Riders to the Sea begins in a cottage where two sisters are conspiring to hide a bundle from their mother. The small bundle, wrapped in a shawl, consists of a shirt and a stocking removed from a drowned man at Donegal. They fear that the clothes may belong to Michael, their brother, whose body has not been recovered from the sea. He has been missing for a week.
They and their mother, Maurya, have been in deep mourning. Their brother Bartley then becomes the subject of the girls’ conversation. Cathleen asks Nora whether their brother will be sailing with the horses that are to be taken to the mainland. There will be a fair in Galway where animals can be sold or purchased. Nora strikes an ominous note when she answers her sister: “God won’t leave her destitute . . . with no son living.”
Because the sisters have no wish to sadden their mother further, they decide to hide the bundle of clothes in a turf loft. As they are climbing down from the loft, the mother arrives; she pretends that she was getting turf for the fire. The conversation then turns to Maurya’s worries about her son Bartley. She fears that he, too, will be lost in the sea, just as his five brothers were. She is aware of his desire to go to the fair, but she is sure that the young priest will dissuade him from going. The weather is not at all propitious: high tide and extreme winds.
Nora confirms her mother’s fears by telling her that Bartley has informed three of his friends that he is determined to sell the family’s last animals at the fair. The extreme poverty of the family forces him to make this decision.
Bartley enters the cottage, looking for a piece of new rope he had bought in Connemara. Maurya cautions him to leave the rope on the nail, but he insists that he needs it to make a halter for the horse. This detail underscores the family’s economic plight. Bartley tries to reason with his mother that the fair promises to be a good one for the sale of horses, but she turns her attention (and the audience’s) to some white boards stacked in the corner of the cottage, boards to make a coffin for Michael whenever his body is recovered from the sea.
Bartley’s firm decision to brave the dangerous sea is revealed when he whispers to his sisters to take care of feeding the sheep. Maurya again tries to warn him of the dangers, but he insists that he must go. He will take the family’s red mare, with the gray pony tied behind. After announcing his plans, he asks his mother for a blessing (a custom common in Ireland), but Maurya refuses to give it. Bartley leaves.
When Cathleen and Nora realize that he has left without food, Cathleen asks her mother to walk quickly to meet him by the well, to give him bread and the neglected blessing. Maurya accepts, picks up the walking stick belonging to the drowned Michael and goes to look for Bartley, lamenting, “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.”
Once she is gone, the girls hurriedly retrieve the bundle of clothes to examine them more closely. First, they try to match the flannel shirt with one of Michael’s that had been left hanging on a hook. They discover that Bartley has taken that shirt to wear, as it is newer than his own. Nora takes the stocking from the bundle, counts the stitches (since it was a hand-knitted one), and recognizes her own work. Some dropped stitches positively identify the stocking as one that she had knitted for her brother.
Once more, they hide the clothes from their mother, thinking that she will be in a better frame of mind when she returns, having had an opportunity to give a blessing to Bartley. When Maurya returns to the cottage, however, she is more upset than before. Maurya tells them that she has seen Michael. To give her a sense of reality, the daughters show her Michael’s clothes and assure her of the clean burial he has had in the sea.
Saddened, Maurya then tells the girls of the strange occurrence that took place outside the cottage: “I’m after seeing him this day, and he riding and galloping. Bartley came first on the red mare; and I tried to say ‘God speed you,’ but something choked the words in my throat. He went by quickly; and ‘the blessing of God on you,’ says he, and I could say nothing. . . .”
Her speech is interrupted by the sound of the islanders returning with the body of Bartley, who has been thrown into the sea and drowned. As the men were loading the animals on the boat, the gray pony, unsettled by the wind, kicked Bartley into the sea.
Attention centers on Maurya as she kneels by the body of Bartley. The audience sees the white boards that had been bought for Michael’s coffin; now they will be used to make Bartley’s. Maurya, though resigned to her fate—having lost six sons to the sea—triumphantly announces, “There’s no more the sea can do to me. . . . it’s a great rest I’ll have now, and it’s time surely. . . . They’re all together. . . . No man at all can be living forever, and we must be satisfied.” Cathleen asks the men to make a coffin, but they find that there are no nails. Once more, the audience is reminded of the family’s great poverty, when one of the men says, “[I]t’s a great wonder she wouldn’t think of the nails, and all the coffins she’s seen made already.”
The play ends, having recounted the hardships of an Irish family—hardships brought on by economic destitution.