Riders to the Sea

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Spirituality and Mourning Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Spirituality and Mourning Theme Icon
Fate and Mortality Theme Icon
Age and Gender Theme Icon
The Power of the Sea Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Riders to the Sea, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Spirituality and Mourning Theme Icon

Riders to the Sea depicts a devout community of Catholics for whom faith is a stabilizing force amid the harsh realities of their lives. Allusions to God are threaded throughout the play as characters bless one another, pray, and plead for mercy. However, Catholicism is not the only spiritual tradition in this community; the characters rely on a blend of Catholicism and pagan beliefs native to the Aran Islands in order to grapple with the relentless hardships of their lives. This blend of paganism and Catholicism, as well as the characters’ spiritual doubt and feelings of powerlessness, are shown to be a product of the tremendous fragility of lives lived on a dangerous ocean. The characters are willing to try anything to mitigate their hardships, though they ultimately find themselves powerless before forces that they cannot control.

Throughout the play, the characters invoke the name of God many times, wielding their Catholic faith as a tool for comfort, control, and hope. Oftentimes, though, the characters’ references to Catholicism seem reflexive, rather than meaningful. For example, early in the play Cathleen says of Maurya, “she’s lying down, God help her, and may be sleeping, if she’s able.” This invocation of God is not a prayer or even an acknowledgement of God’s power—it’s a description of a painful and uncertain situation, and the mention of God is more a statement of pity than a nod to spirituality. The characters’ speech is peppered with similar phrases throughout the play, such as “God spare us” and “the grace of God.”

In several notable instances, however, the characters engage deeply with their Catholic faith, particularly in order to question whether Catholicism is serving them at all. Maurya spends a lot of time earnestly appealing to God to spare her family, but she still has serious doubts when the young priest assures her that God will listen to her fervent prayers and keep Bartley safe on his ocean voyage. Casting doubt on the power of her prayers and the priest’s authority, she says, “It’s little the like of him knows of the sea.” Thus, she seems to put more stock in the power of nature than in the power of God or the wisdom of the priest. The family also engages in a quasi-theological debate over whether to track down Bartley to give him a blessing before he leaves on an ocean voyage. The sisters seem to believe that the blessing will give Bartley God’s protection (though they may simply be trying to get Maurya out of the house), while Maurya remains uncertain about whether the blessing will have any effect to counter the dangers of the sea. These instances make clear that, while the family members are earnest in their Catholicism and they take prayer and theology seriously, their faith is not wholly placed in God.

Instead of having complete faith in God, Maurya and the sisters often look to pagan beliefs that do not fit into the traditional beliefs of Catholicism. The most striking example of paganism comes when Maurya sees Michael’s ghost riding behind Bartley on horseback, and she is certain that this is a sign that Bartley will die before nightfall. However, the family also looks to subtler omens to predict future events and advise on the family’s course of action. For example, Maurya doubts Bartley’s assurance that Michael’s body won’t wash up while Bartley is gone, since she saw “there was a star up against the moon.” To her this sign implies that Michael is dead and might soon surface.

Though paganism is associated in the play with the natural world, it is also inextricably blended with Christianity, and the characters’ spiritual beliefs are best understood as a mixture of these two traditions. The pagan vision of Michael’s ghost has Christian overtones, in that the death Maurya foresees—in which a horse throws Bartley into the ocean—is a direct reference to a passage from The Book of Exodus. The blend of Catholicism and paganism is also evident in Maurya’s reference to “getting Holy Water in the dark nights after Samhain” (Samhain being a pagan festival), and in Maurya’s mourning Bartley by simultaneously keening over him (a pagan mourning ritual) and saying a Catholic blessing.

At the end of the play, as Maurya takes stock of her profound losses, she reflects on the spiritual forces that shape her life. While anointing Bartley’s body with Holy Water, Maurya says, “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’d be saying.” This dismissal of God’s power comes alongside Maurya’s acknowledgment that it’s the sea—not God—that has taken her family: “there isn’t anything more the sea can do to me,” she says. Confronted with the futility of faith and prayer in the face of the power of nature, however, Maurya continues to sprinkle Holy Water and ask God for mercy. This ending suggests that there is no single spiritual answer—Catholicism, paganism, or even utter spiritual doubt—that will satisfy people in the face of relentless tragedy. The play’s tension between different spiritual practices and the feeling of utter powerlessness, then, is shown to be a product of the family’s desperation. Living at the mercy of forces beyond their control, the family simultaneously places hope and faith in God, doubts God’s power to help them, engages in pagan rituals and beliefs, and attests to their own powerlessness in the face of it all.

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Spirituality and Mourning ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Spirituality and Mourning appears in each Act of Riders to the Sea. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Spirituality and Mourning Quotes in Riders to the Sea

Below you will find the important quotes in Riders to the Sea related to the theme of Spirituality and Mourning.
Act 1 Quotes

“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.”

