluctance to even leave the cottage to go down to Bartley. Leder notes that Maurya even uses “rhetoric characteristic of the oral tradition…her language is not easily dismissed. It is ‘hard’ and ‘dark’ and, as Maurya hints, should have the power to ‘hold.’” She finds meaning in every small thing, as when she is handed Michael’s walking stick and says, “In the big world the old people do be leaving things after them for their sons and children, but in this place it is the young men do be leaving things behind for them that do be old” (65). She also, of course, has a vision of her dead son Michael and is convinced that Bartley is going to die as well; this certainty is why she avoids giving her son the traditional Irish blessing.
By contrast, the children inhabit a more modern world (or at least they are trying to). They do not believe in signs or omens and refuse to orient their life around the mysteries and vagaries of the sea. Nora is content to merely parrot the young priest’s words, and seems interested in the wider world. She does not know much about island traditions and is generally aloof. Cathleen might be slightly more traditional (she is the keeper of the hearth and is more like her mother) but she too questions Maurya’s blessing, supports Bartley’s choice to sell the horses, and is frustrated with the tensions tradition creates with modernity. Bartley is not as outwardly disrespectful of his mother, but he is very much a transitional figure. He firmly belongs to the island, but he does not have his mother’s fear of the sea. The sea is his livelihood, and as a modern man he thinks he can control it. He is obsessed with time and action while the island seems to exist outside of time. As Leder points out, he only has eight lines in the play and four mention the word “going," which demonstrates that he is always looking outward and desiring action. Finally, what makes him a transitional (and tragic) character is that he partly does hold onto tradition (as seen in his utterance of the blessing) while at the same time as he throws his hat into the young priest’s ring.
This young priest is one of the more fascinating elements of the play even though he is never seen onstage. He is a figure constructed from the words of the other characters, and their relative position in regards to tradition vs. morality determines how they feel about him. The children seem to take comfort in the man’s easy and confident opinion that God would never leave Maurya without any sons. He is everything that Maurya is not: young, an outlander, comfortable, confident, and “modern.” He is becoming an authority figure on the island to the extent that the clothes from the drowned man are given to him; Leder calls him a mediator between the island and the mainland. His Catholicism stands in contrast to the pagan spirituality of Maurya and islanders like her, but he is the interloper and is defied at the end of the play when the sea takes Bartley.
The young priest is a representative of the orthodox Catholicism that the island denizens adhere to, but this orthodoxy is constantly undermined by the power of the sea. Throughout the play Maurya in particular flirts with paganism, referring to signs and symbols and eschewing the priest’s optimistic statement that God would never allow her to lose all her sons. Critic Denis Donoghue writes, “the thematic situation of the play derives from the inhuman power of the Sea, and Synge has placed before the eyes of his audience a representation of sea-death in the white boards standing by the wall of the cottage.” The reminder of the sea’s potency is thus ever-present, but Catholicism is as well. The focus on nails at the end is a reminder of Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross. Donoghue believes that at the end of the play Maurya moves more into a Christian realm through her acceptance of the events of her life. The emphasis is on the prayer, the Holy Water, the burial, and the afterlife. She truly is the image of the Virgin Mary.
Using a lilting Irish brogue—one that the bookish John Millington Synge had to learn—the playwright took a two-thousand-year-old Irish literary tradition and wove from it a folk tragedy. The Irish critic Sean O Tuama identifies the characteristics of this tradition as the juxtaposition of lyrical changes of mood from situation to situation, the use of native dramatic monologues, and the employment of images with a sharp dramatic quality.
The play’s first critics, however, saw no such genius; instead, they denounced the play as morbid, influenced by the decadence of Europe, and based upon an ignorance of Irish Catholicism. Most of the attacks came from Irish magazines and newspapers.
One of the earliest critics to praise the drama was the Irish novelist James Joyce. He read the play in manuscript, translated it into Italian, and memorized Maurya’s last speech. The English critic Max Beerbohm pronounced the play a masterpiece.
Over the years, some critics have argued over whether the play qualifies as a tragedy according to Aristotelian concepts. Some, even Joyce, thought that the work was too brief. P.P. Howe criticized it for violating unity of time, contending that so many actions would have been impossible within a twenty-four-hour period. Most critics do agree on one point: Maurya emerges as a noble, tragic figure, the epitome of resigned suffering.
The playwright himself contributed some insight toward an evaluation of his work. He told Padraic Colum, another Irish writer, that the idea for the composition of the play came from his own feelings about death and the process of aging.
Riders to the Sea yields a richness to all who read or view it because of its many levels of interpretation. Synge has taken the life of one family, a family besieged with extreme poverty, and fused and blended a Christian view of death and resurrection with the folk imagination of Irish island people.