Riders to the Sea by J.M. Synge: Summary

This short play is about the calamities inflicted by the sea on a family of fishermen on an island to the west of Ireland. The scene is laid in the kitchen of a small cottage. The fishing net kept there indicates that these people earn their living by catching fish. The spinning wheel kept there indicates that these people spin their own yarn and weave their own clothes.

There are some white boards standing against the wall. Since there are no trees on the island, these boards have been obtained from the mainland. These boards indicate that someone has recently died there and a coffin is to be made for his burial.

The cottage is very close to the sea. The island is one of a group known as Aran Islands. Synge went to these islands at the suggestion of W.B. Yeats and spent a long time there, studying the lives of the islanders and making a note of the language spoken by them. The incident included in this one-act play is based on the stones that Synge was told by the inhabitants of these islands. The language is based on the conversations he had actually heard among the islanders.

When the curtain rises, we see Cathleen, a girl of about 20, kneading flour. She completes this work and puts the dough in the oven by the fire. She then starts spinning yarn with the spinning wheel. Her younger sister, Nora, now appears at the door. She has a small bundle of clothes which she is hiding under her shawl. She asks her sister where their mother is. Cathleen replies that their mother is lying in the other room, and perhaps sleeping if she can get any sleep. Nora comes to the kitchen and tells her sister that the bundle had been given to her by the young priest. The bundle contains a shirt and a plain stocking which had been removed from the body of a man who was drowned and whose was washed ashore in Donegal. He was given a decent burial by the people there.

Michael, their brother, had been drowned in the sea, nine days back and the whole family, especially their mother, Maurya, was in deep mourning. They had been looking for Michael's body to be washed ashore so that they could give him a, clean burial. They had obtained the white boards from the mainland to make a coffin for Michael. But the body hasn't appeared so far. The young priest told Nora that if those clothes belonged to Michael they would be pleased to know that his body had been decently buried in Donegal. The priest added that if those clothes did not belong to Michael, Nora should not mention anything about them to her mother because this will give her greater pain and she will almost kill herself with lamentation.

Cathleen says that their last surviving brother, Bartley, was planning to go that day by sea to the mainland to sell his horses at the Galway fair, and she asks Nora whether she had asked the young priest if he would stop Bartley from going. Nora replies that the young priest told her that he won't stop him from going, but he told her not to be afraid of his safety. Her mother prays to God almighty up to midnight and so God would not make her utterly helpless by taking away her last surviving son.

Cathleen asks Nora whether the sea appears to be rough near the rocks. Nora says that the sea is bad, but not very bad. There is a great roaring sound coming from the west, and it will get worse when the tide turns. Nora asks her sister whether she should open the bundle of clothes. Cathleen says that they would take a long time in identifying the clothes because both of them are crying and in the meantime, it is possible that their mother might wake up and come there. Nora hears sounds of Mauya's movements. Cathleen suggests that the bundle should be hidden in the turf kept in the loft where Maurya cannot see them. When she goes to the seaside to see whether Michael's body has been washed ashore they can open the bundle. They put up a ladder and Cathleen goes up and hides the bundle in the turf.

 Maurya now enters the kitchen and she is surprised to find Cathleen near the turf. She asks her whether they did not have enough fuel for the day. Cathleen explains that they are baking a cake and so they need more fuel. The cake would be needed by Bartley, if he goes to Connemara.

Maurya says that Bartley must not go on this day because the wind is rising from the south and the west. She is sure that the young priest will stop him from going. Nora says that the priest will not stop him and heard some of the people in the village saying that he would definitely go. He has gone down to find out whether there would be another boat to the mainland this week. Just then Bartley comes and he seems to be in a hurry. He asks Cathleen about the new rope that they had bought in Connemara. The rope is hanging on a nail and Nora gives it to him. Maurya asks him not to take the rope. When Michael's body is found, they will dig a deep grave for him and the rope will be needed for lowering the coffin in the grave. Bartley says that he needs the rope to make a halter for the red mare and he has to go quickly because the boat is about to leave and there won't be another boat for two weeks or more. People are saying that this will be a good fair for the sale of horses and he wants to sell his red mare and Michael's gray pony.

Maurya objects to Bartley's going on the ground that if Michael's body is found there would be no male member in the house to make the coffin out of the white boards that she has purchased. Bartley says that there is no possibility of the body being washed up because there is a strong wind blowing from the west and south. Maurya says that the indications are that the sea will become rough now and she does not want him to take the risk of crossing the sea to go to the mainland at this time. He is her only son now and he is more precious to her than even a thousand horses.

Bartley pays no heed to his mother's words and continues making the halter. He asks Cathleen to take care of the sheep and to sell the pig with the black feet if she gets a good price for it. He asks the sisters to gather enough sea-weed. He says that they will face a lot of difficulty now because there is only one male member left in the house to do all the work. When Maurya finds that Bartley is determined to go, she says that the family will have real difficulty when he too is drowned like the rest of the male members of the family. She asks him how she, an old woman, will live and provide for the girls if he undertakes this trip and is drowned.

