Riders To The Sea

by John Millington Synge

Plot synopsis

Maurya has lost her husband, father-in-law, and five sons to the sea. As the play begins Nora and Cathleen receive word that a body that may be their brother Michael has washed up on shore in Donegal, far to the north. Bartley is planning to sail to Connemara to sell a horse, and ignores Maurya’s pleas to stay. As he leaves, he leaves gracefully. Maurya predicts that by nightfall she will have no living sons, and her daughters chide her for sending Bartley off with an ill word. Maurya goes after Bartley to bless his voyage, and Nora and Cathleen receive clothing from the drowned corpse that confirms it as their brother. Maurya returns home claiming to have seen the ghost of Michael riding behind Bartley and begins lamenting the loss of the men in her family to the sea, after which some villagers bring in the corpse of Bartley, who has fallen off his horse into the sea and drowned.
Maurya’s speech in the final scene is famous in Irish drama:

(raising her head and speaking as if she did not see the people around her) They’re all gone now, and there isn’t anything more the sea can do to me…. I’ll have no call now to be up crying and praying when the wind breaks from the south, and you can hear the surf is in the east, and the surf is in the west, making a great stir with the two noises, and they hitting one on the other. I’ll have no call now to be going down and getting Holy Water in the dark nights after Samhain, and I won’t care what way the sea is when the other women will be keening. ‘(To Nora)’ Give me the Holy Water, Nora; there’s a small sup still on the dresser.

General understanding

The play begins with Maurya, who has fallen into a fitful sleep. She is certain that her son, Michael, has drowned, even though she has no proof, and has been constantly grieving for nine days. Cathleen, her daughter, is doing household chores when Nora, another daughter arrives. She quietly slips into the kitchen with a bundle that had been given to her by a young priest. In the bundle are clothes taken from the body of a man who drowned in the far north. They were sent to Maurya’s home, hoping that she would be able to identify the body.

Maurya begins to look as if she is going to wake up soon, so the daughters hide the bundle until a time when they are alone. Maurya awakes, and her fear for losing her only remaining son Bartley intensifies her grieving for Michael. Keep in mind, she has already lost five sons and a husband to the sea. The priest claims that that “insatiable tyrant” will not take her sixth. However, Bartley proclaims that he is going to venture over to the mainland that same day, in order to sell a horse at the fair, despite knowing of the high winds and seas.

Maurya begs Bartley not to go, yet he insists despite her pleas. In a flustered state of irritation, Maurya bids him gone without her blessing. Upon seeing these events unfold, the sisters tell Maurya, that she should go out and search for Bartley in order to give him the lunch that they he had forgotten to bring, and while at it, give him her blessing.

Maurya agrees to go, and once she is gone, the girls open the bundle. They find that they were indeed Michael’s clothes, but at least they have the comfort of knowing he got a respectable Christian burial where he washed up in the north. At this point, Maurya returns even more flustered and terrified before. She has seen a vision of Michael riding on the lead horse behind Bartley. Because of this, she is sure Bartley is doomed to die at sea. The girls then show her Michael’s clothes, and she exclaims that the nice white boards she had bought for Michael’s coffin may now be used for Bartley’s instead.

As she says this, the neighbors (women) enter, their voices raised in what the play calls a “keen”, or wailing lament for the dead. Men follow the women, who bring in the body of Bartley, who, sure enough, is dead. He has been knocked off a cliff into the surf below by the horse he was leading. The play ends with Maurya’s fatal submission as she says, “They’re all gone now and there isn’t anything more the sea can do to me.”

This play resulted in the public having an interesting outlook to the sea. Whereas beforehand the sea was always mysterious and adventurous, it now became melodramatic and depressing. This had a somewhat similar effect to “Jaws” in the mid 70s, changing peoples’ views of water and the ocean, but on a lesser scale.

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