Riders to the Sea is a drama that concerns suffering on many levels. A mother faces the loss of six sons to the sea; the two daughters must bear their mother’s pain of loss as well as their own; the last surviving brother knows that he risks death because, out of extreme necessity, he works against an angry sea; and the islanders suffer because they share the hardships imposed on them by the changing economic conditions that have affected the Aran Islands.
The play has several layers of meaning beyond its literal statement. The title itself comes from the Bible, especially the Book of Exodus (15:1), “The horse and his rider hath he thrown into the sea.” The Book of Revelation (6:1-8) also sheds light on the central incident in the play: “And I looked and beheld a pale horse: and his name that sat on it was Death.”
Besides the Old Testament allusions, certain actions in the play correspond to events mentioned in the New Testament. When Maurya, in the presence of Cathleen and Nora, sprinkles holy water on Michael’s clothes, one thinks of Easter morning, when three women came to anoint the body of Jesus. In this sense the scene becomes symbolic of the Resurrection. Cathleen reinforces this notion of resurrection when she refers to “when the sun rises,” voicing John Millington Synge’s intended pun on “resurrection of the son.”
The play presents a curious blend of Christian beliefs and pagan superstitions. The islanders, simple fisherfolk, would have no problem reconciling the two. When Maurya mentions sprinkling “holy water in the dark nights after Samhain,” the pagan feast (on November 11) simply becomes a way of marking time, while holy water is a religious symbol of purification.
Certain superstitions appear in the play. Some peasants believed that the dead could control the lives of the living—for example, to assuage its loneliness, a ghost could cause the death of a loved one. It was also believed that the dead minded other people wearing their clothes or using their possessions. Bartley, then, who wore Michael’s shirt, could have been selected for death on two counts: Michael’s spirit could have wanted company in the world beyond, and he could have been annoyed that Bartley appropriated Michael’s shirt for his own use. Then there is the instance of Maurya using Michael’s walking stick—and not being able to give a blessing while using it. At many other points in the play Synge shows folkloric influences blended with Christian beliefs. (In J.M. Synge Literary Companion, 1988, Edward A. Kopper explores this aspect of Synge’s writing.)
Another theme emerging from the play concerns the struggle of the individual against society. The islanders were originally a self-subsisting people: They farmed, fished, and wove and knitted their own clothes. The Industrial Revolution changed all that, so that people could not make a living in the old way. Commercial farming, fishing, and textile making proved too strong a competition. Those who tried to keep to the simple ways found themselves fighting against insuperable odds.
Bartley must choose between following the old way, which would entail staying with his family to face an impoverished future, and becoming a part of the newly commercialized society by selling the family’s last animals and risking death. The individual is pitted against society, and the conflict results in his death.