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´╗┐Title: Riders to the Sea
Author: Synge, J. M. (John Millington), 1871-1909
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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By J. M. Synge


It must have been on Synge's second visit to the Aran Islands that he
had the experience out of which was wrought what many believe to be his
greatest play. The scene of "Riders to the Sea" is laid in a cottage
on Inishmaan, the middle and most interesting island of the Aran group.
While Synge was on Inishmaan, the story came to him of a man whose body
had been washed up on the far away coast of Donegal, and who, by reason
of certain peculiarities of dress, was suspected to be from the island.
In due course, he was recognised as a native of Inishmaan, in exactly
the manner described in the play, and perhaps one of the most poignantly
vivid passages in Synge's book on "The Aran Islands" relates the
incident of his burial.

The other element in the story which Synge introduces into the play is
equally true. Many tales of "second sight" are to be heard among Celtic
races. In fact, they are so common as to arouse little or no wonder in
the minds of the people. It is just such a tale, which there seems no
valid reason for doubting, that Synge heard, and that gave the title,
"Riders to the Sea", to his play.

It is the dramatist's high distinction that he has simply taken the
materials which lay ready to his hand, and by the power of sympathy
woven them, with little modification, into a tragedy which, for dramatic
irony and noble pity, has no equal among its contemporaries. Great
tragedy, it is frequently claimed with some show of justice, has
perforce departed with the advance of modern life and its complicated
tangle of interests and creature comforts. A highly developed
civilisation, with its attendant specialisation of culture, tends ever
to lose sight of those elemental forces, those primal emotions, naked to
wind and sky, which are the stuff from which great drama is wrought by
the artist, but which, as it would seem, are rapidly departing from us.
It is only in the far places, where solitary communion may be had with
the elements, that this dynamic life is still to be found continuously,
and it is accordingly thither that the dramatist, who would deal with
spiritual life disengaged from the environment of an intellectual maze,
must go for that experience which will beget in him inspiration for
his art. The Aran Islands from which Synge gained his inspiration are
rapidly losing that sense of isolation and self-dependence, which has
hitherto been their rare distinction, and which furnished the motivation
for Synge's masterpiece. Whether or not Synge finds a successor, it is
none the less true that in English dramatic literature "Riders to the
Sea" has an historic value which it would be difficult to over-estimate
in its accomplishment and its possibilities. A writer in The Manchester
Guardian shortly after Synge's death phrased it rightly when he wrote
that it is "the tragic masterpiece of our language in our time; wherever
it has been played in Europe from Galway to Prague, it has made the word
tragedy mean something more profoundly stirring and cleansing to the
spirit than it did."

The secret of the play's power is its capacity for standing afar off,
and mingling, if we may say so, sympathy with relentlessness. There is a
wonderful beauty of speech in the words of every character, wherein the
latent power of suggestion is almost unlimited. "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." In the quavering rhythm of these words, there is
poignantly present that quality of strangeness and remoteness in beauty
which, as we are coming to realise, is the touchstone of Celtic
literary art. However, the very asceticism of the play has begotten a
corresponding power which lifts Synge's work far out of the current of
the Irish literary revival, and sets it high in a timeless atmosphere of
universal action.

Its characters live and die. It is their virtue in life to be lonely,
and none but the lonely man in tragedy may be great. He dies, and then
it is the virtue in life of the women mothers and wives and sisters to
be great in their loneliness, great as Maurya, the stricken mother, is
great in her final word.

"Michael has a clean burial in the far north, by the grace of the
Almighty God. Bartley will have a fine coffin out of the white boards,
and a deep grave surely. What more can we want than that? No man at
all can be living for ever, and we must be satisfied." The pity and
the terror of it all have brought a great peace, the peace that passeth
understanding, and it is because the play holds this timeless peace
after the storm which has bowed down every character, that "Riders to
the Sea" may rightly take its place as the greatest modern tragedy in
the English tongue.


February 23, 1911.



First performed at the Molesworth Hall, Dublin, February 25th, 1904.


