(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

During a famine, an Irish peasant family talks about strange creatures that appear, portents that evil supernatural forces are abroad in the land. The Countess Cathleen and her companions arrive, searching for the way to her castle. The peasants bitterly complain to her of their state, and she gives them what she is left in her purse after previous charity to other starving folk. She invites the family to her castle the next day to receive more.

After her departure, Shemus and Teigue complain at the meagerness of her charity, while Mary scolds them for ingratitude. Irked by his wife’s words, Shemus asserts his independence by rashly calling three times on the supernatural creatures of the woods to enter his house. Two traveling merchants appear, ostentatiously displaying their wealth. They offer money for souls and send Shemus and Teigue to broadcast their offer to the countryside. Cathleen arrives at her castle, where Aleel tries to distract her with a story about Queen Maeve of the fairies, who weeps for a mortal who died of love for her—not because she loved him, too, but because she forgot his name. Oona recalls her to the concerns of the day, earning a curse from Aleel for preventing him from relieving Cathleen of distress for ten minutes. The castle steward tells Cathleen that men broke into the castle to steal food; to Oona’s consternation, Cathleen declares the theft to be no sin, since the men must be starving. Shemus and Teigue then arrive with their tale of merchants buying souls; Cathleen, appalled, offers to buy their souls back. Father and son decline the offer, concluding that God turned his back on Ireland. Cathleen then instructs the steward to sell all her property, save only the house, and use the money to buy food for the starving, stating that she intends from that time forward to dedicate herself to others.

Aleel tries to get Cathleen to flee by telling her a dream he had of an angel who urges her to flee. She refuses, asserting that it was a pagan god, not an angel. She tenderly dismisses Aleel from her company to find the peace she cannot have herself and goes...

(The entire section is 863 words.)