Riders to the Sea main character Maurya, an old peasant woman, standing on the coast

Riders to the Sea

by J. M. Synge

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Last Updated September 6, 2023.


Maurya is the matriarch of her family. Living on one of Ireland’s Aran Islands, she has lost many male family members—including four of her sons—to the sea, and only her sons Michael and Bartley remain. However, Michael has been gone for some time, and the family think he is probably drowned. Maurya begs her son Bartley not to go to his job, which involves riding horses into the sea to a steamer ship to be sold. She worries that he, too, will die. Bartley brushes off her concerns and asks for a blessing before he goes. Maurya can’t bring herself to give him a true blessing. After she finds out that both Michael and Bartley are confirmed dead, she says that she won’t have to sit up late at night anymore praying and hoping the men she loves are safe; instead, she will finally be able to rest and turn to the church. While she believes she will not live long without her sons, she is at peace as she sprinkles holy water on Bartley’s body and prays for mercy. In her final lines, she states that “no man at all can be living for ever, and we must be satisfied.”


Cathleen is one of Maurya’s daughters and is about twenty years old. She is straightforward and pragmatic, and she doesn’t have a lot of sympathy for Maurya’s point of view. She tells her mother that it is the purpose of young men to go to the sea and to ignore the repeated claims of old people who tell them not to. She is the first one who says that it is Bartley who is being carried home after dies.


Nora is Cathleen’s sister and is younger and kinder than Cathleen, speaking to Maurya with sympathy. She is the one who has Michael’s clothes at the beginning of the play.


Bartley is Maurya’s last surviving son at the beginning of the play. His job is to take horses to a steamer ship anchored off the coast so that they can be transported and sold. Once they know Michael is likely dead, Maurya asks Bartley not to leave. He decides to go anyway and rides off. At the end of the play, he is thrown into the sea by his pony, and his drowned body is returned to his family for burial.


Michael is never actually present in the play, but his clothes are pivotal to the plot. They are what tell Maurya that the body that was found is that of her son. Michael’s sisters were hoping that it wasn’t him because of the location of the body, and they attempt to hide his clothes in order to avoid upsetting Maurya.

Minor Characters

Cathleen asks an old man to make a coffin, requesting that he and a man called Eamon do it when the sun comes up. Another man says that he is surprised that Maurya and her daughters didn’t think to get nails for the boards they plan to use to make the coffins. He makes it clear to the audience that the family has lost multiple people to the sea.

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