     MAURYA (an old woman)......  Honor Lavelle

     BARTLEY (her son)..........  W. G. Fay

     CATHLEEN (her daughter)....  Sarah Allgood

     NORA (a younger daughter)..  Emma Vernon



--An Island off the West of Ireland. (Cottage kitchen, with nets,
oil-skins, spinning wheel, some new boards standing by the wall, etc.
Cathleen, a girl of about twenty, finishes kneading cake, and puts it
down in the pot-oven by the fire; then wipes her hands, and begins to
spin at the wheel. NORA, a young girl, puts her head in at the door.)

NORA [In a low voice.]

Where is she?

CATHLEEN She's lying down, God help her, and may be sleeping, if she's

[Nora comes in softly, and takes a bundle from under her shawl.]

CATHLEEN [Spinning the wheel rapidly.]

What is it you have?

NORA The young priest is after bringing them. It's a shirt and a plain
stocking were got off a drowned man in Donegal.

[Cathleen stops her wheel with a sudden movement, and leans out to

NORA We're to find out if it's Michael's they are, some time herself
will be down looking by the sea.

CATHLEEN How would they be Michael's, Nora. How would he go the length
of that way to the far north?

NORA The young priest says he's known the like of it. "If it's Michael's
they are," says he, "you can tell herself he's got a clean burial by the
grace of God, and if they're not his, let no one say a word about them,
for she'll be getting her death," says he, "with crying and lamenting."

[The door which Nora half closed is blown open by a gust of wind.]

CATHLEEN [Looking out anxiously.]

Did you ask him would he stop Bartley going this day with the horses to
the Galway fair?

NORA "I won't stop him," says he, "but let you not be afraid. Herself
does be saying prayers half through the night, and the Almighty God
won't leave her destitute," says he, "with no son living."

CATHLEEN Is the sea bad by the white rocks, Nora?

NORA Middling bad, God help us. There's a great roaring in the west, and
it's worse it'll be getting when the tide's turned to the wind.

[She goes over to the table with the bundle.]

Shall I open it now?

CATHLEEN Maybe she'd wake up on us, and come in before we'd done.

[Coming to the table.]

It's a long time we'll be, and the two of us crying.

NORA [Goes to the inner door and listens.]

She's moving about on the bed. She'll be coming in a minute.

CATHLEEN Give me the ladder, and I'll put them up in the turf-loft, the
way she won't know of them at all, and maybe when the tide turns she'll
be going down to see would he be floating from the east.

[They put the ladder against the gable of the chimney; Cathleen goes up
a few steps and hides the bundle in the turf-loft. Maurya comes from the
inner room.]

MAURYA [Looking up at Cathleen and speaking querulously.]

Isn't it turf enough you have for this day and evening?

CATHLEEN There's a cake baking at the fire for a short space. [Throwing
down the turf] and Bartley will want it when the tide turns if he goes
to Connemara.

[Nora picks up the turf and puts it round the pot-oven.]

MAURYA [Sitting down on a stool at the fire.]

He won't go this day with the wind rising from the south and west. He
won't go this day, for the young priest will stop him surely.

NORA He'll not stop him, mother, and I heard Eamon Simon and Stephen
Pheety and Colum Shawn saying he would go.

MAURYA Where is he itself?

NORA He went down to see would there be another boat sailing in the
week, and I'm thinking it won't be long till he's here now, for the
tide's turning at the green head, and the hooker' tacking from the east.

CATHLEEN I hear some one passing the big stones.

NORA [Looking out.]

He's coming now, and he's in a hurry.

BARTLEY [Comes in and looks round the room. Speaking sadly and quietly.]

Where is the bit of new rope, Cathleen, was bought in Connemara?

CATHLEEN [Coming down.]

Give it to him, Nora; it's on a nail by the white boards. I hung it up
this morning, for the pig with the black feet was eating it.

NORA [Giving him a rope.]

Is that it, Bartley?

MAURYA You'd do right to leave that rope, Bartley, hanging by the boards
[Bartley takes the rope]. It will be wanting in this place, I'm telling
you, if Michael is washed up to-morrow morning, or the next morning,
or any morning in the week, for it's a deep grave we'll make him by the
grace of God.

BARTLEY [Beginning to work with the rope.]

