Only four characters are named: Maurya, an elderly Irishwoman, her daughters Cathleen and Nora, and her son Bartley. Also mentioned are Maurya’s deceased sons Shawn, Sheamus, Stephen, Patch, and Michael. The young priest is also important to introduce controversies about Maurya’s sons, e.g. whether the clothes are from Michael’s body, whether the young priest let Bartley go to sell his horse, etc).
Maurya has lost her husband, father-in-law, and five sons to the sea. As the play begins Nora and Cathleen receive word that a body that may be their brother Michael has washed up on shore in Donegal, far to the north. Bartley is planning to sail to Connemara to sell a horse, and ignores Maurya’s pleas to stay. As he leaves, he leaves gracefully. Maurya predicts that by nightfall she will have no living sons, and her daughters chide her for sending Bartley off with an ill word. Maurya goes after Bartley to bless his voyage, and Nora and Cathleen receive clothing from the drowned corpse that confirms it as their brother. Maurya returns home claiming to have seen the ghost of Michael riding behind Bartley and begins lamenting the loss of the men in her family to the sea, after which some villagers bring in the corpse of Bartley, who has fallen off his horse into the sea and drowned.
CHRACTERS IN Riders to the Sea are Maurya , Cathleen , Nora & Bartley. Men carrying Bartley’s body & women keening ahead of the dead may be seen as rather choral figures at a point of transcendence.
Maurya: an old Aran fisher-woman whose name echoes the Greek word moira, meaning ‘fate’. She is a poor victim of dark fatality as represented by the unrelenting sea. The most important aspect of her chracterisation is the change in her attitude to life & death after her last son & the last surviving male member of her family, Bartley, is drowned in the sea. Maurya senses a paradoxical victory over the tyrant-god, for the sea can cause no more harm to the old woman who becomes a sort of mythical embodiment of suffering humanity & the transcendence of suffering.
Bartley: He is the one of the two riders in the play, the other being the ghost of Maurya’s fifth son, Michael. Stubborn in his decision to go to the sea despite the old mother’s premonition & entreaties, Bartley stands for the survival instinct in man, the eros as opposed to the thanatos( death drive) of which the all-devouring sea is the pervading symbol. Bartley rides the red mare, while Michael’s grey pony follows him. It is the grey pony which knocks the red mare down into the sea. Cathleen forgets to give Bartley his bread at the time of his departure; Maurya is unable to deliver the bread as well as her blessing to Barley at the Spring-well; we learn at the end that Maurya forgot to buy nails required for making his coffin. The symbols like the bread & nails, and the fact that Bartley’s near-sacrificial death ironically salvages Maurya from her long victimhood, may suggest that Synge conceived Bartley as a Christ figure.
Cathleen & Nora: They are the two daughters of Maurya. The elder daughter, Cathleen, is more responsible and hard-working, taking care of the household. Nora is a bit immature and innocent, serving as a link with the world out of doors.
YOU MAY CALL THE SEA AN ABSENTEE CHARACTER, AN INVISIBLE FATAL AGENCY, THE ANTAGONIST WHOSE PRESENCE IS AN OMINOUS OMNIPRESENCE.