Riders to the Sea

Riders to the Sea

A report by Joanna D.

Spring ’10

The sea is a cruel mistress. It is the source of both the livelihood and death to the men who sail it. It is a source of sustenance and loneliness to the women who watch it. To the peasants of a small Irish town, it is everywhere and in everything. Life without the sea is incomprehensible. Moreover, the sea defines not only their lives, but their attitudes and expectations toward life.

Old Maurya has watched the sea for nine days for news or a sight of her son Michael whom she is convinced has drowned. No news has come from Michael. She has gone so far as to buy new boards for his coffin, but to what avail? She has forgotten the nails. This is but one sign of what is to come. The sea out by the white rocks on the shore is bad and a great roaring wind has risen in the west. As one of Maurya’s daughters returns from watching the shore, she leaves the door half-open and the sea breeze blows hard and bangs it open. The sea has invaded the house. Seven days distant, a dead man is found in the sea at Donegal and buried. He was wearing only flannel shirt and stocking. Unbeknownst to her, Maurya’s daughters take these tokens of death into the house to discover whether they belong to Michael. With further foreboding, Maurya’s last son Bartley prepares to leave on the last ship for weeks, but Maurya cannot let him go. However, “It is 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?” The life of a young man is held by the sea, but what the sea will do with it none can tell. Bartley takes the new rope that Maurya means to use to lower Michael’s coffin into the ground to use as a halter for his grey pony. Maurya sends him away with hard words, and Bartley walks into the dark having not eaten anything since breakfast. The ill luck follows Bartley as well as Michael. To get Maurya out of the house, her daughters send her to meet Bartley with bread and a kind word to ward off the bad luck, and she goes.

The daughters represent optimism. They will not keep Bartley at home because the sea is his livelihood. They send Maurya away so that they can look through the dead man’s clothes to see whether they belong to Michael. “But how would they be Michael’s,” one argues, “How would he go the length of that way to the far north?” The young priest who brought them thought that it was possible, but he too, is optimistic. He will not stop Bartley from going to the sea because Maurya stays up, ”’saying prayers half through the night, and the Almighty God won’t leave her destitute,’ says he, ‘with no son living.’” This optimism on the part of the daughters and the priest is the more amazing when one reflects that Maurya has not only heard no word of Michael, but she has already lost four sons, her husband, and her father-in-law to the sea. Even so, half hoping, her daughters tear open the package of clothes.

It is Michael’s clothing. They know all his clothing intimately because they sewed and knitted it. Maurya comes back crying. She could not speak nor give Bartley the bread, but following Bartley on the grey pony with the rope halter she saw Michael, dressed in fine clothing and new shoes. It is a bad omen to see Michael’s ghost. Her daughters protest that Michael was buried in Donegal and ask, “Didn’t the young priest say the Almighty God wouldn’t leave her destitute with no son living” Maurya replies, “It’s little the like of him know of the sea…Bartley will be lost now”. She goes on to tell them of her five other sons, how they were brought in on a board covered by a sail…but as she tells them this, a cry goes up from the shore, and a body is brought in on a board, covered by a sail. Bartley drowned when the grey pony with the rope halter kicked him into the sea. Ironically, the old woman, having cried and cautioned her sons so long, is defiant.  She has lost six sons, a husband, and a father in law, but “They’re all gone now, and there isn’t anything more the sea can do it me…”

As age wears on, optimism leaves and fatalism sets it, but at last comes courage. There is nothing more. There is nothing left. Optimism and fatalism meet. Nothing could happen. I have suffered everything imaginable.


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