Riders to the Sea presents us an almost claustrophobic world where suffering reigns supreme in human life. This one-act play widens, deepens and universalizes the pathetic plight of a hapless people who have no other place to live except those dreadful islands off the shore of Ireland. Synge selected this remote Aran Islands as the locale for his tragic play Riders to the Sea. He paid several visits to these islands in order to acquire first-hand knowledge of the kind of life these islanders live. He studies their manners, habits, and beliefs. He also noted the characteristic attitude to life which this poor fisherman-community held. The four people in Riders to the Sea are the representative of this community. Maurya’s loss of her husband and sons encapsulates the tragic fate of this group of people who are almost lost in the immensity of the Atlantic Ocean and who have to fight against the cruel, hungry foam of the sea eternally. It is the sea or nature that fashions this attitude to life. As the cloud of death overhangs their lives, as the tide of the ocean snatches away their near and dear ones every season, their philosophy of life is bound to be pessimistic. They accept the deaths with calm resignation and stoic attitude because no other reaction is possible.
Riders to the Sea deals with the fortunes of misfortunes of Maurya’s family living close to the seashore on one of the Aran Islands. Maurya has only one son living, Bartley. She has already lost six of her elder sons to the sea. The last one to go is Michael whose dead body has not yet been found and the family is waiting to give a clean burial to Michael if his body is washed ashore. Bartley is preparing to go to the horse-fair at Galway in order to sell his red mare. The sea is very rough and the old mother tries to dissuade Bartley from going. Maurya’s anxiety is contrasted with the desperation of Bartley. As a man of the island, his attitude to life is that of a fighter – he cannot stay back just because an old mother has premonitions. Bartley says, “This is the one boat going for two weeks or beyond it, and the fair will be a good fair for horses…”
Bartley’s desperate determination is contrasted with the superstitious fear of his mother. In fact, a pagan fatalism runs through the play. Maurya knows in her mind that her last son will also drown in the sea. Experience has taught her that it is the fate of young man to be swallowed by the cruel hungry fate in the guise of the sea. Maurya’s words are almost prophetic: “It’s hard set we’ll be surely the day you’re drowned with the rest. What way will I live and the girls with me, and I am old woman looking for the grave?”
The people of the island are devout Christians; they are Catholics. Maurya and her children believe that God will give them sustenance. Maurya even believes that God will not be so unkind as to take away her last son also. Nora says to her sister: “Didn’t the young priest say the Almighty God won’t leave her destitute with no son living?” After Bartley has departed, Maurya starts speaking in a prophetic mode about the imminent death of Bartley. She enumerates the deaths in the family on by one:
“Bartley will be lost now, and let you call in Eamon and make me a good coffin out of the white boards, for I won’t live after death. I’ve had a husband and husband’s father, and six sons in this house – six fire men, though it was a hard birth I had with every one of them and they coming to the world – and some of them were found and some of them were not found, but they’re gone now, the lot of them…”
Cut off from the mainstream of Irish civilization, these people are shadowed by age-old custom and rituals. Like the primitive people, they attribute supernatural power to inanimate objects. Omens forebodings pervade the play because they are projected by their fears and anxieties. No wonder they believe in ghosts, daemons, transmigrations of souls and the like. Maurya’s supernatural vision of dead Michael shows the typical attitude of the people living under a perpetual doom:
“Maurya: I went down to the spring well, and I stood there saying a prayer to myself. Then Bartley came along, and he riding the red mare with the grey pony behind him.
Cathleen: What is it you seen?
Maurya: I seen Michael himself.”
The fatalistic attitude of Maurya underpins the tragic atmosphere of the play. Like Greek tragedies, Riders to the Sea also throws up the archetypal conflict between men and gods. In this conflict, man has to suffer, but still, there is some amount of glory in the fight itself. The only moral strength comes from, the acceptance of fate, as Maurya says rather defiantly: “They’re all gone now, and there isn’t anything more the sea can do to me…”
Robin Skelton says, “Maurya, like Oedipus bows to the will of gods and like Job finds at last in humility and endurance, a dignity and greatness of spirit.”