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Title: Riders to the Sea
Author: Synge, J. M. (John Millington)
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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Riders to the Sea


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

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 MEN AND WOMEN


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.)

_In a low voice._—Where is she?

She’s lying down, God help her, and may be sleeping, if she’s able.

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

_Spinning the wheel rapidly._—What is it you have?

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

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

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

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

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

_Looking out anxiously._—Did you ask him would he stop Bartley going
this day with the horses to the Galway fair?

“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.”

Is the sea bad by the white rocks, 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?

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.

_Goes to the inner door and listens._—She’s moving about on the bed.
She’ll be coming in a minute.

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._]

_Looking up at Cathleen and speaking querulously._—Isn’t it turf enough
you have for this day and evening?

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

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

_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.

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

Where is he itself?

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.

I hear some one passing the big stones.

_Looking out._—He’s coming now, and he’s in a hurry.

_Comes in and looks round the room. Speaking sadly and quietly._—Where
is the bit of new rope, Cathleen, was bought in Connemara?

_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.

_Giving him a rope._—Is that it, Bartley?

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.

_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.

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._]

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 south?

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?

_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.

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

_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.

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._]

_To Nora._—Is she coming to the pier?

_Looking out._—She’s passing the green head and letting fall her sails.

_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.

_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?

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?

_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

[_He goes out._]

_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 world.

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

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

_Turning towards her._—You’re taking away the turf from the cake.

_Crying out._—The Son of God forgive us, Nora, we’re after forgetting
his bit of bread.

[_She comes over to the fire._]

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

_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._]

_Cutting off some of the bread and rolling it in a cloth; to
Maurya._—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.

_Taking the bread._—Will I be in it as soon as himself?

If you go now quickly.

_Standing up unsteadily._—It’s hard set I am to walk.

_Looking at her anxiously._—Give her the stick, Nora, or maybe she’ll
slip on the big stones.

What stick?

The stick Michael brought from Connemara.

_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._]

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

Is she gone round by the bush?

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

_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.

_Taking the bundle._—Did he say what way they were found?

_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.”

_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.

_Giving her a knife._—I’ve heard tell it was a long way to Donegal.

_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.

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._]

_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?

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?

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._]

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?

_Who has taken up the stocking and counted the stitches, crying
out._—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

_Taking the stocking._—It’s a plain stocking.

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

_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?

_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 stocking?

_After an instant._—Tell me is herself coming, Nora? I hear a little
sound on the path.

_Looking out._—She is, Cathleen. She’s coming up to the door.

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.

_Helping Cathleen to close the bundle._—We’ll put them here in the

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

Will she see it was crying I was?

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._]

_After spinning for a moment._—You didn’t give him his bit of bread?

[_Maurya begins to keen softly, without turning round._]

Did you see him riding down?

[_Maurya goes on keening._]

_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?

_With a weak voice._—My heart’s broken from this day.

_As before._—Did you see Bartley?

I seen the fearfulest thing.

_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.

_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.

_Coming to the fire._—What is it ails you, at all?

_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


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

Tell us what it is you seen.

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!

What is it you seen.

I seen Michael himself.

_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.

_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

_Begins to keen._—It’s destroyed we are from this day. It’s destroyed,

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

_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._]

_In a whisper._—Did you hear that, Cathleen? Did you hear a noise in
the north-east?

_In a whisper._—There’s some one after crying out by the seashore.

_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._]

_Half in a dream, to Cathleen._—Is it Patch, or Michael, or what is it
at all?

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

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.

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._]

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

_In a whisper to the women who have come in._—Is it Bartley it is?

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._]

_To the women, as they are doing so._—What way was he drowned?

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 door._]

_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._]

_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

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

_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.

_Looking at the boards._—Are there nails with them?

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

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

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_.]

_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?

_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?

_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._]

_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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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.