The sea’s vast natural power, which takes the lives of all of the family’s men, is a constant threat to the play’s characters. The dangers of the sea are unavoidable, however, since the men of the Aran Islands must brave the water in order to trade, fish, and obtain essentials for their families to survive. The sea—a source both of nurture and of anguish—comes to seem more powerful than God in the play. It is the force before which everyone is powerless, whose whims the characters must ultimately accept.
While the power of the sea is most dramatic in its life-and-death stakes, the sea influences even the most quotidian aspects of the characters’ lives. In trying to open the bundle which contains Michael’s clothes, Cathleen and Nora must use a knife to cut the string which is “perished with the salt water.” Bartley also has to wear Michael’s old shirt for “his own shirt was heavy with the salt in it.” The salt water thus permeates the household, a constant reminder of the sea’s power.
Just as the sea damages the clothing and materials of the community, it also destroys the bodies of men. In the search for Michael’s body, the women of the family are left with only the scraps of clothing that are found, as his corpse would be unrecognizable after so long in the water. In this sense, the identity and life of the men are erased by the sea. After recognizing Michael’s clothing from the bundle, Nora says to Cathleen, “And isn’t it a pitiful thing when there is nothing left of a man who was a great rower and fisher, but a bit of an old shirt and a plain stocking?” The life and achievements of Michael have thus been taken away from him by the sea, with no physical signifiers of who he was and what he accomplished. Maurya also asks near the end of the play, “What way would they know if it was Michael they had, or another man like him, for when a man is nine days in the sea, and the wind blowing, it’s hard set his own mother would be to say what man was it.” Even the person who brought him into the world cannot recognize him after the sea has taken him.
In the play, the sea wields its power over all other spiritual forces. Despite the young priest’s promise that God will protect Bartley, and despite Maurya’s prayers, the sea still takes Bartley’s life, proving the impossibility of defying its will. While Maurya tries to use Catholicism to counter the will of the sea, she uses her paganism to try to understand and accept the sea’s violence. The most explicit example of this is her vision of Michael’s ghost riding behind Bartley, which she interprets as a sign that the sea will take the life of her last son. At the end of the play, Maurya says in reference to the men she has lost, “They’re all gone now, and there isn’t anything more the sea can do to me…. I’ll have no call now to be up and crying and praying when the wind breaks from the south.” Despite Maurya’s efforts to use faith in God and her pagan beliefs to contend with the sea, the outcome is the same; the sea takes all of the men in her life, and she is forced to accept the sea’s power, having nothing left to lose and nothing left to fear.
The Power of the Sea ThemeTracker
The Power of the Sea 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.”
It’s a hard thing they’ll be saying below if the body is washed up and there’s no man in it to make the coffin, and I after giving a big price for the finest white boards you’d find in Connemara.
And isn’t it a pitiful thing when there is nothing left of a man who was a great rower and fisher, but a bit of an old shirt and a plain stocking?
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.
There does be a power of young men floating round in the sea, and what way would they know if it was Michael they had, or another man like him, for when a man is nine days in the sea, and the wind blowing, it’s hard set his own mother would be to say what man was it.
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.