The role of the sea in Synge’s ‘Riders to the Sea’

W. B. Yeats, whose advice J. M. Synge has followed in exploring the Aran Islands in the remote northwestern corner of Ireland in 1898, mentions that in Riders to the Sea one finds “first to last the presence of the sea”. The impression of the vast stretches of the stormy gray Atlantic, lashing over the barren Aran Islands, is so predominant in the play that many critics would consider the protagonist to be not the bereaved mother Maurya, but her antagonist, the sea. Though the sea remains offstage, it is the most formidable presence in the play. It is an elemental force, fierce and brutal against which the characters continuously struggle, out of this struggle they achieve a rare quality of heroism that Synge celebrates in Riders to the Sea.

The characters in Synge’s play seem to be interlocked in a life-and- death combat with the sea. The sea is both the preserver and the destroyer for these islanders. With negligible possibility for farming, the inhabitants of these islands are compelled to rely on fishing as their only livelihood. At the same time the violent Atlantic storms make the premature death of the fishermen inevitable. The seawater, in the play, does not symbolize only life and rejuvenation, but, more importantly, death. Everything – from the string tying the bundle, the colour and texture of Michael’s shirt to the individual details of human identity is destroyed by the sea.

J. M. Synge presents Maurya as an old and bereaved mother, witnessing three generations of men – her father-in-law, her husband and her sons – being destroyed by the sea. Her fifth son, Michael, being missing at the sea for nine days, she is thrown into a frenzy of grief and worry. When her last son Bartley decides to sail to the Galway fair to sell their horses to overcome a financial crisis, she puts up a futile verbal resistance. However, the will of the sea seems to overpower that of human’s and Bartley is drowned near the shore. Synge here represents the sea in the manner of the classical concept of ‘nemesis’ or fate that makes human misery inevitable. The sea becomes the Nemesis, against whom the doomed mankind must fight, and through this fight man attains dignity.

The importance of the sea is repeatedly emphasized through frequent reference to its conditions. Catherine and Nora refer to the turbulence of the sea, being worried about Bartley’s intended journey. Maurya also comments about the tempestuous sea revealing her constant nervousness and tension about the safety of her sons. In fact, sometimes the sea appears to indirectly enter the stage. A gusty sea-breeze blows open the door and later the sea-water comes dripping into the room when Bartley’s body is brought in.

Synge has presented the sea in Riders to the Sea as an unscrupulous force that indiscriminately destroys both the good and the bad, and it reverses natural order by taking away the young to leave the older generation to lament. This is evident in Maurya’s comment about Michael’s stick – “In the big world the old people do be leaving things after them for their sons and children, but in this place it is the young men do be leaving things behind for them that do be old.” Yet in their perpetual battle with the sea, the Aran folks acquire a rare moral strength, heroism and stoic endurance. Bartley fully aware of his eminent death, does not hesitate to sail to Galway.

The stage-props in Riders to the Sea are closely associated with the sea. The nets and the oilskins establish fishing as their occupation’ the white boards, the rope and the nails are meant for burial reminding us of the destructiveness of the sea. The bundle containing Michael’s clothes is soaked in seawater and the cake is made for Bartley to be eaten during the sea journey. These props attempt to establish a few signs of human identity against the absolute devastation of the sea.

The religious beliefs and customs of this Celtic community are also closely associated with the sea. Though formally the Aran islanders perform Christian rituals, their concept of the universe being a hostile place where man is a victim of the malicious forces of nature, is almost pagan. Like pagans, they are full of superstitions about the ‘black hags’ and the ‘star-crossed’. They also believe in supernatural vision such as Maurya’s witnessing of Michael’s spectre on the gray horse following Bartley riding the red mare, the reference to the vision of the ‘Bride Dara’ confirms this view. The spring-well also has supernatural associations. However, the paganism is finally overpowered by Maurya’s deep Christian faith at the end of the play. When she invokes his blessings upon the souls of all the living and the dead, she achieves a spiritual triumph over the sea.

As an island nation, Ireland has an intimate relationship with the sea, and Riders draws on practical, mythical and literary aspects of Ireland’s seafaring tradition. Aran provided first-hand experience of the sea’s ruthlessness and the constant negotiation with weather that Irish travel demanded; Synge repeatedly notes the threat of drowning in The Aran Islands.

In Synge’s play, the universal drama of life and death has been symbolized by the presence of the sea. It is an elemental power against which the characters of the play struggle and strive. It is a grim force, contradicting which the human characters in the play achieve heroic identity. The sea in this play controls the whole situation, of both nature and human beings, though remaining off stage. The sea’s unseen presence fills the mind of both the characters and the audience. As a background, as a living character, as a force of nature, as an agent of destiny, as a villain, the sea plays a great role throughout the play.