Related Characters: Nora (speaker), Maurya, Bartley, The Young Priest
Page Number: 62
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Nora is quoting the young priest to Cathleen. She explains that when the priest gave her the bundle of clothing that might be evidence of Michael’s death, he assured her that God would protect Bartley, the last living brother, because of their mother’s faith. This passage illuminates the stakes of the play’s central conflict by making clear that Bartley is the last living man in the household, and that he is in grave danger by going out on the sea. This passage also calls attention to the significance of Catholicism in the lives of the family, since it shows that the priest is a significant authority in the community and it reveals how much Maurya prays. Despite that Catholicism is shown here to be a significant presence in the family’s life, the priest’s words are not particularly comforting to the girls; their anxiety about Bartley’s safety is not laid to rest by the priest’s assurances. This hints at the challenges to faith that will come, particularly due to the inability of Catholicism to intervene against the destructive power of the sea, despite the priest’s promise.

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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.

Related Characters: Maurya (speaker), Michael
Page Number: 65
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quote, Maurya ruminates on the reversal of the natural pace of life, illustrated by the young dying and leaving their belongings behind for the old to use. She is prompted to say this when she is handed her dead son Michael’s walking stick to use while walking after Bartley to give him a blessing. Bartley’s life could, according to the islanders’ superstition, depend on this blessing, and thus Michael’s walking stick is a crucial object for Bartley’s fate. Though Maurya intends the walking stick to help her save Bartley’s life, Bartley’s ultimate death suggests that the walking stick and other belongings of the dead (as he was wearing his brother’s shirt when thrown into the sea) actually pull the living towards death. Therefore, the objects that the dead leave behind reinforce the unnatural pattern of the young dying before the old. This passage is also yet another example of how traditional norms concerning age are being disrupted. The old are unable to advise or be protected by the young if the young pass away before them.

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 feet.

Related Characters: Maurya (speaker), Bartley, Michael
Related Symbols: Bartley’s Horses
Page Number: 68
Explanation and Analysis:

In returning to the cottage, a terrified Maurya recounts a vision of Michael’s ghost riding on the gray pony behind Bartley. She had gone after Bartley to give him the blessing that she had failed to give him before he left home, but when the time came, the vision prevented her from speaking. The implication here is that the pull that the dead have on Bartley, combined with the destructive will of the sea, overpowers God’s protection and makes Maurya mute. Maurya and Cathleen accept without hesitation that this vision is a prophecy of Bartley’s death, even though this logic is outside the realm of their Catholic faith. The vision truly is prophetic—the pony that Michael rode is the one that knocks Bartley into the sea, acting as the sea’s accomplice and the instigator for his fatal accident.

The fine clothes and new shoes that Michael wears prove that his presence indeed comes from another life, as the family would not have been able to afford such clothing. This also suggests that Michael may now be better off, far away from suffering. Michael could be, in a sense, taking Bartley away from the hardship that a life on the Aran Islands puts one through, including the grief from constant deaths of family and friends and the dangerous labor on the sea.

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’d be saying; but it’s a great rest I’ll have now, and it’s time surely.

Related Characters: Maurya (speaker), Bartley
Page Number: 70
Explanation and Analysis:

At this point in the play, Bartley’s death has finally been revealed and his body has been brought by townspeople into the family’s cottage. Maurya utters this quote as she sprinkles Holy Water over Bartley’s body and lays Michael’s clothes over his feet. Though the young priest assured the family that Maurya’s prayers should have been enough to save Bartley, God has failed to protect Bartley and the rest of the men in the family from the sea. Despite this, Maurya still clearly retains some Catholic faith since she uses Holy Water to anoint Bartley’s body. Regardless, though, the play gives the sense that she has and will always have more fear and belief in the power of the sea than in God. Maurya finally implies that her own “great rest” is coming, which likely means her own coming death rather than simply peace of mind. In this play, the dead seem to pull the living to join them, and Maurya wishes to join the members of her family who have passed. However, this would leave her daughters Cathleen and Nora with no young men to provide for them and no elder to advise them. Their fate is therefore cast as ominous, since the chances of their survival are weak.

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.

Related Characters: Maurya (speaker), Bartley, Michael
Related Symbols: The White Boards
Page Number: 71
Explanation and Analysis:

Delivering the very last lines of the play, Maurya finishes performing rites over Bartley’s body and accepts the manner of burial that each of her sons will receive: Michael has been given “a clean burial” in the sea and Bartley will have “a fine coffin out of the white boards.” This acceptance comes despite the fact that Maurya is only able to give one of her sons the traditional burial, since Michael’s burial was chosen by God and by the sea. In asking, “What more can we want than that?” Maurya illustrates the helplessness of herself and her community. They will always lack control over their lives—it is out of their hands to cultivate prosperity and happiness or avoid grief and suffering. Maurya acknowledges that it is every human being’s fate to die and that fighting this truth is futile. Though her reaction may spring from a numbness born of the vast amounts of grief and suffering that she has experienced (rather than true acceptance and wisdom), it’s clear that Maurya thinks it wise to surrender to the power of the natural world.