‘Keen’ is the lamentation for the dead. It was an Irish custom that has disappeared now. But the custom was prevalent in the Aran Islands when Synge went there. At the very beginning of the play Riders to the Sea, Cathleen hides the clothes of Michael because her mother would die of keening at the loss of her son. The vision of Michael’s ghost seen by Maurya, compels her to keen and wail, as the death of Bartley is inevitable.
‘Keening’ symbolizes the cry of pain for death. An acute realization of the hovering nothingness in their lives finds dramatic expression in the half-savage half musical melopoeia known as the keen. Synge did not use the dialect ‘Keen’ for dramatic purpose but the life of Aran Islanders is always under ‘Keen’. In this cry of pain, the inner consciousness of the people is revealed. They feel the isolated pangs in the face of the universe that wars on them with winds and seas. They are silent and indifferent in the jaws of death. They shriek with pitiable despair before the horror of fate. So keening brings the ‘keening’ of their life.
Also read: Justify the title of “Riders to the Sea”