Critical Analysis of “Riders to the Sea” by J.M. Synge
“Riders to the Sea” by J.M Synge is a tragic play regarding the sacrifice one family has made to an invisible character over their years on an island west of Ireland. When Synge wrote “Riders to the Sea” in 1904 he had been traveling between the Aran Islands and Ireland in order to develop his writing skills and find his “writing voice” (Merriman online). During this time he immersed himself into the culture, learning Gaelic, living with the fisherman’s families and absorbing the island’s history. Historically this play represents the tragedy of living upon the Aran Islands and how a family copes with it in their everyday life.
“Riders to the Sea” notes numerous elements from Synge learned during his travels. Throughout the early 1900’s clothing was still primarily handmade by common families. They oftentimes would purchase the fabric to sew their clothes; however, they still relied heavily upon their own sheep to produce the wool they needed to spin yarn to make clothing completely by hand. This process was not easy and involved a lot of hard work from a family. Sheep were raised by families and could be sheared up to two times a year. After shearing the fleece is cleaned to remove the lanolin oil and any vegetable matter that may have accumulated in the wool. The wool then must be carded or combed in order to spin it into yarn. After yarn has been spun it can be crocheted, knitted or weaved into garments one can wear.
I mention this process for many reasons. Synge starts “Riders to the Sea” with stage instructions that there is a spinning wheel and has Cathleen go to the wheel where she spins it “rapidly”. This is an important fact for anyone who has taken up the art of spinning their own wool. As a beginner you are clumsy and slow, yet as you become more experienced you can spin yarn swiftly without paying much attention as your hands and feet do the work for you. A second fact is the names of the islands and towns that are mentioned within the character’s dialog. Aran, Donegal and Galway are terms associated with types of wool and knitting techniques that are used now.
Due to the fact that the family creates their own clothing they are able to recognize their brother’s clothes that have been sent to them to identify his body. They look at the flannel fabric of the shirt and compare it to fabric of the same pattern on another shirt, yet are not convinced until Nora takes up one of the stockings. She notices, as she has knitted these socks for her brother, the stitching and states, “[i]t’s the second one of the third pair I knitted, and I put up three score stitches, and I dropped four of them (Synge online).” The clue of the dropped stitches in determining if the sock belongs to Michael is relevant due to knitters often joke they will always notice and remember their own mistakes, yet another would never see it.
Ireland has struggled greatly with its transition from Paganism to Christianity and many of the Pagan beliefs were still strong during the time Synge wrote this play. Maurya, the mother, is the most notable character struggling between the two, often mentioning her “Almighty God” and praying for the sake of her sons. Her name in itself is Irish and means “bitter”, yet her youngest children all have more traditional names. Synge may have chosen this name for her to show her Irish ancestry and also as a hidden symbol of her life. She has suffered much, losing her husband and his father to the sea, then her son’s Patch, Stephen and Shawn. The play starts with her waiting to find if her son Michael had also been taken. The grievous confirmation of that Michael is not to return alive comes as she loses her last son, Bartley, to the sea. Maurya has given up everything but her daughters to the sea.
A pagan belief that it is unlucky to safe a drowning man from dying is prominent throughout the play. Bartley accepts his fate and knows he must follow his brothers to the sea even if it does risk his life as the sea takes its victims as needed. To him the sea is his only form of survival, for himself and his family. Christianity, to the characters of the play, has no control over the sea, nor will it ever. The sea possesses its own will and is the tragic destiny of the islanders. In order to leave the island they must pass across it, and in order to survive upon the island they must brave its unpredictable behavior.
As the play comes to a close Maurya’s struggle between the two religions becomes more obvious. She makes mention of “getting Holy Water in the dark nights after Samhain” (Synge online). Holy Water is water that is blessed by a member of the clergy or a religious figure of the Christian religion; whereas, Samhain is a holiday of the Pagan beliefs that marks the harvest season. When Maurya turns an empty cup downward on the table it is a symbol that Maurya has lost the solace of her Christian belief and reverts back to a pagan outlook.
The women who enter the room before Bartley begin keening softly as the men bring him in. Keening is also a pagan holdover the Irish refused to let go of when they converted to Christianity. They often did this at wakes, after the soul has left the body, and the ‘keening women’ were paid in food and drink.
This play is a wonderful representation of the lives of the islanders who lived during the early 1900’s. They carried their traditions with them throughout the years, adapting as needed, yet did not fully become connected to the outside world until the late 1900’s when ferries became available. This may have caused many of the Irish in the Aran Islands to hold more tightly to their pagan traditions than other Christian converts.
Merriman, C.D. J.M. Synge. The Literature Network. Jalic Inc. 2005. Web. 24September, 2013. <http://www.online-literature.com/synge/>
Synge, J.M. Riders to the Sea. 1904. Web. 24 September, 2013. <http://mockingbird.creighton.edu/english/miscun/IrishResources/riders.htm>