Bartley ignores his mother's objections and is determined to go. He asks Nora to see if the boat is coming towards the pier. Nora sees that the boat is passing near the green head and getting ready to stop at the pier. Bartley takes his purse and tobacco and gets ready to go. He says that he will come back in two days or three days or perhaps, four days if the wind is bad. Maurya now becomes desperate and she says that he is a hard and cruel man who does not listen to his old mother who is trying to hold him back from going to the sea. Cathleen now takes her brother's side and says that it is natural for a young man to want to go to the sea and their mother is unnecessarily saying the same thing over and over again. Bartley now picks up the halter which he has made from the rope and says that he must go quickly. He would ride on the red mare and the gray pony would run behind him. Bartley leaves after invoking God’s blessings on them all.

 Maurya is grief-stricken as Bartley leaves. She does not give her blessings to him. She has a sign that now he will not come home alive. She says that he is gone and they will not see him again, and when the black night comes she will have no son left in the world. Cathleen takes her mother to task for sending Bartley away without blessing him. She had said very unlucky words when Bartley was going on a dangerous voyage. They were already grief-stricken due to the death of Michael and Maurya's words are likely to add to their sorrow. Cathleen then remembers that she has forgotten to give the cake to Bartley. Nora says that Bartley has eaten nothing since the morning and he will reach the mainland only at night, and he will be miserable due to hunger. Cathleen takes the cakes out of the oven and blames her mother for her own forgetfulness. She says that nobody can have sons in a house where an old woman keeps on talking all the time.

Cathleen cuts a piece of the cake and wraps it in a piece of cloth. She suggests to her mother to take this in the spring well and give it to Bartley when he passes near this place on his way to the pier. If she invokes God's blessings on Bartley now the evil effect of the unlucky words that she spoke earlier will be neutralized. She can meet Bartley, if she goes quickly. Maurya takes the bread and stands up unsteadily. She is old and weak and finds it difficult to walk. Cathleen asks Nora to give her the stick which Michael brought from Connemara. Maurya takes the stick and comments that in the outside world the older people leave things to be used by the younger people, but in this place young men die first and leave things to be used by older people. (Michael has died and his stick is being used by his mother). She goes out slowly.

When Maurya goes out, Nora takes the ladder and goes up to the loft and throws down the bundle. She says that the young priest would come back to the island the next day and they should inform him if these clothes are definitely Michael's. He had told her how the body had been found. Two men were rowing with poteen early in the morning and the oar of one of them caught the body and they brought it to Donegal. Cathleen cut the string and opened the bundle. It contained a shirt and a stocking. Nora says that she would get Michael's shirt which is hanging there and compare the flannel that of the two. But that shirt was not there. Cathleen says that probably Bartley put on that shirt that morning because his own shirt was heavy with salt in it. But there was a bit of a sleeve of the same material. The stuff was the same, but Cathleen says that a lot of that material is available in shops and so someone else might have got a shirt of the same material. Nora counted the stitches of the stocking. It had fifty-six stitches. Nora remembered that this was the number of stitches in the stocking which she stitched for Michael. They are now certain that the body that had been found in Donegal was Michael's. They both start crying because now they are certain that Michael is drowned. Nora throws her arms on the clothes and says that it is very sad that this is all that is left of Michael who was a great rower and fisherman. As they are weeping they hear the sound of Maurya's footsteps, and they become quiet. They decide to keep the clothes away and not to tell their mother about them while Bartley is on the sea. They put the bundle in a hole in the chimney-corner. Cathleen starts her work at the spinning-wheel. Nora sits down at the chimney-corner.

Maurya comes into the house very slowly. The cloth with the bread is still in her hands. She sits down on her stool by the fire and starts wailing. Cathleen tells her not to lament for Michael but to tell them whether she saw Bartley. Maurya says that her heart is broken because she has seen a frightful vision. She saw Bartley is riding the red mare and she also saw Michael is riding the gray pony which was running behind. Cathleen feels that she must now tell her mother about Michael's clothes. So she tells her mother that she could not have seen Michael because Michael's dead body has been found in Donegal and he has been given a decent burial by the people there. Maurya, however, says that she saw Michael is riding the gray pony and wearing fine clothes and new shoes. She wanted to give her blessings to Bartley when he rode past her, but the words stuck in her throat.

Cathleen begins to lament and says that they are ruined from this day. She feels that the vision means that Bartley will die and they will be left absolutely helpless. Nora tries to console her mother and sister by saying that the young priest has said that God will not leave her utterly helpless by taking away her last surviving son. But these do not console Maurya. She says that persons like the young priest have no idea of the ways of the sea. She has a sign that Bartley will be drowned now. She wants the girls to call Eamon and make a good coffin out of the white boards for her, for she won't live after all her sons are dead. Or the coffin can be used to bury Michael.

