Contentual Counter Poles in J. M. Synge's "Riders to the Sea"

Term Paper, 2017

14 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. Historical background

3. Contentual counter poles
3.1 The Irish sea: provider and destroyer
3.2 Basic attitudes: optimism and pessimism
3.3 Gender roles: females and males
3.4 Religious believes: Catholicism and Paganism
3.5 Societal principles: tradition and modernity

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliographical references

1. Introduction

J.M. Synge is regarded as one of the greatest writers of the Irish Literary Renaissance. His composition, Riders to the Sea, counts to one of his most popular plays and conforms to the notion of a tragedy. The actions and incidents in the play are limited to one day, take place in 1904, and deal with the destiny of Irish inhabitants, which live on one of the Aran Islands. Yet, the central core of the story revolves around the helpless and desperate struggle of humans against the forces of nature. Hence, the main characters which form an unity of a family are exposed to their fate and teared apart because of the cruelty of the sea which costs the life of several family members.

Besides that, the play offers numerous analysis perspectives due to its various topics ranging from the depiction of the sea, through religion, to gender roles and many more. Therefore, the present term paper aims to give an detailed insight into the main contentual counter parts of Syne's play in order to show the different cultural, political and personal conflicts an Irish family was faced with at the beginning of the 20th century. Hence, the research question is: What are the contentual counter poles in J.M. Synge's Riders to the Sea and how is Irish national identity shaped at the beginning of the 20th century?

In order to gain a deeper understanding of the plot frame and its involved contentual counter poles, the author of this term paper introduces the topic with an historical background which roughly describes the cultural and political situation in Ireland at the time the story takes place. These historical insights are then compared to the context of the plot and the conflicts the protagonists and side characters are faced with, in order to demonstrate the different contentual perspectives and contrasts of Synge's Riders to the Sea, as well as Irish identity . This in turn means that the main part of the term paper consists of the comparison of different depictions of the sea, which can be seen as the provider on the one hand, and the destroyer on the other hand; the representation of religious believes such as Christianity in contrast to paganism; the different distributions of gender roles; the personal conflict between optimism and pessimism and last but not least the confrontation between tradition and modernity.

To gain the most appropriate results and to answer the research question as accurate as possible, the author of the present term paper uses of the method of qualitative research strategy. Therefore, a theoretical analysis, namely the selection and discussion of literature-based and descriptive material in from of essays, journal articles as well as monographs and anthologies provide a basis for this research. However, Synge's tragedy itself still remains the main source for all following interpretations and analysis.

2. Historical background

In order to gain a deeper insight and understanding of Synge's Rider to the Sea it is necessary to introduce some crucial historical aspects of Ireland around 1900. After this introduction these aspects are to be linked with contentual topics of the play.

First of all, the focus is to be drawn on the relationship of England and Ireland. Because of the English conquest of Ireland, also called the Elizabethan conquest of Ireland, during the 16th century, Englishmen regarded themselves as the superior race over the Irish (Herlihy 13). Due to the fact that the Irish lacked in numbers, they were hardly able to win battles against the Saxons (19f.). This historical event also led to great rivalry between the two neighbouring countries over many years and since then, English people called their Irish neighbours "a wild lawness race" (36) which is weak and cannot be independent.

Another striking aspect, when it comes to the superiority of the English over the Irish, was also the wealthy land of England compared to the fairly poor Ireland (61). According to Herlihy (61) travelers described Ireland as '"The most distressful country that ever you have seen!"' (61), whereas England was considered as '"Merry England"' (61). The Irish, therefore, were associated with poverty, caused by laziness and weakness, for hundreds of years (61). However, this poverty may root in the suppression, plundering and devastation under England and its rulers.

In Riders to the Sea this social feature of the poor Irish people is also represented through the setting and the description of the scene at the very beginning: "-An Island off the West of Ireland. (Cottage, kitchen, with nets, oil-skins, spinning wheel, some new boards standing by the wall, etc. Cathleen, a girl of about twenty, finishes kneading cake, and puts it down in the pot-oven by the fire; then wipes her hands, and begins to spin at the wheel. [...]" (Synge 3). The image of a simple cottage kitchen and the hard housework the women had to do, shows the social status of the people in Ireland around 1900, which is likely to be more poor than wealthy. This in turn means that Synge uses his tragedy to mirror the surroundings and circumstances of this time in Ireland in a very realistic way.

