Discuss the setting of the Aran Islands in J. M. Synge’s Riders to the Sea.

John Millington Synge’s one-act short play of a fishing family being struck by tragedy is set in Irishman, the middle island among the group of three Aran Islands, the most barren and forlorn part of an otherwise green Ireland.  These islands are situated in Galway Bay, about thirty miles from the port of Galway on the Irish mainland. Synge discovered a tragic pattern inherent in the life of the Aran islanders. The fatal conflict between the island fishermen and the sea has an inexorable tragic inevitability similar to that between man and fate basic to Greek tragedy. The sea is both the livelihood and the death-bringer to this population.  The men must go out despite the weather, and there are few shelters on the shoreline, which is mostly steep cliff-face. The setting fits the Irish/Celtic mystical tone of the ghost-rider that signals the loss of yet another son, the last one, seen riding a white horse along the cliff's edge.   

“It’s is the life of a young man to be going to the sea” – Cathleen, the eldest daughter, tells her mother, Maurya, when the latter tries to prevent Bartley, the youngest son and the only surviving man in the family, from taking a sea journey to send a horse to a fair in Galway. In fact, the paradox of the sea as a source both of livelihood and destruction, sustenance and death, removes the element of choice, both physical and moral, in this play. For the Aran Islanders the sea is indeed the Almighty God, an older and more formidable spiritual power than the Christian God, represented by the “young” priest who, spiritually, remains an stranger to Mourya’s world. His reported words provide no final spiritual comfort.  

The men of the family, past and present, were and are trapped, in a sense.  To make a living, they must go to sea.  But the sea is the bringer of suffering and tragedy.  They are, in effect, in a no-win situation.  Death on the sea is so common that all of Maurya's sons, as well as her husband and father-in-law, are killed on it. Clothes, string, boards, rope—all these symbols bear some relationship with the sea, the sound of which opens the play. Synge uses symbols to unite the varied meanings of the play: suffering, death, folk traditions, the individual against society, the power of the sea, and faith in the face of overwhelming obstacles.

Set on the Aran island, the play's characters are, of course, constantly surrounded by the sea.  The sea, therefore, pervades the play, contributing to the tragic mood.  For Maurya, the only escape is to lose every male in the family.  She finds a sort of peace when she loses everything she has to lose.  Having nothing left for the sea to take, Maurya no longer has reason to fear it.  She is a tragic figure resigned to her suffering.