Riders to the Sea Summary by John Millington Synge

Riders to the Sea Summary by John Millington Synge


An Introductory Note:

Riders to the Sea, is a one-act play by John Millington Synge, published in 1903 and produced in 1904. Riders to the Sea is set in the Aran Islands off the west coast of Ireland and is based on a tale Synge heard there. It won critical acclaim as one of dramatic literature’s greatest one-act plays. The play centres on Maurya, an oid woman who has lost to the sea all the male members of her family except Bartley, the last of her six sons. In the course of the play he too drowns.


Set on the remote island of Inishmaan, Synge’s intensely tragic play Riders to the Sea tells the story of an Irish family living at the mercy of the sea. Before the opera starts, Maurya has lost her husband, his father, and five of their sons to the sea. One son is still missing and the family is awaiting news of any remains being washed up on the shore. The priest has given Nora, the younger sister, some clothing which was taken off a drowned man, and asked her to find out if they belong to Michael. She and her sister Cathleen put the things away hurriedly as their mother, Maurya wakes up; they don’t want to worry her. Bartley rushes in making preparations to leave, and his mother begs him not to leave, cursing and scolding him for going. He has to take the horses to the fair, and he cannot miss this boat. At Cathleen’s insistence, Maurya follows him a short while after, with the intention of giving him her blessing instead of leaving him with a ‘dark word’. When she returns she is distraught and almost in a trance. She has seen the ghost of her missing son, Michael, riding on the pony behind Bartley. For Maurya, this is a sign that her last remaining son will be lost to the sea. As she lists the children she has lost to the sea, the sound of keening confirms her vision. Bartley’s body is brought in and Maurya prays for Bartleys soul as a bleak calm settles over her. Noted for its use of the particular Irish dialect of the Aran Islands, Synge’s play has been treated to many retellings, including being set to music by Vaughan-Williams, in his opera of the same name, where the rhythmic musicality of the language is preserved and heightened by a thrilling score, where the surging and rushing of the violent sea and the chilling wind can also be heard.

An Analytical Summary:

I. The play is set on a small island off the coast of Ireland. As the first scene opens, we see Nora with a small bundle. She is carrying the bundle into a house. She tells Cathleen that the clothes in that bundle might be of their brother Michael.

II. Nora tells Cathleen that the young priest informed her that the body of a young wan had been washed ashore at Donegal. The priest thought that the body might be of their brother Michael’s. The sisters, Nora and Cathleen, keep staring at that bundle but they are scared to open that bundle of clothes because they do not want  that her son Michael, who has been missing for one week, has died. It is revealed that the family has already lost five men, including the father, to the sea. The sisters quickly hide that bundle of clothes in the turf loft inside their humble cottage. Their mother is not present there.


III. On the other hand, Maurya has already made preparations for Michael’s funeral. She has already got whiteboards ready for the coffin at her cottage. She goes into the kitchen. Maurya is in miserable state, always lamenting and worrying that her sons will never come back to her from the sea. Maurya and her daughters, Nora and Cathleen, began to talk about Bartley, Maurya’s last son.

IV. Through their conversation, it is revealed that Bartley is also planning to go to sea to sell some horses that belong to the family. He wants to earn some money by selling those horses on the mainland.

V. A fair is going to be held at Galway and both Nora and Cathleen are sure that their brother should go to that fair to sell their horses. However, Maurya does not want Michael to go there. She hopes that the young priest would not allow Bartley to go to the sea while such dangerous tides are developing.

VI. As they are lost in their discussion, Bartley comes into the cottage and starts looking for a piece of rope. Maurya does not want Bartley to go to the fair, so she tried to stop him, but he tells her that he needs rope to prepare a halter for the horses. It is now obvious that Bartley is sure to go to the sea.

VII. The mother, Maurya, tries once again to dissuade Bartley. She shows him the whiteboards that she has already arranged for Michael’s funeral, but Bartley does not listen to her. He begins to change his clothes. In the meantime, he tells Nora and Cathleen to take care of their sheep.

VIII. Finally, he leaves without being blessed by Maurya. According to the Irish tradition, a mother blesses her sons when they go anywhere away from their house. Maurya has broken that tradition.

IX. Bartley rides a red mare and there is a grey pony tied behind the mare. Suddenly, Cathleen notices that her brother did not take any food with him for his journey. She tells her mother to rush to the well to give some food and her blessings to her son Bartley.

X. Maurya takes her stick that had been brought by Michael. She laments that in her family young men leave things for the old people whereas old should have left things for the young ones. Carrying her walking stick, she goes out of the cottage to give some food to Bartley.

XI. When their mother has left the cottage, Nora and Cathleen quickly retrieve the bundle of clothes from the loft to examine whether the clothes really belong to their brother Michael. Nora sees the stocking and realizes that they do belong to Michael because she does recognize her own stitching on the stockings. The sisters begin to count the number of stitches to conclude that the stockings really belong to Michael.

XII. Now, it is confirmed that their brother Michael is dead and buried. The sisters are obviously deeply mourned, but they do not want to show those clothes to their mother. When they realize that Maurya will be back any moment, they quickly hide the clothes. They think that Marya will get a chance to bless her only son Bartley, but when Maurya comes into the cottage, she is more distressed than ever.

XIII. The mother informs Nora and Cathleen that she saw Michel on the grey pony. She says that she was shocked to see Michael, so she could not bless Bartley. She is deeply distressed and disturbed.

XIV. The sisters know that she could not have seen Michael because he is dead and they have his clothes with them. They try to calm Maurya by showing her their brother’s clothes. The tell Maurya that Michael has got a clean burial at the sea. Maurya begins to lament. Suddenly, they hear some noises. Maurya stops lamenting.

XV. Some men enter the cottage. They are carrying Bartley’s dead body. They inform Maurya and her daughters that the grey pony knocked him into the sea and he drowned there.

XVI. Maurya is completely shattered. She gets on her knees near her son’s body and sprinkles some holy water on him. Having understood that her son is dead, she eventually resigns herself to her fate. She tells her daughters and the audiences that she will finally sleep at night because now she does not have to worry about anyone. All men in her family have already died, drowned in the sea.

XVII. It is decided that the whiteboards are going to be used for Bartley’s burial. She prays for the souls of her husband, her father-in-law, and her four sons, who lost their lives to the sea. The play ends, leaving the audience deeply touched.

Title :

The title Riders to the Sea references the protagonist Maurya’s last two of six sons, Michael and Bartley, who both lose their lives to the sea. The play documents that Maurya has, in fact, lost to the sea all the male members of her family, including her husband, her father-in-law, and four other sons.


Riders to the Sea is a play written by Irish Literary Renaissance playwright John Millington Synge. It was first performed on 25 February 1904 at the Molesworth Hall, Dublin, by the Irish National Theater Society. A one-act tragedy, the play is set in the Aran Islands, Inishmaan, and like all of Synge’s plays it is noted for capturing the poetic dialogue of rural Ireland. The plot is based not on the traditional conflict of human wills but on the hopeless struggle of a people against the impersonal but relentless cruelty of the sea.In 1897, J. M. Synge was encouraged by his friend and colleague William Butler Yeats to visit the Aran islands. He went on to spend the summers from 1898 to 1903 there. While on the Aran island of Inishmaan, Synge heard the story of a man from Inishmaan whose body washed up on the shore of the island of Donegal, which inspired Riders to the Sea.Riders to the Sea is written in the dialect of the Aran islands: Hyberno-English.


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