Maurya has given birth to six sons during her life on the coastal island lying of at the mouth of Ireland's Galway Bay. Four of them are already dead, along with their father and grandfather. She is old and poor and fears that the extended and uncharacteristic absence of her son Michael means he is about to added to the list of her deceased loved ones. As if worrying that Michael has drowned weren't enough stress, she also doesn’t appear to be very successful at persuading her other remaining son, Bartley, from crossing over to the mainland in a bid to deal away a couple of horses. In the end, Maurya has only her daughters to help with the cold comfort of knowing that there are no more men in her life for the sea to take from her. She feels at last a sense of peace and serenity now that her greatest anxiety has been lifted.
Bartley is the youngest of Maurya’s six sons; when Michael’s death is confirmed, he steps up to become the family's sole financial support. His means of supporting the family is what gives the play its title: he rides horses out to sea and to the steamer ship, which must lay anchored far offshore; the horses are sold at a fair on the mainland. Maurya refuses to give Bartley her blessing after having a vision of his impending death.
Cathleen is the eldest of Maurya’s daughter. Cathleen is 20 years old; she commiserates with Bartley’s position and is scornful of her mother’s superstitions. In contrast to the somewhat mystical bent of her mother, who is given to lamentations and omens, Cathleen is pure practicality in action, which is a great necessity when living with someone like Maurya.
The youngest member of the clan, Nora is much more patient with mother’s penchant for self-pity than her oldest sister is. At the same time, she provides a great sounding board for Cathleen to express her contrarian views.
The priest is never actually seen on stage, but his presence is so vital to the story that he must be considered at least as important a character as Nora. It is the priest who delivers the message through Nora that Maurya must put her faith and trust in a God that would never allow every last one of her sons to die while she is still alive. He is younger and more modern than Maurya.
Riders to the Sea Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Riders to the Sea is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
There are not many characters in this play. Unlike other characters, Mauriya is superstitious and a little paranoid over the death of her sons at sea, she is reluctant to, as the priest advises, put her faith in God.
The use of the number nine is a powerful motif in the play. The number nine is used as a sign of bad luck throughout the story. The red mare of Bartley and the grey pony of Michael are also omens for death.