Riders to the Sea is a one-act play. The atmosphere of the play is serious and the solemnity goes on mounting till it reaches its climax. The play deals with the misfortunes of a peasant-and-fishing family living in a cottage quite near the sea-shore. The play opens with a conversation between two sisters, Cathleen [a girl of about twenty] and Nora who is somewhat younger. Cathleen is seen baking a cake for her brother Bartley who is leaving the island for the mainland, and taking with him his red mare and grey pony for selling at the Galway fair. Their brother, Michael, has been reported to be drowned in the sea a few days ago, though his body has not yet been washed ashore. Nora has now given by a local priest a small bundle containing a shirt and a stocking which had been taken off the body of a drowned man in Donegal. The priest had asked Nora to find out if these items of clothing were Michael’s; and, if so, she should tell her mother, Maurya, that Michael had been given a decent burial by the people who had found the dead body.
Bartley now comes into the house from outside. Maurya is opposed to Bartley’s going away to the mainland to sell the horses. In the first place, she expects Michael’s dead body to be washed ashore soon, and she would like Bartley to be at home in order to make a coffin for the burial of the dead body. Secondly, and this is more important, the weather is rough and is likely to get even worse, and Maurya does not want that Bartley to going out but he does not, however, pay any attention to his mother’s objections and, after giving the necessary instructions to his sisters about the tasks to be done during his absence from home, he departs. He tells them that he will be riding on the red mare and that the grey pony will run behind him. Maurya says that Bartley will not return alive to the house and that she will lose him forever.
Cathleen has forgotten to hand over the cake to Bartley. She urges her mother to carry a portion of the bread from the cake to the spring well and wait there for Bartley to pass on horseback. Cathleen suggests that Maurya should hand over the bread to Bartley at that place and should also give the young man her blessings. Maurya takes the bread and goes out to hand over the bread to Bartley and to bless him.
After Maurya has gone out of the house, the two sisters open the bundle, examine the shirt and the stocking, and come to the conclusion that the clothing really belonged to Michael and that Michael’s dead body has been given a proper burial.
Maurya returns to the house without handed over the bread to Bartley. She is wailing and moaning. On being asked what is troubling her she says that she had seen a most dreadful sight. She had seen Bartley riding the red mare and that she had seen Michael riding the grey pony behind him. Cathleen tells her that she could not have seen Michael because Michael’s dead body had already been buried after having been found by two boatmen near Donegal. Maurya thinks that now Bartley will also get drowned. She then recalls how her husband, her husband’s father, and four of her sons (Stephen, Shawn, Sheamus, and Patch] had been lost in the sea at various times in the past. Stephen and Shawn had been lost in a storm on the sea, and their bodies had been brought to her house together on one plank. Her husband, her husband’s father, and her son Sheamus had been lost on the sea in a dark night, and their bodies had never been found. Then Patch had been drowned in the sea, and his dead body had been brought to the house by a group of men. And only a few days ago Michael was drowned.
At this time a number of old women come to the house, mourning. They are followed by a group of men carrying something covered with a piece of sail. What they are carrying is the dead body of Bartley who, while getting into the boat, had been knocked down into the sea by his grey pony and had been carried away by the waves. Bartley’s dead body had been recovered from the sea and had now been brought to Maurya’s house.
Maurya’s tragedy is now complete. Her last surviving son is gone forever. She says that all the male members of her family have left her and that the sea can do no further harm to her. Michael, as she has been told, has already received a clean burial in Donegal, while she will give Bartley a proper burial here.
“What more can we want
than that? No man at all can be living forever, and we must be satisfied,”
she says, and with these words of Maurya’s the play comes to an end.
Also read: “Riders to the Sea” as a poetic drama