I've no halter the way I can ride down on the mare, and I must go now
quickly. This is the one boat going for two weeks or beyond it, and the
fair will be a good fair for horses I heard them saying below.

MAURYA It's a hard thing they'll be saying below if the body is washed
up and there's no man in it to make the coffin, and I after giving a big
price for the finest white boards you'd find in Connemara.

[She looks round at the boards.]

BARTLEY How would it be washed up, and we after looking each day for
nine days, and a strong wind blowing a while back from the west and

MAURYA If it wasn't found itself, that wind is raising the sea, and
there was a star up against the moon, and it rising in the night. If it
was a hundred horses, or a thousand horses you had itself, what is the
price of a thousand horses against a son where there is one son only?

BARTLEY [Working at the halter, to Cathleen.]

Let you go down each day, and see the sheep aren't jumping in on the
rye, and if the jobber comes you can sell the pig with the black feet if
there is a good price going.

MAURYA How would the like of her get a good price for a pig?

BARTLEY [To Cathleen]

If the west wind holds with the last bit of the moon let you and Nora
get up weed enough for another cock for the kelp. It's hard set we'll be
from this day with no one in it but one man to work.

MAURYA It's hard set we'll be surely the day you're drownd'd with the
rest. What way will I live and the girls with me, and I an old woman
looking for the grave?

[Bartley lays down the halter, takes off his old coat, and puts on a
newer one of the same flannel.]

BARTLEY [To Nora.]

Is she coming to the pier?

NORA [Looking out.] She's passing the green head and letting fall her

BARTLEY [Getting his purse and tobacco.]

I'll have half an hour to go down, and you'll see me coming again in two
days, or in three days, or maybe in four days if the wind is bad.

MAURYA [Turning round to the fire, and putting her shawl over her head.]

Isn't it a hard and cruel man won't hear a word from an old woman, and
she holding him from the sea?

CATHLEEN It's the life of a young man to be going on the sea, and who
would listen to an old woman with one thing and she saying it over?

BARTLEY [Taking the halter.]

I must go now quickly. I'll ride down on the red mare, and the gray
pony'll run behind me. . . The blessing of God on you.

[He goes out.]

MAURYA [Crying out as he is in the door.]

He's gone now, God spare us, and we'll not see him again. He's gone
now, and when the black night is falling I'll have no son left me in the

CATHLEEN Why wouldn't you give him your blessing and he looking round in
the door? Isn't it sorrow enough is on every one in this house without
your sending him out with an unlucky word behind him, and a hard word in
his ear?

[Maurya takes up the tongs and begins raking the fire aimlessly without
looking round.]

NORA [Turning towards her.]

You're taking away the turf from the cake.

CATHLEEN [Crying out.]

The Son of God forgive us, Nora, we're after forgetting his bit of

[She comes over to the fire.]

NORA And it's destroyed he'll be going till dark night, and he after
eating nothing since the sun went up.

CATHLEEN [Turning the cake out of the oven.]

It's destroyed he'll be, surely. There's no sense left on any person in
a house where an old woman will be talking for ever.

[Maurya sways herself on her stool.]

CATHLEEN [Cutting off some of the bread and rolling it in a cloth; to

Let you go down now to the spring well and give him this and he passing.
You'll see him then and the dark word will be broken, and you can say
"God speed you," the way he'll be easy in his mind.

MAURYA [Taking the bread.]

Will I be in it as soon as himself?

CATHLEEN If you go now quickly.

MAURYA [Standing up unsteadily.]

It's hard set I am to walk.

CATHLEEN [Looking at her anxiously.]

Give her the stick, Nora, or maybe she'll slip on the big stones.

NORA What stick?

CATHLEEN The stick Michael brought from Connemara.

MAURYA [Taking a stick Nora gives her.]

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.

[She goes out slowly. Nora goes over to the ladder.]

CATHLEEN Wait, Nora, maybe she'd turn back quickly. She's that sorry,
God help her, you wouldn't know the thing she'd do.

NORA Is she gone round by the bush?

CATHLEEN [Looking out.]

She's gone now. Throw it down quickly, for the Lord knows when she'll be
out of it again.

