Sense of place in “Playboy of the Western World” and “Riders to the Sea”

When I was watching “Playboy of the Western World” and “Riders to the Sea,” one particular phrase that appeared in both works stood out to me—the “big world.” Characters in both plays refer to the “big world” as a place separate from their own. Michael, in “Playboy of the Western World” tells his family that “in the big world, it’s knives they use.” Maurya, in “Riders to the Sea,” notes another difference between this big world and Ireland: “In the big world the old people do be leaving things after them for their sons and children, but in this place it is the young men do be leaving things behind for them that do be old” (13). It is unclear whether the big world is the same as the western world that the title of “Playboy of the Western World” refers to, but Ireland is clearly not a part of this big world.

The distinction between the big world and Ireland, or the western world and Ireland, raises some questions about how the characters in these plays conceptualize their sense of place in the world. What, exactly, is the big world? What are the boundaries of the western world, of which Christy is the only playboy? Paradoxically, it seems like Ireland is at once a leader of the Western World and separate from it. Widow Quin laments Christy’s sailing from “Mayo to the western World,” implying a separation between the two, even as she claims Christy is the playboy of the western world. And though the big world is separate from Ireland, Sara calls for a toast to the wonders of the western world, which include “the pirates, preachers, poteen-makers, with the jobbing jockies; parching peelers, and the juries fill their stomachs selling judgments of the English law”—most of which are particular to Ireland. These characters share a lack of clarity about Ireland’s place within the world. Is their country, with its “stony scattered fields and scribes of bog,” part of the western world or isolated from it? (“Playboy of the Western World”).

The only clear boundary between Ireland and the western or big world is the sea which surrounds them. Indeed, the sea is a force to be reckoned with in “Riders to the Sea”—it kills Maurya’s husband and all five sons until “there isn’t anything more the sea can do to [her]” (23). Multiple characters in “Playboy of the Western World” refer to the sea that must be crossed to leave Ireland. Evidently, although the sense of place in these plays is contradictory, the sea/the Atlantic is a defining feature. The movement of the ocean, which we discussed when reading Gilroy’s work on the Atlantic, is an organizing feature for their conception of Ireland.

One Reply to “Sense of place in “Playboy of the Western World” and “Riders to the Sea””

  1. I agree with you that Ireland is not completely a part of the big world, but they are still involved in it in a way. They are a small world that is governed by a big world. The sea is a boundary, but it is a very fluid and movable boundary like you said. This could symbolize the fluidity and mixture of the small and big world cultures. I think the big world refers to powerful places, or countries with wide recognition. Kind of like urban areas. Ireland is not a part of this world, but they are still heavily impacted by it.

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