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.