NORA [Getting the bundle from the loft.]

The young priest said he'd be passing to-morrow, and we might go down
and speak to him below if it's Michael's they are surely.

CATHLEEN [Taking the bundle.]

Did he say what way they were found?

NORA [Coming down.]

"There were two men," says he, "and they rowing round with poteen before
the cocks crowed, and the oar of one of them caught the body, and they
passing the black cliffs of the north."

CATHLEEN [Trying to open the bundle.]

Give me a knife, Nora, the string's perished with the salt water, and
there's a black knot on it you wouldn't loosen in a week.

NORA [Giving her a knife.]

I've heard tell it was a long way to Donegal.

CATHLEEN [Cutting the string.]

It is surely. There was a man in here a while ago--the man sold us that
knife--and he said if you set off walking from the rocks beyond, it
would be seven days you'd be in Donegal.

NORA And what time would a man take, and he floating?

[Cathleen opens the bundle and takes out a bit of a stocking. They look
at them eagerly.]

CATHLEEN [In a low voice.]

The Lord spare us, Nora! isn't it a queer hard thing to say if it's his
they are surely?

NORA I'll get his shirt off the hook the way we can put the one flannel
on the other [she looks through some clothes hanging in the corner.]
It's not with them, Cathleen, and where will it be?

CATHLEEN I'm thinking Bartley put it on him in the morning, for his own
shirt was heavy with the salt in it [pointing to the corner]. There's a
bit of a sleeve was of the same stuff. Give me that and it will do.

[Nora brings it to her and they compare the flannel.]

CATHLEEN It's the same stuff, Nora; but if it is itself aren't there
great rolls of it in the shops of Galway, and isn't it many another man
may have a shirt of it as well as Michael himself?

NORA [Who has taken up the stocking and counted the stitches, crying

It's Michael, Cathleen, it's Michael; God spare his soul, and what will
herself say when she hears this story, and Bartley on the sea?

CATHLEEN [Taking the stocking.]

It's a plain stocking.

NORA It's the second one of the third pair I knitted, and I put up three
score stitches, and I dropped four of them.

CATHLEEN [Counts the stitches.]

It's that number is in it [crying out.] Ah, Nora, isn't it a bitter
thing to think of him floating that way to the far north, and no one to
keen him but the black hags that do be flying on the sea?

NORA [Swinging herself round, and throwing out her arms on the clothes.]

And isn't it a pitiful thing when there is nothing left of a man who
was a great rower and fisher, but a bit of an old shirt and a plain

CATHLEEN [After an instant.]

Tell me is herself coming, Nora? I hear a little sound on the path.

NORA [Looking out.]

She is, Cathleen. She's coming up to the door.

CATHLEEN Put these things away before she'll come in. Maybe it's easier
she'll be after giving her blessing to Bartley, and we won't let on
we've heard anything the time he's on the sea.

NORA [Helping Cathleen to close the bundle.]

We'll put them here in the corner.

[They put them into a hole in the chimney corner. Cathleen goes back to
the spinning-wheel.]

NORA Will she see it was crying I was?

CATHLEEN Keep your back to the door the way the light'll not be on you.

[Nora sits down at the chimney corner, with her back to the door. Maurya
comes in very slowly, without looking at the girls, and goes over to her
stool at the other side of the fire. The cloth with the bread is still
in her hand. The girls look at each other, and Nora points to the bundle
of bread.]

CATHLEEN [After spinning for a moment.]

You didn't give him his bit of bread?

[Maurya begins to keen softly, without turning round.]

CATHLEEN Did you see him riding down?

[Maurya goes on keening.]

CATHLEEN [A little impatiently.]

God forgive you; isn't it a better thing to raise your voice and tell
what you seen, than to be making lamentation for a thing that's done?
Did you see Bartley, I'm saying to you?

MAURYA [With a weak voice.]

My heart's broken from this day.

CATHLEEN [As before.]

Did you see Bartley?

MAURYA I seen the fearfulest thing.

CATHLEEN [Leaves her wheel and looks out.]

God forgive you; he's riding the mare now over the green head, and the
gray pony behind him.

