A synopsis of the play by John Millington Synge

This document was originally published in Minute History of the Drama. Alice B. Fort & Herbert S. Kates. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1935. p. 119.

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AFTER nine days of constant grieving for her missing son, Michael, who, she feels certain, has been drowned, old Maurya has fallen into a fitful sleep. Her daughter, Cathleen, is busy with household tasks, when another daughter, Nora, slips quietly into the kitchen with a bundle given her by the young priest. It contains part of the clothes taken from the body of a drowned man far in the north. They have been sent to Maurya's cottage with a view to possible identification.

As Maurya shows signs of waking the girls hide the bundle until sometime when they shall be alone. Maurya's grieving for Michael is now coupled with fear of losing Bartley, her only remaining son. Five sons and a husband she has already lost to the sea. Will that insatiable tyrant insist on taking her sixth. The priest says not. But now Bartley insists that he will cross to the mainland this very day, in spite of winds and high seas, to dispose of a horse at the fair.

In a fit of pique at this only remaining son for not listening to her pleas, Maurya lets him go without her blessing. The girls persuade her to intercept him with the lunch they had forgotten to give him and so to make opportunity for that blessing a mother should have given.

While Maurya is gone the girls open the package. The clothes are, indeed, Michael's. Their only comfort is the thought that his body has been given a good Christian burial there in the north where it was washed up. At this point Maurya returns terrified with a vision she had had of Michael riding on the led horse behind Bartley. Now she is sure Bartley is doomed. When the girls show her Michael's clothes her only response is that the good white boards she had bought for his coffin would serve for Bartley instead.

Even as she speaks, the neighboring women troop in, their voices raised in the "keen," that monotonous Irish chant of grief. Men follow bringing the body of Bartley who has been knocked off a cliff into the surf by the horse he was leading. The play closes on the note of Maurya's fatalistic submission. She can sleep now with no worry but that of starvation. "They're all gone now and there isn't anything more the sea can do to me. . . . No man at all can be living forever and we must be satisfied."

Riders to the Sea was first produced at Molesworth Hall, Dublin, on February 25, 1904.

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