The Role of the Sea in Riders to the Sea

The sea plays an important role in Riders to the Sea. It is an invisible force which shapes the destinies of all the characters. The readers or the spectators are throughout aware of its moods and its power. It does not appear on the stage but we feel that it is the main actor. It forms the setting of the play and is also an offstage protagonist.

It seems to be directing and molding the lives of the people from behind. It appears to be roaring outside for its toll of human lives.

The island community described in Riders to the Sea depends for all its needs almost entirely on the sea. All the men go to the sea to catch fish. They have to go across the sea to the mainland to sell their agricultural produce and the animals reared by them, and to make their purchases. There are no trees on the island and so even the planks to make coffins have to be obtained from the mainland. The women collect sea weeds which are used as fuel and kelp which serves as manure for their stony soil.

The sea is cruel and merciless and ruthless in dealing with human beings. Prayers to God are of no avail in saving man from the sea. Maurya says that the young priest knows nothing about the sea. The men know the varying moods of the sea well and are not afraid of it. Even young girls like Nora look at the sea and judge whether it is going to be smooth or rough. The riders to the sea and on the sea are the young men. They have the same fierceness and determination as the sea. When Bartley has made up his mind to go to the sea, he does not pay any heed to his mother appeals to him not to go that day. As Cathleen says, "it is the life of a young man to be going on the sea". The sea offers a challenge to the young men, and they take up the challenge and are ready to go to the sea at all times without caring for the risks involved.

 The people of Aran Islands believe that a person is born on the flood tide and dies on the ebb. The islanders do not learn swimming because if there is a storm and a person falls on the waves it is better that he should be drowned quickly. If he tries to swim his suffering would only be prolonged. There is a ritual of drowning. If a person has fallen in the water and is about to be drowned nobody would save him because the belief is that you must not take back what the sea has claimed. If a person's cap blows off and falls on the sea, he must not look at it. He should ask another, whether it is floating crown or brim uppermost, and if the crown is on top you must leave it, for the sea may think that you are beneath it and take it as an image of you.