MAURYA [Starts, so that her shawl falls back from her head and shows her
white tossed hair. With a frightened voice.]

The gray pony behind him.

CATHLEEN [Coming to the fire.]

What is it ails you, at all?

MAURYA [Speaking very slowly.]

I've seen the fearfulest thing any person has seen, since the day Bride
Dara seen the dead man with the child in his arms.


[They crouch down in front of the old woman at the fire.]

NORA Tell us what it is you seen.

MAURYA I went down to the spring well, and I stood there saying a prayer
to myself. Then Bartley came along, and he riding on the red mare with
the gray pony behind him [she puts up her hands, as if to hide something
from her eyes.] The Son of God spare us, Nora!

CATHLEEN What is it you seen.

MAURYA I seen Michael himself.

CATHLEEN [Speaking softly.]

You did not, mother; it wasn't Michael you seen, for his body is after
being found in the far north, and he's got a clean burial by the grace
of God.

MAURYA [A little defiantly.]

I'm after seeing him this day, and he riding and galloping. Bartley came
first on the red mare; and I tried to say "God speed you," but something
choked the words in my throat. He went by quickly; and "the blessing of
God on you," says he, and I could say nothing. I looked up then, and
I crying, at the gray pony, and there was Michael upon it--with fine
clothes on him, and new shoes on his feet.

CATHLEEN [Begins to keen.]

It's destroyed we are from this day. It's destroyed, surely.

NORA Didn't the young priest say the Almighty God wouldn't leave her
destitute with no son living?

MAURYA [In a low voice, but clearly.]

It's little the like of him knows of the sea. . . . Bartley will be
lost now, and let you call in Eamon and make me a good coffin out of
the white boards, for I won't live after them. I've had a husband, and
a husband's father, and six sons in this house--six fine men, though
it was a hard birth I had with every one of them and they coming to the
world--and some of them were found and some of them were not found, but
they're gone now the lot of them. . . There were Stephen, and Shawn,
were lost in the great wind, and found after in the Bay of Gregory of
the Golden Mouth, and carried up the two of them on the one plank, and
in by that door.

[She pauses for a moment, the girls start as if they heard something
through the door that is half open behind them.]

NORA [In a whisper.]

Did you hear that, Cathleen? Did you hear a noise in the north-east?

CATHLEEN [In a whisper.]

There's some one after crying out by the seashore.

MAURYA [Continues without hearing anything.]

There was Sheamus and his father, and his own father again, were lost in
a dark night, and not a stick or sign was seen of them when the sun went
up. There was Patch after was drowned out of a curagh that turned over.
I was sitting here with Bartley, and he a baby, lying on my two knees,
and I seen two women, and three women, and four women coming in, and
they crossing themselves, and not saying a word. I looked out then, and
there were men coming after them, and they holding a thing in the half
of a red sail, and water dripping out of it--it was a dry day, Nora--and
leaving a track to the door.

[She pauses again with her hand stretched out towards the door. It
opens softly and old women begin to come in, crossing themselves on the
threshold, and kneeling down in front of the stage with red petticoats
over their heads.]

MAURYA [Half in a dream, to Cathleen.]

Is it Patch, or Michael, or what is it at all?

CATHLEEN Michael is after being found in the far north, and when he is
found there how could he be here in this place?

MAURYA There does be a power of young men floating round in the sea, and
what way would they know if it was Michael they had, or another man like
him, for when a man is nine days in the sea, and the wind blowing, it's
hard set his own mother would be to say what man was it.

CATHLEEN It's Michael, God spare him, for they're after sending us a bit
of his clothes from the far north.

[She reaches out and hands Maurya the clothes that belonged to Michael.
Maurya stands up slowly, and takes them into her hands. NORA looks out.]

NORA They're carrying a thing among them and there's water dripping out
of it and leaving a track by the big stones.

CATHLEEN [In a whisper to the women who have come in.]

Is it Bartley it is?

ONE OF THE WOMEN It is surely, God rest his soul.

[Two younger women come in and pull out the table. Then men carry in the
body of Bartley, laid on a plank, with a bit of a sail over it, and lay
it on the table.]

