The Play

(Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

Riders to the Sea begins in a cottage where two sisters are conspiring to hide a bundle from their mother. The small bundle, wrapped in a shawl, consists of a shirt and a stocking removed from a drowned man at Donegal. They fear that the clothes may belong to Michael, their brother, whose body has not been recovered from the sea. He has been missing for a week.

They and their mother, Maurya, have been in deep mourning. Their brother Bartley then becomes the subject of the girls’ conversation. Cathleen asks Nora whether their brother will be sailing with the horses that are to be taken to the mainland. There will be a fair in Galway where animals can be sold or purchased. Nora strikes an ominous note when she answers her sister: “God won’t leave her destitute . . . with no son living.”

Because the sisters have no wish to sadden their mother further, they decide to hide the bundle of clothes in a turf loft. As they are climbing down from the loft, the mother arrives; she pretends that she was getting turf for the fire. The conversation then turns to Maurya’s worries about her son Bartley. She fears that he, too, will be lost in the sea, just as his five brothers were. She is aware of his desire to go to the fair, but she is sure that the young priest will dissuade him from going. The weather is not at all propitious: high tide and extreme winds.

Nora confirms her mother’s fears by telling her that Bartley has informed three of his friends that he is determined to sell the family’s last animals at the fair. The extreme poverty of the family forces him to make this decision.

Bartley enters the cottage, looking for a piece of new rope he had bought in Connemara. Maurya cautions him to leave the rope on the nail, but he insists that he needs it to make a halter for the horse. This detail underscores the family’s economic plight. Bartley tries to reason with his mother that the fair promises to be a good one for the sale of horses, but she turns her attention (and the audience’s) to some white boards stacked in the corner of the cottage, boards to make a coffin for Michael whenever his body is recovered from the sea.

Bartley’s firm decision to brave the dangerous sea is revealed when he whispers to his sisters to take care of feeding the sheep. Maurya again tries to warn him of the dangers, but he insists that he must go. He will take the family’s red mare, with the gray pony tied behind. After announcing his plans, he asks his mother for a blessing (a custom common in Ireland), but Maurya refuses to give it. Bartley leaves.

When Cathleen and Nora realize that he has left without food, Cathleen asks her mother to walk quickly to meet him by the well, to give him bread and the neglected blessing. Maurya accepts, picks up the walking stick belonging to the drowned Michael and goes to look for Bartley, lamenting, “In the big world the old people do be leaving things after them for their sons and children, but in this place it is the young men do be leaving things behind for them that do be old.”

Once she is gone, the girls hurriedly retrieve the bundle of clothes to examine them more closely. First, they try to match the flannel shirt with one of Michael’s that had been left hanging on a hook. They discover that Bartley has taken that shirt to wear, as it is newer than his own. Nora takes the stocking from the bundle, counts the stitches (since it was a hand-knitted one), and recognizes her own work. Some dropped stitches positively identify the stocking as one that she had knitted for her brother.

Once more, they hide the clothes from their mother, thinking that she will be in a better frame of mind when she returns, having had an opportunity to give a blessing to Bartley. When Maurya returns to the cottage, however, she is more upset than before. Maurya tells them that she has seen Michael. To give her a sense of reality, the daughters show her Michael’s clothes and assure her of the clean burial he has had in the sea.

Saddened, Maurya then tells the girls of the strange occurrence that took place outside the cottage: “I’m after seeing him this day, and he riding and galloping. Bartley came first on the red mare; and I tried to say ‘God speed you,’ but something choked the words in my throat. He went by quickly; and ‘the blessing of God on you,’ says he, and I could say nothing. . . .”

Her speech is interrupted by the sound of the islanders returning with the body of Bartley, who has been thrown into the sea and drowned. As the men were loading the animals on the boat, the gray pony, unsettled by the wind, kicked Bartley into the sea.

Attention centers on Maurya as she kneels by the body of Bartley. The audience sees the white boards that had been bought for Michael’s coffin; now they will be used to make Bartley’s. Maurya, though resigned to her fate—having lost six sons to the sea—triumphantly announces, “There’s no more the sea can do to me. . . . it’s a great rest I’ll have now, and it’s time surely. . . . They’re all together. . . . No man at all can be living forever, and we must be satisfied.” Cathleen asks the men to make a coffin, but they find that there are no nails. Once more, the audience is reminded of the family’s great poverty, when one of the men says, “[I]t’s a great wonder she wouldn’t think of the nails, and all the coffins she’s seen made already.”

The play ends, having recounted the hardships of an Irish family—hardships brought on by economic destitution.

Dramatic Devices

(Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

Riders to the Sea, by using a single setting, directs the playgoer’s attention to the intense emotion built up within the four principal characters: Maurya, Cathleen, Nora, and Bartley. The single setting also allows a close look at certain symbols that John Millington Synge uses to reinforce his themes and meanings: the hand-knitted stocking, a piece of string, a rope, new clothes, the gray pony, and the boards. Attention is directed first toward the bundle of clothes taken from a drowned man in the sea. It is the hand-knitted stocking that identifies the clothes of the missing Michael:Nora, (who has taken up the stocking and counted the stitches, crying out): It’s Michael, Cathleen, it’s Michael; God spare his soul, and what will herself say when she hears this story, and Bartley on the sea? Cathleen (taking the stocking): It’s a plain stocking. Nora: It’s the second one of the third pair I knitted, and I put up three score stitches, and I dropped four of them. Cathleen (counts the stiches): It’s that number is in it.

