Riders to the Sea

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This article is about the play. For the opera, see Riders to the Sea (opera).
Sara Allgood as Maurya, photo taken by Carl Van Vechten, 1938

Riders to the Sea is a play written by Irish playwright John Millington Synge. It was first performed on February 25, 1904 at the Molesworth Hall, Dublin by the Irish National Theater Society. A one-act tragedy, the play is set in the Aran Islands, and like all of Synge's plays it is noted for capturing the poetic dialogue of rural Ireland. The very simple plot is based not on the traditional conflict of human wills but on the hopeless struggle of a people against the impersonal but relentless cruelty of the sea.

Important characters[edit]

Only four characters are named: Maurya, her daughters Cathleen and Nora, and her son Bartley. Also mentioned are Maurya's deceased sons Shawn, Sheamus, Stephen, Patch, and Michael. The young priest is also important to introduce controversies about Maurya's sons, e.g. whether the clothes are from Michael's body, whether the young priest let Bartley go to sell his horse, etc.

Plot synopsis[edit]

Maurya has lost her husband, father-in-law, and five sons to the sea. As the play begins Nora and Cathleen receive word that a body that may be their brother Michael has washed up on shore in Donegal, far to the north. Bartley is planning to sail to Connemara to sell a horse, and ignores Maurya's pleas to stay. He leaves gracefully. Maurya predicts that by nightfall she will have no living sons, and her daughters chide her for sending Bartley off with an ill word. Maurya goes after Bartley to bless his voyage, and Nora and Cathleen receive clothing from the drowned corpse that confirms it is their brother. Maurya returns home claiming to have seen the ghost of Michael riding behind Bartley and begins lamenting the loss of the men in her family to the sea, after which some villagers bring in the corpse of Bartley, who has fallen off his horse into the sea and drowned.

Maurya's speech in the final scene is famous in Irish drama:

(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.

Other versions[edit]


At least two motion picture versions of the play have been made:


The composer Ralph Vaughan Williams made an almost verbatim setting of the play as an opera, using the same title.

American composer Marga Richter also set the play as an opera, using the same title.

German composer Eduard Pütz also set the play as an opera, using the same title.

Bruce Montgomery wrote a light opera, Spindrift, that was based on Riders to the Sea.


Mary Anthony's piece titled Threnody

French version[edit]

The play has been translated in French by Georgette Sable and it has been published by Anthropomare[1]

Other translations include: À cheval vers la mer (Riders to the Sea, 1903 ; 1904) translated by Maurice Bourgeois,[2] Cavaliers à la mer, translated by Fouad El-Etr,[3] and Cavaliers vers la mer (combined with L’Ombre de la vallée), translated by Françoise Morvan.[4]


  1. ^ http://www.anthropomare.com/liste_publications_riders_to_the_sea.html
  2. ^ Théâtre. [Paris], Éditions Gallimard, 1942 ; rééditions : [Paris], Librairie théâtrale, « Éducation et théâtre. Théâtre de répertoire » n° 18, 1954, 1978, 16 p.,
  3. ^ illustrations de Roland Topor. [Paris], Éditions La Délirante, 1975, 1978, édition revue, illustrations de Sam Szafran, 1982, 48 p,
  4. ^ illustrations de Jack B. Yeats. [Bedée] Éditions Folle avoine, 1993, 96 p., 13.72 € ; réédition dans Théâtre complet. [Arles], Éditions Actes Sud, « Babel » n° 199, 1996, 324 p.


External links[edit]