Who are the riders in Riders to the Sea?

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J. M. Synge uses “riders” on several different levels. The first, specific level is the character of Bartley, who rides off on his horse, taking another horse in halter to sell at a fair. The next, visionary level is expressed by Maurya, who sees her two sons, Bartley and Michael, riding on the same horse; she understands the vision as a premonition of death. Her interpretation connects with the third level, that of a Biblical allusion to the figure of Death, who rides a pale horse. Unbeknownst to his family, Michael was already dead by drowning before Bartley left the house or their mother had her vision. Bartley soon dies when he is thrown by his horse into the surf. On the most general, abstract level, the riders are all the Irish sailors. While the sea provides their livelihood, it also takes their lives: their metaphorical journey of life is one long ride to the sea.

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Maurya has a terrifying vision in which she claims to have seen her late son Michael riding behind her only living son, Bartley, as he sails to Connemara to sell a horse. This turns out to be a premonition, as during his journey, Bartley falls from his horse into the sea and drowns, leaving Maurya entirely bereft of children. Maurya's premonition references the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in the Biblical Book of Revelation. Two of the Horsemen are alluded to in Maurya's vision: one riding a red horse, capable of taking away peace (Bartley), and another riding a pale horse (Death, as represented by the figure of Michael).

The title is significant in another respect. We normally associate sailing with the sea, not riding. One could argue that Synge uses the title Riders to the Sea to highlight the futility of Bartley's fateful journey. He's a rider, not a sailor, and as such is doomed to a premature end beneath the waves.

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