John Millington Synge spent time on the Aran Islands, off the Galway coast of Southern Ireland, in an effort to be inspired to write literature with a purely Irish influence. Riders to the Sea was his first play and in it he captures the essence of many poor Irish people, particularly Catholics in this instance, as they struggle against the forces of nature and their environment which have a huge impact on them. They also struggle with the potential contradictory implications of their Catholic faith. Maurya has lost so many of her family, including her husband and four sons, drowned at sea, having been trying to make a living selling horses on the mainland. Now she must face the possibility that she has lost Michael and may lose Bartley, her last two surviving sons. Synge does not temper the play with any unnecessary refinements; he simply tells it like it is, presenting an objective perspective that reveals the harsh reality and never ending cycle for these people. There is no attempt to change anything.
Maurya recognizes that there is a backward cycle to their lives when she reflects that, "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." At the end, Maurya who has now lost all six sons feels a relief that she does not have to worry anymore because there are no more sons that she can lose. She can have "a great rest." Maurya even makes a Celtic reference to the pagan festival, "Samhain," often favored as a Celtic tradition but essentially pagan. Maurya is "satisfied," knowing that her sons, and their father, are together and she accepts her lot, recognizing that giving Bartley the best she can (a "fine coffin" and "a deep grave) will bring a certain peace of its own. All the elements come together: her faith, nature and her environment, her superstitions and her acceptance. Maurya's sons and others before them are "riders to the sea" and do not question their destiny.
The title is therefore significant and has a double meaning. The sea can be both the savior and the destructive force. It is the provider because her sons can make a living but it is also the force which takes their lives. It has the capacity to change their lives for the better or for the worse. Unfortunately, this family will be unable to transform themselves or their lives from being the victims to the victors. The significance of the title and its irony resonates with the reader who understands and sympathizes with the desperate situation.
The title, actually taken from the Bible, is an extended metaphor meaning “we are all moving toward mortal death"—literally true of the people of the Aran Islands, where this play takes place, who depend on the sea not only for a livelihood, but also as the only connection to the “world” (the mainland). As each of Maurya’s sons reaches maturity, the economics of the culture draws them to the dangerous sea life. The knotted sweater bundle (itself a deep symbol) is evidence of the recent loss of one son, and seeing the second son riding a horse along a steep cliff (or his ghost) is another physical manifestation of the sea’s toll on those it “calls” to ride to it. The sea, besides being the drowning cause of many sailors and fishermen, is also the universal receptacle for our bodies after our souls have left. An old Irish saying, “The ocean refuses no river”, bears out this metaphor’s meaning as well.