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.

Riders to the Sea is a one-act play by Irish playwright John Millington Synge, first performed in 1904. The action is set on Inishmaan in the Aran Islands, off the west coast of Ireland, and the dialogue is written in the islands’ Hiberno-English dialect. Synge spent his summers in the Aran Islands from 1898 to 1903 and recorded many stories there, some of which later inspired scenes in Riders to the Sea.

Mortality, the power of the sea, and fate are all thematically important in Riders to the Sea, and the play contains several symbols that reflect those themes and call audience attention to those continuously present concepts within the play.

From the play’s beginning, audience members witness the presence of the beautiful white boards that are placed on stage. They remain on stage throughout the entire play. Maurya, the play’s central character, purchased the boards in order for them to be turned into a coffin for her drowned son Michael:

It’s a hard thing they’ll be saying below if the body is washed up and there’s no man in it to make the coffin, and I after giving a big price for the finest white boards you’d find in Connemara.

However, the audience is also aware of the fact that a death at sea means that there might not even be a body to bury. With Bartley’s insistence that he is going to go to sea in spite of Maurya’s protests, it is implied that the boards could be used for his coffin as well. Maurya even suggests that the boards could be used for her own coffin, since she does not plan on living much longer, now that all of the men in her life are dead. The presence of the boards means that death and the idea of death weigh heavily on the characters, signaling to the audience that it is almost inevitable that one of the characters is going to die at some point in the play.

Bartley’s rope, like the white boards, is also an overt symbol of death. Bartley uses the rope to make a halter for the horse, yet the halter somehow resembles a noose. The rope is thus symbolic of death and foreshadows Bartley’s untimely demise.

The rope is also associated with Michael’s death; Maurya insists that Bartley leave it behind, as it will be needed to lower Michael’s body into the grave. Interestingly, the rope is a symbolic marker of who is dead or who is going to die. Maurya believes that if she keeps the rope, then Bartley can’t go to sea; therefore, he won’t die, and Michael’s will be the only death. But Bartley takes the rope, and his death is now all but assured. This is confirmed when audiences find out that his horse threw him into the sea, killing him.

After learning of her sons’ fates, Maurya stoically accepts her loss. Once more evoking the symbol of the white boards, she reflects that

Michael has a clean burial in the far north, by the grace of the Almighty God. Bartley will have a fine coffin out of the white boards, and a deep grave surely. What more can we want than that? No man at all can be living for ever, and we must be satisfied.

The play thus closes with images of death and burial, and a final reminder of humanity’s mortality.

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