The play begins with the two daughters, Nora and Cathleen, discussing the news that the body of a man has washed up on the shore far north from where they live. They are wondering whether the body may be their brother Michael. Michael has not been home for a very long time, so it seems apparent that he is dead. The sole surviving son, Bartley, wishes to sail to Connemara in order to sell a horse. When mother Maurya hears of this news, she begs him to stay at home, lest he join the fate of her other sons. But Bartley will not hear anything of it. He insists on going. So distraught is the mother that she forgets to bless her son as he leaves - which in the lore of the superstition islanders, is an omen that will most likely result in her son's death. The daughters castigate the mother for sending off her son in such a manner. Maurya sadly asserts that by nightfall, she will have no more living sons.
Eventually, the daughters convince their mother that they should chase after Bartley to make sure he leaves with kind words, thus increasing his chances of survival. While she is away, the two daughters receive the clothes of the drowned man, thus confirming that it is indeed Michael, their brother, who has died.
Maurya then returns home, shaken. The daughters ask her what is wrong, trying to conceal the clothes of Michael so as to not yet reveal the tragic news to their mother. Maurya tells them that she saw Bartley riding off in the distance with Michael's ghost behind him, thus confirming her dread suspicions. It is not long before the villagers arrive with the corpse of Bartley, who has fallen off his horse into the sea and drowned.
The morbidity of the play is made bearable by the beautiful poetic language spoken by the characters throughout. To someone who has never been in this part of the world before, the language sounds joltingly strange; but it is a language that nonetheless manages to perfectly convey the humility of the characters in the face of the worst tragedies.
Unlike the Playboy of the Western World, there is no comedy whatsoever in Riders to the Sea. Instead, Synge wishes to present the age-old story of man's conflict with nature, but in the localized context of the Aran Islands. The sea is presented as an all-powerful, unseen, yet deeply felt force. It is death incarnate, and something that cannot be beat; hence, the humility in the face of death revealed by the all-suffering Maurya when she states, "No man at all can be living forever, and we must be satisfied."
While the island setting of Riders to the Sea is not so distant geographically from the western coast of Ireland where the Playboy of the Western World takes place, the disparate features of the two play sets them apart from one another in stark contrast. One gets the impression from Riders to the Sea that human conflict is very rare on the island; the characters are too busy just trying to survive the brutalities of nature that constantly interfere with their lives. By contrast, the characters in the Playboy of the Western World seem incredibly bored with their natural surroundings - which, while far from resourceful, are certainly not as dire as what the inhabitants of the Aran Islands experience in their day-to-day lives. As a result of this boredom and complacency, the characters in the Playboy of the Western World are driven to seek out conflict with one another constantly. In fact, it is this pursuit of conflict that motivates much of the action of the play. Nature is hardly present, except for vague references to the physical surroundings of the environment throughout.
Both Riders to the Sea and the Playboy of the Western World are good plays in that they give us a very realistic glimpse as to what life in rural Ireland was like at the turn of the last century. Seen from the standpoint of today's era of advanced technology and global communication, it is certainly a world that we will never know again, which is why such plays are important and should be studied in-depth, lest we forget the lessons of the past.
Synge, J.M. The Complete Plays. London: Eyre Methuen, 1981.