“Riders to the Sea” was written by John Millington Synge as an attempt to create a play based on his experiences of life on Aran Islands. It became a success and led to the creation of further plays based on that region. This paper will examine this play from different perspectives, to find the hidden layers behind its straightforward plot.
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John Millington Synge and the Irish Literary Revival
John Millington Synge was born on April 16, 1871, in Rathfarnham, Ireland. He grew up in a privileged upper-middle-class Protestant family but dedicated most of his work to the Roman Catholic communities of rural Ireland. Throughout his life, he was suffering from Hodgkin’s disease, which led to his first visit to the Aran Islands (McCormack 2000). Aran Islands have been mostly isolated from the modern world and quickly became a place of interest for people trying to learn fluent Gaelic and writers interested in Irish oral tradition. Synge became fascinated with the place, its folklore, and the subtle remains of pagan beliefs in the Catholic faith of the populace. This fascination inspired him to write what he considered to be his first serious work called The Aran Islands. In it, Synge described his experiences of living on the island, folklore stories he was told and his idea about the possible pagan beliefs being present there. Later, he used those experiences to create plays about rural Irish life, one of which is covered in this paper. His love for the rural Irish life led him to become a prominent writer of the Irish Literary Revival (Synge 1999).
The start of the Irish Literary revival could be attributed to Lady Augusta Gregory and her work on creation and management of the Abbey Theatre. Her initial interest in the Irish folklore drew her to learn Gaelic and eventually resulted in the creation of the first Irish focused theatre. Although did not want the movement to appear as a political one, the literary and dramatic works that were created during that time had a strong influence on the Irish revolution of 1914. The primary goals of the movement were the preservation of the Irish culture and reimagining Ireland as a noble place, unlike the stereotypes that were often used in British publications. The poet William Butler Yeats was a prominent member of the movement, collecting folktales, writing poetry and organizing other writers who were interested in this idea. This movement could be considered responsible for the creation of the Irish dramatic tradition (Gregory 1913).
Riders to the Sea in the Context of the Revival
“Riders to the Sea” is a short single-act play set completely in one cabin. Utilizing a limited cast of characters, it tells a tragic story of a mother who has already lost five sons and is about to lose her last. They were all taken by the extremely dangerous sea that is common to the Aran Islands. The play starts with news of clothes being found that belonged to her son who was recently lost at sea. This event is followed by her last son telling her that he is leaving to sell their horses even though the weather is poor. His mother is distraught over this and does not wish him a safe journey as he leaves. Seeing this as a bad omen, she leaves the house with a piece of cake to wish him “God speed, ” but when he passes her, she sees the ghost of the son who was recently lost at sea following him. This event leaves her speechless, and she is unable to wish him safe travels. Later his body is brought home because he was thrown off the horse and died after falling off a cliff, leaving his mother in a state of complete grief (Synge 1911).
This play can be seen as a very traditional Irish tragedy. Synge wrote the play in a language that reflected the unique dialect of the Aran Islands, creating a feeling of authenticity of this scenario. He had a strong passion for realism and therefore tried to show the dialect used specifically in the fishing communities of the Aran Islands. The choice of characters is indicative of the Irish Revival movement, but what sets this play apart in the conflict. The main struggle of the play comes not from economic or political issues, but from the uncaring and deadly sea. This fact makes this play both universal and authentically Irish. People of all nations have died at sea; it is a common experience that is terrifying to a lot of people. Even a hundred years later it is a distinct possibility to lose a loved one at sea. However, to an Irish person familiar with these islands it can create a stronger feeling of sympathy to the characters because of the authentic portrayal of this situation.
Riders and the Uncaring Nature
Synge presents a stark reality of a cold and uncaring nature. In the play, the mother of the family tells how the sea has taken all the men in her life. Her husband, his father and five of her six sons drowned in the sea, and the last one drowns without even setting sail. Even for a tragedy, this portrayal of nature can be seen almost nihilistic. It shows that nature does not care about anyone’s grief; it does not care about religion or superstition. It could be argued that nature represents a force even older than any folklore that could be found on the island. The seas were rough even before these islands were settled and they stay rough and dangerous even a hundred years after the play was first performed. And even so, these seas are distinctly Irish, with particular attention given to the description of the weather in this play. The sea presents an undefeatable adversary that cannot be avoided for the characters of the play. As soon as the last son starts talking about his trip, the audience knows that he will perish (Mathieson 2016).
Riders as a Political Piece
In his essays, Yeats portrayed Synge as a person without strong political leanings who is fascinated by traditional Irish culture (Yeats 2010). This was not the case. Synge had an interest in socialism and had read the works of Marx. Although “Riders to the Sea” is not overtly political, it could be seen from the perspective of an early socialist play. Nearly all of its characters are part of the working class who suffer from a tragedy that is more common in the working class. Moreover, they suffer specifically because they need to traverse the sea for their sustenance.
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Their food comes from the sea, their money comes from selling things to people from outside the community, and they have done so for generations. Some indirect atheist and feminist themes could also be read as the narrative. As mentioned earlier in the paper, neither religion nor superstition has helped to avoid the tragedy despite the whole family utilizing both. The priest is not a direct character in the play but is described as almost uncaring about the whole situation. The mother and her two daughters become powerless after the death of the last man of the family. Synge describes a society where a woman is incapable of sustaining a family or even herself. They are not expected to sell their property effectively, and the mother believes that in the future they will only be able to eat flour and rotten fish. Perhaps this is only a reflection of the community on the Aran Islands, but nevertheless, it shows the faults of a society without equality (Grene 2002).
Riders and the Religious Uncertainty
Synge’s idea of a connection between pagan beliefs and Christianity on the Aran Islands creates an interesting commentary on how people of different cultures practice religion. In the play ideas of superstitions and bad omens are intertwined with Christian prayer and beliefs. The young priest reassures the family that their son got a clean burial by the grace of God, and soon after the pagan ritual of keening is demonstrated. This ritual could be seen in two other plays by Synge: Deirdre of the Sorrows and The Playboy of the Western World. The pig with the black pig serves as a connection to the pre-Christian folklore of the Irish people. It symbolizes a belief that the form of the black pig can be a sign that a person is about to be taken away by a supernatural force. Because such omens and rituals are common in the play, the sighting of the ghost can be seen by the viewer without scepticism, the same way a person living in such community would react to it. However, this scene is preceded by a Christian prayer and predicated on wishing for God’s blessing. Christianity and paganism are intertwined (Collins 2016).
On the surface, Riders to the Sea is a straightforward play about a tragedy in an Irish family. But when viewed from different perspectives, new layers can be seen within it. Its universal appeal and authenticity make it possible to enjoy by people throughout the world while still getting a portion of the Irish experience.
Collins, C 2016, Theatre and residual culture, Palgrave Macmillan Ltd, Basingstoke.
Gregory, L 1913, Our Irish theatre: A chapter of autobiography, GP Putnam’s sons, Dublin.
Grene, N 2002, The politics of Irish drama, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
Mathieson, C 2016, Sea narratives – Cultural responses to the sea, 1600 – present, Palgrave Macmillan, New York.
McCormack, W 2000, Fool of the family, New York University Press, New York.
Synge, M 1911, Riders to the sea, Hayes Barton Press, Dublin.
Synge, M 1999, The Aran Islands, Northwestern University Press, Evanston.
Yeats, B. 2010, Synge and the Ireland of His Time and Four Years, Echo Library, Fairford.