Analysis of the Title of J. M. Synge’s Play---Riders to the Sea


J. M. Synge’s one-act play on the life of the poor peasant and fisher folk of the Aran Island of the west –coast of Ireland has been named “Riders to the Sea”. Who are the riders and what past does the sea play in their life? The riders in the drama refer to those male members of the family of the poor peasant woman Maurya. They, one by one go on horse back to the sea-shore for boarding the ship along with horses, goats and sheep which they have reared up at home for selling in the neighboring market. The sea is the only link with the world outside. Hence these people have no choice of going by any other route. So in compelling circumstances, they are to journey across the turbulent sea staking their life.

                In “Riders to the Sea” because of the limited space of a one-act play, only the deaths of two riders – Michael and Bartley are enacted. But we are reported of the gruesome deaths of many other riders of the same family. It is the family of the old peasant woman, Maurya through whom Synge has projected his tragic mission. Her husband, husband’s father and four of her six sons were all riders to the sea. None of them had come back alive. They had been swallowed by the sea. The fifth son whom she has just lost is Michael. His body has not yet been found.
Maurya has been lamenting for nine days and is lying down exhausted and disconsolate. The sea is rough and a strong wind is blowing. Maurya and everyone else in the family are waiting for a favourable wind when the body may be washed ashore. The only surviving son, Bartley has procured white boards for Michaels’ coffin and a piece of new rope for tying up the body is hanging by the boards. The scene – opens with Cathleen and Nora, the two daughters of Maurya talking about the restlessness and tension of the mother who is spending sleepless nights since Michael is missing in the Sea. The two sisters talk in a hushed tone so that their mother can not know what they are talking about. Nora, the younger sister comes with a bundle of shirt and stockings found on a dead man washed ashore in Donegal. The priest has given the bundle to Nora to ascertain whether they are Michael’s. Hearing the unsteady footsteps of their mother they hide the bundle. So the spectre of death and destruction looms large from the beginning. Maurya learns from Bartley that he will go to the Galway Fair to sell horses. She tries frantically to dissuade him from under taking the perilous journey. The moon with a star close by is to Maurya’s mind an evil omen. But Bartley has the compulsion to go out. On the eve of his departure she forgets to utter the words of blessing and give him the piece of cake.

She decides to go to the spring well on foot through a shorter route to meet Bartley on his way to the seashore for giving him the cake and blessings. While waiting for Bartley to pass by she has a horrible vision of dead Michael riding on a grey pony behind Bartley. And to her the vision means nothing but the doom of Bartley. Maurya’s vision comes true very soon as Bartley’s dead body is carried home.

                The riders in the drama meet their tragic dooms not because of any flaw inherent in them. They suffer and die not because of any act of omission or commission on their parts. The poor riders are helpless human beings pitted against the stupendous force represented by the sea. Being hurled in hostile circumstances by Fate, they are bound to suffer and die irrespective of what they do or do not do.

                Hence the title “Riders To The Sea” is inextricably connected with the theme of the drama i.e. the tragic predicament in the life of the poor riders. In the drama the struggle between the riders and the sea symbolizes the eternal conflict between Man and Fate.


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