The piece of rope that has been hanging on a nail since the beginning of the play takes on a symbolic meaning when Bartley asks for it to make a halter for the horse. The substitution of rope for a real halter signifies the poverty of the family. One critic, Mary C. King, has noted that the fact that the rope was purchased on the mainland serves as one indication of the changing way of life being imposed on the islanders.

A piece of string takes on a symbolic meaning also. The string had held together the bundle of Michael’s clothes; now string and rope link the dead Michael to the living Bartley, points out King.

When Bartley changes his clothes, he removes his own old shirt and puts on a newer one of the same flannel fabric. The sartorial image of old and new clothes reinforces the contrast between the old ways of the islanders (fishing, farming, weaving) and the new ways of the mainlanders (buying and selling).

The Aran Islanders could easily associate economic and religious symbols, since they, a very religious people, had been so greatly affected by a change of life-styles caused by economics. At the climax of the play, the gray pony, alluded to several times in the dialogue, takes on its full meaning as the pale horse, Death, of Revelation. It is the gray pony that knocks the last remaining son into the sea.

Clothes, string, boards, rope—all these symbols bear some relationship with the sea, the sound of which opens the play. The sea gives the characters their living by providing food and work, but it also causes their misery and suffering. Yet it is not water from the sea that ends this drama. For when Maurya has resigned herself to the death of all of her sons, she uses the Christian sign of holy water to bless the body of Bartley. Here water does not signify death, but life.(To NORA.) Give me the Holy Water, Nora, there’s a small sup still on the dresser. (NORA gives it to her. MAURYA drops Michael’s clothes across BARTLEY’s feet, and sprinkles the Holy Water over him.) . . . It isn’t that I haven’t prayed for you Bartley, to the Almighty God. It isn’t that I haven’t said prayers in the dark night till you wouldn’t know what I’d be saying: but it’s a great rest I’ll have now, and it’s time surely. It’s a great rest I’ll have now, and great sleeping in the long nights after Samhain, if it’s only a bit of wet flour we do have to eat, and maybe a fish that would be stinking. (She kneels down again, crossing herself, and saying prayers under her breath.)

Synge uses symbols to unite the varied meanings of the play: suffering, death, folk traditions, the individual against society, the power of the sea, and faith in the face of overwhelming obstacles.

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


Cottage. Island home within sight of the sea that is the home of the play’s main characters. The play’s entire action takes place in a single room that serves as a kitchen, workroom, and storage area. The room is sparsely furnished; its most essential features are its fireplace, a spinning wheel, and its front door. The fireplace provides immediate evidence of the simplicity of the family’s existence; it serves both as a cooking oven and as the cottage’s sole source of heat. The fireplace’s fuel is turf, which is stored in a loft beside the fireplace. The primitiveness of these arrangements is crude, even by the standards of the late nineteenth century, when turf-burning ovens were found only in places of extreme isolation and poverty.

The room’s spinning wheel is clearly not decorative since Cathleen begins working at it immediately. The fact that some pieces of clothing are handmade is important in the identification of Michael’s belongings. John Millington Synge makes strong use of the door, through which each drowned member of the house has come, with seawater dripping a trail to the door.

*Aran Islands

*Aran Islands. Group of small islands off the west coast of Ireland, near the entrance to Galway Bay, on one of whose islands the cottage stands. Exposed to the full fury of the open North Atlantic Ocean, the waters around these islands are extremely dangerous, and the constantly changing weather is unpredictable. The play emphasizes the danger of life on the sea with references to the numbers of men who have drowned in it—including five members of the family. However, sea travel is also essential to the family’s survival—a fact made clear by repeated references to Galway and Connemara on the mainland. Aside from items brought by traveling salesmen, everything the family cannot make must come across the sea.


(Great Characters in Literature)

Gerstenberger, Donna. John Millington Synge. New York: Twayne, 1964. Excellent basic reference book on Synge with one chapter devoted to Riders to the Sea. Points out that Riders to the Sea was the only one of Synge’s plays that did not occasion angry outbursts from Irish audiences. Discusses imagery and symbolic use of color. Selected bibliography.

Grene, Nicholas. Synge: A Critical Study of the Plays. New York: Macmillan, 1975. Discusses Synge’s Aran experience. Extensive discussion of Riders to the Sea and how it differs from Synge’s other plays. Praises the economy of the play and delineates way in which props such as the spinning wheel, the bread, the bundle, the boards, and other objects are used for dramatic effect. Cautions against overemphasizing comparisons to classical tragedy and argues for authenticity and originality of the play.

Skelton, Robin. J. M. Synge. Cranbury, N.J.: Bucknell University Press, 1972. A summary of Synge’s background and analysis of the plays, including Riders to the Sea. Chronology and bibliography.

Skelton, Robin. The Writings of J. M. Synge. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1971. Chapter on Riders to the Sea discusses folklore and mythology referred to in the play.

Thornton, Weldon. J. M. Synge and the Western Mind. Gerrards Cross, Buckinghamshire, England: Colin Smythe, 1979. Compares views of a wide variety of critics and scholars on Synge. Excellent introduction to what has been written about Synge’s work.