Significance of the Title of Riders to the Sea

In the tragic spectacle of Riders to the Sea, John Millington Synge explores an essentially Pagan situation. There is a degree of deliberation in the choice of the title and its application is both literal and metaphorical since it is an extended metaphor meaning “we are all moving toward mortal death”. The title mainly embodies the Biblical allusion: in the book of Exodus there is a mention of how Pharaoh’s horsemen pursued the Israelites to the sea but themselves perished in the process. Miriam, the prophetess, sang the glory of Lord for “the horse and his rider He has thrown into the sea”. Obviously Pharaoh’s horsemen, the riders to the sea, were cursed by God and they met their death in the raging waters.

In the play, Maurya may or may not have been cursed by the Lord but there is something ill fated about their journey, a fact that Maurya knows too well. Having lost her husband and her four sons, she tries to prevent her last and youngest son, Bartley from going into the sea despite the young priest assuring her that “Almighty God will not leave her destitute with no son living”. Here the priest himself is seen as a piece of fragile optimism since Maurya’s religious beliefs hasn’t been of much help in the past and thus, she brusquely dismisses the priest’s assurance stating, “It’s little the like of him known about the sea”. Unfortunately, what Maurya apprehends turns out to be true; Bentley too perishes at the end of the play.

The title, The Riders to the Sea is a constant reminder of the reality of Maurya’s predicament that the members of her family have a sealed destiny like that of the Pharaoh’s riders. They will ride to the sea with confidence and hope but will never return alive. However, the main difference lies in the fact that the inhabitants of the Aran Islands posed no challenge to the mighty sea. In fact, they are simple, innocent villagers who are actually dependent on the sea for their livelihood and obviously do not pose a threat to its rage and power. Yet they are fated in such a way that there is no escape from their destiny; the riders are caught in an exorable cycle where they are always the victim of the invincible force of the sea hungering after them. The playwright himself stayed in Galway Coast off Southern Ireland for a considerable time in an effort to write literature with a purely Irish influence. Thus, Riders to the Sea brilliantly captures the plight of these men and women struggling against the force of nature to sustain themselves. These villagers, mostly Catholic also struggle with the potential contradictory implications of the Catholic faith.

In a more immediate and dramatic context, the term “Riders” has a particular reference to only two riders in the play. One is the doomed Bartley and the other is his spectral brother, Michael. The living Bartley rides on his “red mare” while his dead brother is carried on the “grey pony” behind. This is the “fear fullest thing” envisioned by Maurya. This awful vision lies at the center of Synge’s play for apparition of the non human rider Michael passes Bartley’s imminent doom. In Michael’s elegy, their poor mother talks about Bartley like he has already died, stating, “I’ve had a husband and a husband’s father and six sons in this house…but they’re gone now, a lot of them”. It is indeed heart wrenching when a mother has to deliver the elegy of all her children when in fact the sons died for no fault of their own. Michael, Bartley, and the other young men of the Islands are all “riders” to the sea and in a fatal turn of events the living and the dead mingle together somehow to create an atmosphere of an impending tragic doom. Therefore, the title emphasizes the mythical and supernatural trappings of Synge’s tragedy.

The implication of the “riders” widens and Bartley and Michael become human symbols of the men folk of Aran Islands who have faced the sea in the past and fearlessly braved its might. The title reinforces the overwhelming theme of death that pervades the whole play. It is not only Maurya who has witnessed her whole family perish in the waves; on a macrocosmic level, the death of Michael and subsequently of Bartley is a metaphor to explain what the villagers experience on a daily basis.

But the kernel of the tragedy is the heroic struggle of the character against all odds and the final vindication of the greatness and sublimity of the indomitable human spirit. The particular satisfaction of tragic comes from a feeling that the protagonist’s spirit is way superior to the catastrophic power of the sea which has the capacity to toss and turn and engulf any puny man in no time. In Riders to the Sea, the characters wage their struggle against a destiny that shows no mercy and ultimately defeats them. The riders venture out, despite their knowledge that their fathers and grandfathers met with the same fate. But life is not a static, it must go on and thus, the men ride out to the sea in spite of knowing that they may never return home again. So Bartley does a similar thing when he decides to brave the sea by turning a deaf ear to his mother’s pleadings. This notion of the unflinching human spirit is illustrated through Cathleen’s speech, “It’s the life of a young man to be going on the sea and who would listen to an old woman with one thing and she saying it over?”.

In conclusion it can be said that J.M. Synge while representing the young men as riders to the sea, he also suggests their heroism. On one hand there is an element of helplessness among the island dwellers while on the other, the undaunted gallantry of the men that impels them to take on the challenges and face whatever Nature thrusts them with. Thus, the title highlights the rhetoric of this heroic gesture on the part of the weak fated doomed mortals. It is therefore highly appropriate since it suggests not only the contextual and symbolic framework of the play but also indicates the nature of the horrific in Synge’s one act tragedy.