Presentation of Bartley in J. M. Synge’s Riders to the Sea
Bartley is the one of the two riders in John Millington Synge’s play, Riders to the Sea, the other being the ghost of Maurya's fifth son, Michael. The rest of the menfolk have already died in the sea. Bartley, the youngest of six sons, is now the sole support of the household. He earns income by riding horses into the sea to the steamer anchored far offshore, so that they can be sold at the mainland fair. Preoccupied with practical exigencies, he ignores his mother’s request not to go to sea, being the last surviving male of the family. He nevertheless asks God’s blessing on the family and rides off on the red mare, leading the pony. As Bartley is firm about going, Maurya makes the gloomy forecast that he would be drowned like the rest. When he is actually gone, she wails:
“He’s gone now, and when the black night is falling I’ll have no son left me in the world.”
And Maurya omits the giving of a blessing to him, an omission considered bad luck. When she subsequently stands on the path trying in vain to say the blessing, he gives her his blessing again.
The mother returns frightened, a result of a terrifying vision of Michael riding the grey pony behind Bartley. Upon being told that Michael’s body has been found in the North, her only response is that at least the boards that the family had bought for Michael’s funeral could be employed for Bartley’s burial.
The climax comes when dead body of Bartley is brought to home. Bartley had been fatally knocked down into the sea by the grey pony. On learning of Bartley’s drowning, Maurya says:
“ They’re all gone now, and there isn’t anything more the sea can do to me.”
There will be no need for Maurya to feel any anxiety about anybody in future because the sea has already taken away from her all her men-folk.
Stubborn in his decision to go to the sea despite the old mother's premonition and 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 – in Mourya’s narration - 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 Bartley 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 and nails, and the fact that Bartley's near-sacrificial death ironically salvages Maurya, may suggest that Synge conceived Bartley as a Christ figure.