However, besides the conflicts between the English and Irish, the beginnings of the 20th century were also dominated by different religious believes. Two main religious movements, namely Christianity and Paganism influenced the majority of Irish inhabitants at the beginning of the 20th century.

Starting with the former, this religious root category is divided into two subcategories, namely Catholicism and Protestantism. These two subgenres were both omnipresent in Ireland from early 16th century, and so is it until the present day. However, Catholics and Protestants were from the very beginning rivals because of the Cromwellian Settlement between 1649-51 (Cohen 3). The Settlement was successful in placing Irish land from Catholics into the hands of Protestants (3). This event, together with the Battle of Boyne in 1690, ensured that the Protestants defeated the Catholics totally (3). Another crucial aspect, which enhanced the rivalry between Protestants and Catholics was the opinion of Protestants that all Catholics are lazy and untrustworthy, whereas Protestants regarded themselves as hard- working and lawful people (Fahey, Hayes, Sinnot 162).

Moreover, there were three social classes in Ireland around 1900, which can be divided into the proletariat, the pretty bourgeoisie, and the bourgeoisie (Cohen 6). The majority of the Irish population on the one hand consisted of the proletariat and included artisans, craftsmen, mechanics etc. (6). The minority on the other hand belonged to the (pretty) bourgeoisie and represented shopkeepers, professionals, land or factory owners (6). Conspicuous here is the fact that most members of these three social classes were Protestants and a relatively small amount of people belonged to Roman Catholicism (7).

Furthermore, especially among the working class, religious believes had an essential status and also defined gender roles. According to Cohen (9) married women refused to go to work and stay at home, particularly when they have children. When it comes to the condition of houses during that time, religion also was a decisive indicator (10). Hence, first-class houses were inhabited by the bourgeoisie, and they were in most cases also Protestants (10).

The later religious subcategory, called Paganism, differentiates from Christianity by means of its theological contents as it depicts the old form of religious belief in Ireland and other parts of Europe. Some typical pagan elements therefore are the belief in the Otherworld which is the home of several Gods, as well as the order of Fírinne which is referred to as the Gaelic culture with all its vales, rituals and holydays (Rua 1).

Moreover, one of the most striking differences between Paganism and Christianity are their different worldviews. Paganism on the one hand takes the view that the entire world and all its objects are possessed by spirits, which are able to take up contact with humans (5). Hence, every object whether it is a rock, river or tree is home of a spirit (5). Pagans are also of the opinion that every item, family and nation, as well as the spirits of their ancestors, have their very own patron, who guides them through life and takes care over them like a guardian angel (6). Christians on the other hand, do not believe in spirits that live in earthly objects but just in one great God and the holy ghost. However, one aspect that is present in Christianity as well as Paganism, is the fact that both believe in something that is greater than themselves. Christians therefore call this great power God or Holy Father, whereas Pagans see this power in several Gods with various names which origin from the Tuatha D é Danann, the '"Tribes of the Gods of Dánu"' (7).

In Riders to the Sea, Synge takes up several of the above mentioned cultural, political and religious characteristics of Ireland around 1900. Hence, his play describes the situation of the country and its inhabitants in a very realistic way, even when it seems very unrealistic at first glance due to the appearance of ghosts and mystic elements. In the following analysis, links between the historical background and the context of the play are to be drawn and the main contentual counter poles of the tragedy identified.

3. Contentual counter poles

The plot of Riders to the Sea is shaped by several contentual counter poles. Hence, the present term paper contrasts the main clashes, struggles and fears of inhabitants of the Aran islands. The existence of the sea, therefore, depicts one of the most important and omnipresent contrast in the life of the islanders as it can be viewed from different perspectives. Additional counter poles are also to found in personal conflicts between optimism and pessimism, gender roles, different religious believes, as well as tradition and modernity.


Excerpt out of 14 pages


Contentual Counter Poles in J. M. Synge's "Riders to the Sea"
University of Würzburg
Englische Kulturwissenschaft
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Literary seascapes, Riders to the sea, Synge, cultural studies, ireland, seascapes, england, literature, irish literature
Quote paper
Andrea Roth (Author), 2017, Contentual Counter Poles in J. M. Synge's "Riders to the Sea", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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