The Depiction of Irish Life in Riders to the Sea by J. M. Synge

Riders to the Sea is one of the best one-act plays in which a tragic vision of life has been depicted by J. M. Synge vividly. 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 play Riders to the Sea scene represents 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 the literature by depicting the manner, habits, and beliefs of the natives of those islands.

By the advice given to him by W. B Yeats, Synge paid several visits to the three islands forming 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 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 as their background – and Riders to the Sea is more conspicuous in this respect than the other plays.

Synge Reflects Maurya Family’s Strugglesome Life by the Seashore

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 evident when Bartley left home for the mainland and gave some necessary directions to his sisters to perform despite 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 Maurya has already acquired some new wooden boards for a coffin for the burial of Michael in case his dead body is washed ashore.

Subsequently, the same boards serve the purpose of a coffin for the burial of Bartley’s dead body. As there are no male members in Maurya’s family, Cathleen asks one of the men in the small gathering of sympathizers and mourners to come the following day to make a coffin.

The Islanders’ Christian Belief Is Lame Riders to the Sea

The people of this island are Roman Catholic Christians. The very opening dialogue tells us 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 a dear burial, and god would undoubtedly listen to Maurya’s prayers and would not deprive her of her last surviving son. This message should undoubtedly offer some consolation to Maurya, but in reality, it does not serve the purpose.

Maurya’s response to the young priest is that he knows nothing of the doings of the sea. It is also curious that the young priest does not appear before in the play. Thus, the Christian faith’s grip around these islanders is not very strong.

The Islanders Maintain Pagan Superstitions in Riders to the Sea

The pagan superstitions are current among the people of this island. The Maurya family’s pagan belief confirms it. Maurya tells her daughters that she has seen Michael riding the grey pony behind Bartley, riding the red mare.

It suggests 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 uses holy water, which a Christian priest could bless, but it seems to be some magical water, which pagans believed.

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 she will have no son left in this world by nightfall. She does not talk of the nest world or the soul’s immortality.

At the end of the play, when she expresses her acceptance of her sad fate, she does not reference Christianity’s consolations.

Maurya says,

“No man at all can be living forever, and we must be satisfied.”

Maurya, Riders to the Sea

Maurya projects an attitude of stoic resignation, not one of Christian hope, immortality, or salvation.

To Conclude

Indeed, the irrational beliefs of the islanders in Riders to the Sea allegedly contribute to the tragic atmosphere of the play. Synge’s keen visit to these islands made him resourceful in depicting the Irish peasant life in this play as neatly as possible.

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