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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Describe Bartley's death in Riders to the Sea.

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Bartley is Maurya’s son. As the play begins, he is one of two sons who are (possibly) still alive, as four others have already died. His brother Michael is missing, and the family fears that he has died. The priest has brought some clothing from a drowned man, and the daughters want to hide it from their mother to delay the identification. Everyone is highly aware of the effect that losing Michael would have on their mother and on Bartley.

Bartley’s plan is to go the Galway Fair with his horses, and his sisters worry that the weather has turned bad in that area. Maurya assumes that he won’t go because of the weather and that the priest will stop him. But Bartley is determined to take advantage of the only boat going; he expects it to be a good fair. His mother implies that she wants him to stay to help her with Michael’s burial; she will need a man to make the coffin, and no commerce is worth the risk of her losing her last son.

But Bartley is resolved to take the horses to the fair. Expecting to be back in four days, at a maximum, he sets off with his mother’s unlucky, hard word behind him, as his sister calls it.

In his haste, he forgets his bread, so his mother goes after him. She soon returns, looking ghastly, and reports her vision of seeing him with Michael’s body on his pony. While the girls are explaining that they have Michael’s clothes because he was found up north, two women come in and report that Bart has died: “The gray pony knocked him into the sea, and he was washed out where there is a great surf on the white rocks.”

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As the play begins, Maurya is a poor Irish woman who has lost her husband, her father-in-law, and her first four sons to the sea. Her fifth son Michael, also feared drowned, has been missing far too long to hold out hope for his return. Her youngest and only remaining son, Bartley, plans to take two horses (a mare and a pony) to market, which will require that he must also go into the sea. Bartley must ride the mare and lead the pony through the waters to reach the ship anchored off shore that will deliver the animals to the market. Maurya begs him to stay, fearing that she will lose her last son. Bartley insists. Their harsh poverty drives him in his actions. As he leaves, his mother cannot give him a blessing, but he blesses her.

In the play's tragic conclusion, while Maurya is being persuaded that Michael is indeed dead, word comes to her that Bartley has been drowned trying to reach the ship with his horses. Maurya has now lost all the men she loved to the sea. Having no more sons to lose, she finds an ironic peace as she blesses Bartley's body with Holy Water and prays for God's mercy.

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Describe the circumstances of Bartley’s death in Riders to the Sea.

Using textual evidence, this question is fairly straightforward, as there is very little explanation as to how Bartley dies. Audiences are told that Bartley was thrown off of his horse and drowned in the sea.

The gray pony knocked him into the sea, and he washed out where there is a great surf on the white rocks.

It is a devastating bit of news for audiences and Bartley's family. Maurya has spent a great deal of the play trying to convince Bartley not to go to sea that day. The weather is terrible, for one; however, Maurya has lost every other man in her life to the sea. She simply can not handle losing another loved one to the sea, so she is desperate to keep Bartley home. Bartley is not to be swayed from doing what he believes is his duty and responsibility to his family and wider community. He takes the horse and is thrown into the sea and dies. His body is recovered and brought back to Maurya's house, and the play ends soon after.

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