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As the play opens, Maurya's son Michael, it is feared, has been lost at sea, but his body has not be found. As time elapses, the certainty of his death becomes clearer, but remains unconfirmed. Boards to make his coffin are ready for the time when he body is returned to his mother. Two ironies develop from this situation. It is Michael's brother Bartley who will be buried in the coffin to be built with the boards, as he dies before Michael's body is found. Another irony is developed when it becomes clear that there are no nails to construct his coffin. As one of the villagers observes, “[I]t’s a great wonder she wouldn’t think of the nails, and all the coffins she’s seen made already.”
Bartley's death also emphasizes the basic situational irony that the story develops. By the conclusion of the play, Maurya has lost all six of her sons. In her village, parents bury their children whose lives are lost in the effort to survive the extreme poverty and hardship in which their families live.
The new rope meant for lowering the coffin of dead Michael into the grave is used by Bartley to make a halter for his red mare. The halter leads Bartley to death. It is ironical that the old mother is given the stick of young Michael so that she can walk down to the Spring Well with the bread for Bartley. Bartley's death releases the long-suffering mother from the tyrannical bondage of the unrelenting sea. Maurya senses a kind of victory when all her sons are lost in the sea. Nothing can be more ironic than this paradoxical victory.
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