In this journal entry, you will explore the historical context for John Millington Synge’s Riders to the Sea. In his 1911 introduction to the play, an American writer named Edward J. O’Brien suggests that Maurya’s suffering is a virtue: “It is their virtue in life to be lonely, and none but the lonely man in tragedy may be great. He dies, and then it is the virtue in life of the women, mothers and wives and sisters to be great in their loneliness, great as Maurya, the stricken mother, is great in her final word.” Using the idea of tragedy to describe actual suffering sometimes suggests that there is something noble and mysterious about the difficulties people face. The word tragedy may even suggest that some larger or uncontrollable force, much like the sea, may be the ultimate source of the suffering.
However, historical studies of Ireland in the mid to late 19th century reveal that many Irish people were driven from their farmlands to the less fertile lands along the coast after the Great Famine (1845 – 1852). Fishing was not a primary occupation for most of the people displaced to the coast, and in contrast to farming, it proved be a much more dangerous way of acquiring food and money. Synge’s family, however, belonged to the wealthier, landowning class in Ireland. The very same class of people who were largely responsible for the evictions that took place during the Great Famine. Begin your research by reading a short entry on Riders to the Sea in The Encyclopedia of Americana from 1920. Next, your Module 4 Readings document includes a few pages of Richard Barry O’Brien’s account of the evictions in his book, Fifty Years of Concessions to Ireland (1883). Compare his account to a report given by the Liberal Union of Ireland in The Plan of Campaign(1892) on pages 36 – 37. This reading is also included in the Module 4 Readings.
Finally, on your own, find three sources of information about the Great Famine or the Irish Potato Famine, as it is commonly referred to in America. These sources can include other artistic works such as songs, paintings, or documentary films. Explain how this historical context helps to provide a better understanding of Synge’s play. Do you think Synge’s play sheds more light on the socio-economic factors surrounding the difficult lives of the people of Aran, or does the playwright tend to romanticize or idealize their suffering?
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