Riders to the Sea is one of the best one-act plays in which tragic vision of life has been depicted by J. M. Synge well. A proper analysis will show that as a dramatist Synge has given an accurate picture of the habits and beliefs of the poor sea-faring people in the islands of Ireland.
The scene of the play, Riders to the Sea has been laid in an island off the west of Ireland. This island is one of a group known as the Aran Islands. Once while Synge was staying in Paris, Yeats advised him to go to the Aran Islands and study the lives and habits of the natives there. Yeats told him that he could make a valuable contribution to literature by depicting the manner, habits, and beliefs of the natives of those islands. In accordance with the advice given to him by W. B Yeats, he paid several visits to the three islands farming the group called the Aran islands and stayed there for some time on each of his visits. He had acquired first-hand knowledge of these islands and of their inhabitants. Accordingly, the few plays written by Synge which have made him famous have the lives and beliefs of the natives of the Aran Islands s their background – and Riders to the Sea is more conspicuous in this respect than the other plays.
Riders to the Sea deals with the fortunes or misfortunes of Maurya’s family living close to the seashore on one of the Aran Islands. The members of this family symbolize the whole community of this island. These people are half – fisherman and half – peasants. As we go through this play, it becomes clear to us that these people depend for their livelihood partly on farming, partly on fishing and partly on selling their produce and animals on the mainland whether they must go regardless of the dangers of the sea and storm. It is clearly evident when Bartley is found to be leaving home for the mainland and giving some necessary directions to his sisters to perform in spite of the rough weather. All this he does shows the kinds of occupations the people of this island pursue to earn their living.
Besides when somebody dies the male members of the family make a coffin and if there are no male members, neighbors are requested to do the job. Thus when the play opens we learn that some new wooden boards have already been acquired by Maurya for a coffin for the burial of Michael in case Michael’s dead body is washed ashore. Subsequently, the same boards serve the purpose for a coffin to be made for the burial of Bartley’s dead body. As there is now no male members in Maurya’s family, Cathleen asks one of the men in the small gathering of sympathizers and mourners to come next morning and to make a coffin with the help of another.
The people of this island are Roman Catholic Christians. In the very opening dialogue, we hear of a young priest who has sent a bundle of clothing and a message of comfort to the family through one of its members. According to the young priest, the dead body of Michael has received dear burial and god would certainly listen to Maurya’s prayers and would not deprive her of her last surviving son. This message should certainly offer some consolation to Maurya but in reality, it does not serve the purpose. Maurya’s response to this message is that the young priest knows nothing of the doings of the sea. It is curious also that the young priest does not appear before as at any point in the course of the play. Thus, the hold of the Christian faith on the people of this island is not very strong.
The pagan superstitions current among the people of this island. This fact is confirmed by the pagan beliefs of the Maurya’s family. Maurya tells her daughters that she has seen Michael riding the grey pony behind Bartley who was riding the red mare. This means that Maurya has seen Michael’s ghost. Maurya and her two daughters take this as an evil omen and they are all frightened. The matter does not end here. Maurya makes use of holy water which could be the water well blessed by a Christian priest but which actually seems to be some magical water, the kind which pagans used to believe.
The fatalistic attitude of these people also partly contradicts the Christian religion which they profess in theory. As Bartley leaves the house, Maurya laments that by nightfall she will have no son left in this world. She does not talk of the nest world or of the immortality of the soul. At the end of the play when she expresses her acceptance of her sad fate, she does not make any reference to the consolations which Christianity offers. Says she: “No man at all can be living forever, and we must be satisfied.” This is an attitude of stoic resignation, not one of Christian hope, immortality or salvation.
To conclude, it might be said that the beliefs of these people contribute to the tragic atmosphere of the play.