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.
Spirituality and Mourning ThemeTracker
Spirituality and Mourning Quotes in Riders to the Sea
“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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.