Maurya recalls that she had her husband and her husband's father and six sons in this house. Her sons were six fine men, though she had a lot of trouble in giving birth to them. They have all been lost in the sea. The bodies of some of them were found, while those of the others were not found at all. Stephen and Shawn were drowned in the great storm and their bodies were found in the Bay of Gregory and brought to the house on one plank.

Cathleen and Nora now hear some noises coming from the seashore. Maurya, however, does not hear anything and continues her description of her calamities. Sheamus, his father and grandfather were lost together on a dark night and their bodies were not recovered at all. Patch was drowned when his curragh (boat) got overturned. She was sitting at that time with Bartley, who was a small child, on her knees and first two women came, then three came and then four women came. They were making signs of the cross and not saying a word. Then some men brought the dead body of Patch wrapped in a red sail with water dripping out of it.

As Maurya was describing the way in which the body of Patch was brought, the scene is re-enacted. Women start coming to the house crossing themselves and kneeling down with red petticoats over their heads. Maurya was utterly confused and in a sort of a dream. She asks Cathleen, who has died—Patch or Michael. Cathleen replies that Michael's body has been found in the far north. Maurya asks how they could recognize the body after it had been in the sea for nine days. Cathleen explains that they had sent the clothes taken out of that body and they were sure that these clothes belonged to Michael. Cathleen gives the clothes to her mother. Just then Nora sees some men coming towards their house carrying something wrapped in a sail from which water was dripping. Cathleen asks the women, whether they are bringing Bartley's body. One of the women replies that it is definitely Bartley's body. The younger women pull out the table and the men place Bartley's body, wrapped in a sail, on it. Cathleen asks the women how Bartley was drowned. The woman replies that the gray pony knocked him into the sea and the strong current took him into the deep sea and dashed him against the white rocks.

Maurya now goes and kneels at the head of the table. The women are wailing softly and swaying their bodies to and fro. Cathleen and Nora kneel at the other end of the table. The men kneel near the door. Maurya then raises her hand and speaks as if there is nobody around her. She says that all the male members of her family are gone now. The sea has done the maximum damage possible and it cannot do any more harm to her. In the past when there was a storm on the sea and she could hear the strong waves striking against each other, she used to keep praying to God for the safety of her menfolk who were on the high seas. She used to and get Holy water in the dark nights after Samhain and she did various rituals with this water. Now she will have no worry about storms and rough seas and she will have no need to get the Holy Water. She asks Nora to give her the Holy Water which is still there. She drops Michael's clothes over Bartley's feet and sprinkles Holy Water on the clothes and on Bartley's dead body. She says that she has prayed so much for Bartley on dark nights that sometimes she did not know what she was saying. Now that there is no son left, she would have no need to pray for someone and so she will have a great rest and peace. She will be able to sleep during the long winter nights after Samhain (all Souls' Day-1st November). Since there is no bread-winner left in the family, she will have very great difficulty. She and her two daughters will now get only wet flour and some stinking fish. But she will have rest and peace of mind. She kneels down again, makes the sign of the cross and prays silently.

Cathleen now turns to an old man and requests him to come next day along with Eamon and make a coffin for Bartley. She tells him that her mother had purchased white boards for a coffin to be made for Michael when his body was found. Now these boards can be used to make a coffin for Bartley. She adds that she has made a cake which they can eat while they are making the coffin. The old man looks at the boards and asks whether nails have been bought. Cathleen replies that they had not thought of the nails. At this another man comments that it is strange that Maurya who has seen so many coffins being made in her house, did not think of nails. Cathleen says that she is getting old and has been shattered by grief and so she is getting forgetful.

Maurya stands up again very slowly, spreads out Michael's clothes beside Bartley's body and sprinkles the last drops of Holy Water on them. Nora says to Cathleen in a whisper that their mother was very quiet now, but when the news came that Michael was drowned, she cried so much that one could hear the sound of her lamentation from this place in the spring well. She says, "I think that she loved Michael more than Bartley but nobody could have thought that possible". Cathleen replies that that is not the reason. An old woman soon gets tired of what she has been doing. She was wailing and moaning for nine days and now she is tired of it. That is why she is quiet now.

Now Maurya stops complaining and stoically accepts her fate. Death has to come to everyone. So if someone dies the survivors should give him a decent burial and pray for his soul and remain satisfied. Maurya acts in this spirit. She lays her hands on Bartley's feet and says, 'The souls of my husband and all my sons are together in the other world now. May God almighty have mercy on Bartley's soul and on Michael's soul and on the souls of Sheamus, Patch, Stephen and Shawn and on my soul and on the soul of all those persons who are still living in the world." She pauses a little and the wailing of the women rises and then subsides. Maurya continues, "Michael has got a decent burial, in the far north and for Bartley a fine coffin will be made out of the whiteboards and we shall bury him in a deep grave. What more can one want? No man can live forever and so we must be satisfied" The play ends on this note of submission before fate and mortality.