Maurya (MOY-ruh), an old peasant woman living on one of the Aran Islands at the mouth of Galway Bay on the western coast of Ireland, a wild, desolate, impoverished area. She has reared six sons, four of whom are known to be dead, as are her husband and her husband’s father—all from the ravages of the sea, whose fierce tides and winds make life difficult and dangerous. She is afraid that Michael, the next from youngest son, who has been absent unexpectedly for some time, is drowned also, and she tries to dissuade her last son, Bartley, from crossing over the tumultuous sea to sell two horses at the fair on the mainland. Twice unable to give him a journey’s blessing, she has a vision foretelling his death. When her two daughters, after identifying as Michael’s some clothes found on a drowned body, inform her of Michael’s death, she recites the list of the others’ deaths and the circumstances. As she is being persuaded that he is dead, villagers enter to announce the death of her last son, Bartley, who was knocked into the sea by his pony. Instead of becoming bitter and angry, Maurya recognizes that the sea can do no more to harm her, because she has lost all her men. There is an end to anxiety and a beginning of peace for her, though there will be little to eat. She realizes that she will not long survive these deaths. Maurya’s nobility and maturity of spirit enable her to see the good in all of her men now being together. She sprinkles Holy Water over the dead Bartley and asks God’s mercy on the souls of her men, on her own, and, generously, on the souls of everyone left living in the world.
Bartley, the youngest of six sons, now the sole support of the household. He earns income by riding horses into the sea to the steamer anchored far offshore, so that they can be sold at the mainland fair. Preoccupied with practical exigencies, he ignores his mother’s request that he not go to sea, being the last surviving male of the family. He nevertheless asks God’s blessing on the family and rides off on the red mare, leading the pony. His mother foretells his death and omits the giving of a blessing to him, an omission considered bad luck. When his mother subsequently stands on the path trying in vain to say the blessing, he gives her his blessing.
Cathleen, a daughter about twenty years old. As the older of two sisters, she takes the lead in expressing concern and making arrangements. She sympathizes with her brother’s need to go to sea and criticizes her mother for repeatedly trying to stop him and for not giving him a blessing. She sends Maurya with some bread to give him. Cathleen is effective in dealing with practical details, as when she identifies some clothes as belonging to her other brother, Michael, drowned nine days earlier. Cathleen is matter-of-fact and impatient with her mother’s lamentations and visions, telling Maurya of the evidence of Michael’s death. Filled with life herself, she sees her mother as old, broken, and lamenting excessively. Cathleen stands in sharp contrast to her mother’s deep, powerful, and mature emotions.
Nora, a young girl, another of Maurya’s daughters. Her main function in the play is to talk with Cathleen and enable the exposition of background and commentary on the action. She speaks more respectfully to her mother than does Cathleen and with pity about her dead brother.