CATHLEEN [To the women, as they are doing so.]

What way was he drowned?

ONE OF THE WOMEN The gray pony knocked him into the sea, and he was
washed out where there is a great surf on the white rocks.

[Maurya has gone over and knelt down at the head of the table. The women
are keening softly and swaying themselves with a slow movement. Cathleen
and Nora kneel at the other end of the table. The men kneel near the

MAURYA [Raising her head and speaking as if she did not see the people
around her.]

They're all gone now, and there isn't anything more the sea can do to
me.... I'll have no call now to be up crying and praying when the wind
breaks from the south, and you can hear the surf is in the east, and the
surf is in the west, making a great stir with the two noises, and they
hitting one on the other. I'll have no call now to be going down and
getting Holy Water in the dark nights after Samhain, and I won't care
what way the sea is when the other women will be keening. [To Nora]. Give
me the Holy Water, Nora, there's a small sup still on the dresser.

[Nora gives it to her.]

MAURYA [Drops Michael's clothes across Bartley's feet, and sprinkles the
Holy Water over him.]

It isn't that I haven't prayed for you, Bartley, to the Almighty God.
It isn't that I haven't said prayers in the dark night till you wouldn't
know what I'ld be saying; but it's a great rest I'll have now, and it's
time surely. It's a great rest I'll have now, and great sleeping in the
long nights after Samhain, if it's only a bit of wet flour we do have to
eat, and maybe a fish that would be stinking.

[She kneels down again, crossing herself, and saying prayers under her

CATHLEEN [To an old man.]

Maybe yourself and Eamon would make a coffin when the sun rises. We have
fine white boards herself bought, God help her, thinking Michael would
be found, and I have a new cake you can eat while you'll be working.

THE OLD MAN [Looking at the boards.]

Are there nails with them?

CATHLEEN There are not, Colum; we didn't think of the nails.

ANOTHER MAN It's a great wonder she wouldn't think of the nails, and all
the coffins she's seen made already.

CATHLEEN It's getting old she is, and broken.

[Maurya stands up again very slowly and spreads out the pieces of
Michael's clothes beside the body, sprinkling them with the last of the
Holy Water.]

NORA [In a whisper to Cathleen.]

She's quiet now and easy; but the day Michael was drowned you could
hear her crying out from this to the spring well. It's fonder she was of
Michael, and would any one have thought that?

CATHLEEN [Slowly and clearly.]

An old woman will be soon tired with anything she will do, and isn't it
nine days herself is after crying and keening, and making great sorrow
in the house?

MAURYA [Puts the empty cup mouth downwards on the table, and lays her
hands together on Bartley's feet.]

They're all together this time, and the end is come. May the Almighty
God have mercy on Bartley's soul, and on Michael's soul, and on the
souls of Sheamus and Patch, and Stephen and Shawn (bending her head]);
and may He have mercy on my soul, Nora, and on the soul of every one is
left living in the world.

[She pauses, and the keen rises a little more loudly from the women,
then sinks away.]

MAURYA [Continuing.]

Michael has a clean burial in the far north, by the grace of the
Almighty God. Bartley will have a fine coffin out of the white boards,
and a deep grave surely. What more can we want than that? No man at all
can be living for ever, and we must be satisfied.

[She kneels down again and the curtain falls slowly.]

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ensuring that what you are doing is legal. Do not assume that just because
we believe a book is in the public domain for users in the United States,
that the work is also in the public domain for users in other countries.
Whether a book is still in copyright varies from country to country, and we
can't offer guidance on whether any specific use of any specific book is
allowed. Please do not assume that a book's appearance in Doctrine Publishing
ISYS search  means it can be used in any manner anywhere in the world.
Copyright infringement liability can be quite severe.

About ISYS® Search Software
Established in 1988, ISYS Search Software is a global supplier of enterprise
search solutions for business and government.  The company's award-winning
software suite offers a broad range of search, navigation and discovery
solutions for desktop search, intranet search, SharePoint search and embedded
search applications.  ISYS has been deployed by thousands of organizations
operating in a variety of industries, including government, legal, law
enforcement, financial services, healthcare and recruitment.