John Millington (J.M.) Synge (1871-1909) was an Irish playwright active during the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, and is considered one of the most important figures of the Irish literary renaissance, alongside William Butler Yeats. Born near Dublin to a financially-comfortable Irish Protestant family, Synge had focused on music, and had been awarded a scholarship to the Royal Irish Academy of Music. His passion for music would take him to Germany, and then to Paris, where his fear of public performing and love of writing resulted in a shift in direction. It was in Paris where he encountered Yeats, who encouraged the young aspiring writer to relocate to the Aran Islands off the coast of Ireland so that Synge could immerse himself in Irish culture and experience life in a manner more befitting an author of Irish heritage. This, Synge did, alternating living in the Aran Islands with winters spent in Paris. Yeats’ suggestion would prove highly beneficial to Synge, as he emerged as a leading member of Ireland’s community of letters. Synge would prove a productive author, and his first play, written in 1901, When the Moon Has Set, would reflect his own cynicism regarding religion and feature a nun disavowing her commitment to the Church to marry an atheist. In a land as intensely religious, and riven by religious factions, as Ireland, Synge’s plot made the play politically-impossible to produce. It would not, however, deter him from continuing in this vein. When the Moon Has Set was followed by his most productive year as a playwright when, in 1902, he wrote Riders to the Sea, In the Shadow of the Glen, and The Tinkers Wedding. In addition to a decidedly cynical approach to religion, Synge’s plays were bound by his emphasis on portraying the lives of the poor among who he lived in the islands, and, if Ireland was abundant in anything, it was poverty, thereby providing him fertile ground on which to shape his stories.
Synge would die very young, at the age of 38, from Hodgkins disease, leaving behind a fiancé, an actress fifteen years younger than he, Mollie Allgood, an uneducated girl who would inspire his passions for the Irish peasantry central to his work.
The play Riders to the Sea was, characteristically, set in the Aran Islands and featuring a small, intimate cast in a confined, claustrophobic setting, in this case, the kitchen of a small cottage. Synge’s description of the setting at the beginning of the play read as follows:
An island off the West of Ireland. Cottage kitchen, with nets, oilskins, spinning-wheel, some new boards standing by the wall, etc. CATHLEEN, a girl of about twenty, finishes kneading cake, and puts it down in the pot-oven by the fire; then wipes her hands, and begins to spin at the wheel. NORA, a young girl, puts her head in at the door.]
This description is entirely consistent with the themes of Synge’s plays: the poverty and simplicity of the lives of his characters and the moral dilemmas and emotional travails to which they are subjected. In the case of Riders, those travails include the death of the lead character, Maurya, an elderly woman whose sons are both killed in or near the sea. Maurya’s two daughters, Cathleen and Nora, have tried to shield their mother from the inevitable pain and grief when the news of one son, Michael’s, death is confirmed, while the other son, Bartley, drowns in the sea after being thrown from his horse. Suspecting that Michael has in fact been lost at sea and drowned, and with Bartley off on his horse, Maurya, who has experienced visions of impending doom involving horses, cries out to God,
MAURYA: (crying out as he is in the door) He's gone now, God spare us, and we'll not see him again. He's gone now, and when the black night is falling I'll have no son left me in the world.
Maurya’s vision, of course, turns out to be accurate. Throughout the play, there are references to an unseen “young priest,” whose role is to offer little to no spiritual comfort, yet whose final mention has proven apocryphal regarding Maurya’s fate:
NORA: Didn't the young priest say the Almighty God wouldn't leave her destitute with no son living?