Discuss the life of the Aran islanders presented in the play Riders to the Sea

 Question: Discuss the life of the Aran islanders presented in the play “Riders to the Sea”.

N.B:  You can also write the answer to the following questions based on this note:

  1. Bring out the Celtic and Greek elements of the play.
  2. Consider Synge’s treatment of the Irish character in his play.
  3. Synge’s “Riders to the Sea” is local and universal at once.
  4. What picture of the Irish peasant life do you get in “Riders to the Sea”?


Riders to the Sea” is one of Synge’s moving plays that is acclaimed as a poetic drama. J. M. Synge (16 April 1871 – 24 March 1909) has given a minute and vivid picture of Irish life in the play. After getting guidelines from W. B. Yeats, Synge observed intimately the simple and unsophisticated Irish rural life and has been able to create a local and universal significance about the struggling lifestyle of the lower-class people.

Agriculture based livelihood

The islanders live on fishing, farming, and trading livestock in the mainland market of Galway fair. They are fully dependent on the sea for their livelihood. They live a primitive existence much like they did in their Celtic past. They cultivate crops that is proved by Bartley’s direction 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 black feet if there is a good price going”.

Thus, agricultural economy of the Island creates a pure local and universal appeal for the tragedy since most of the working people of the world earn their livelihood in the similar way of the Aran Islanders.

More Notes of Drama

Mixed religious belief

The Islanders believe in Christianity but there is a touch of Celtic paganism in the lifestyle since they endow the sea with god-like feature. The poor islanders are ignorant, uncultivated, and simple. They are conservative, orthodox, and strictly conform to the old ideal of life. This is found in Maurya’s anxiety for the Christian burial of her recently fifth dead son Michael. Maurya’s last striking words are nothing but purely Christian:

“No man at all can be living forever, and we must be satisfied”


Pagan Superstitions and fears seem to bind the minds of the Irish-folk completely. They believe in portents, visions and spirits. Maurya has a hallucination and sees the ghost of Michael riding on a grey pony behind Bartley who is riding on red mare. She informs her daughters that her heart has broken because she is now sure that Bartley will die.

Such superstitious belief is also found in the customs of a valediction of the islanders. They believe when somebody goes out, he should be given blessings. If there is any rough comment in time of going out, misfortune must come. As a token, Cathleen says to Maurya:

“Isn’t it sorrow enough is on everyone in this house without you sending him out with an unlucky word behind him, and a hard word in his ear?”

Mutual sympathy and co-operation

Synge has also touched another aspect of Irish- folklife that the Islanders have a strong feeling of mutual sympathy and co-operation. It is seen that because of poverty the islanders are bound by a sweet tie of goodwill and fellow feeling. As mutual sympathy and co-operation are universal demand, this tragedy has crossed the limit of the locality.

Patriarchal society

Synge has paid a number of visits to the Aran Islands and studied the life of the people minutely, faithfully, and vividly. Men are hard-working and women look after the household affairs. Men take risks to go to the sea being conscious that they may die. Cathleen says:

“It is the life of a young man to going on the see”.

Fatalistic belief

The islanders are thoroughly fatalists who lead a life under the judgment of death. The tyranny of fate is experienced by all people. In spite of having their real experience, they submit themselves to fate and go to sea. This fatalism is carried out in the plot of the play through the sturdy young man Bartley. There is probably no audience in the world who cannot but shed tears over the tragedy of Maurya. That is why a critic has remarked:

“The Island of “Riders to the Sea” is Ireland but more than Ireland.”


From the light of the above discussion, it can be asserted that the life cycle of the Aran islanders bears locality and universality that is why “Riders to the Sea” is called a local and universal tragedy at the same time.

SR Sarker
SR Sarker
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