Countess Cathleen, an Irish noblewoman who has been away from home for many years. In a time of famine, she has returned to her castle, seeking shelter within its walls from the evils of the outer world. Her desire to retreat is undermined by repeated encounters with the starving peasantry, whose pleas for assistance cause her to empty her purse before she can rediscover the lost way to her castle. She resists the urging of her poet-lover Aleel to retreat yet further, embracing instead her duty to her dependents. Concluding that no place is safe from the world, she vows to open her castle to those in need and to empty her treasury to supply them with food. When even this plan is foiled by the theft of her treasury, she is tempted to personal despair but continues to assert publicly that God will provide. Her sense of duty ultimately brings her to imperil her own soul by offering it to the devils in exchange for money enough to feed the poor and the return of all the souls previously purchased; her Christlike acceptance of responsibility for the sins of others results in a similarly Christlike ascent into heaven.
Aleel, the poet-lover of the Countess Cathleen, who accompanies her to lighten her burden with his music and his stories of fairyland. He is fiercely protective of her, quarreling with Oona and nearly fighting with Shemus when they interrupt his efforts to distract Cathleen. His most successful effort tells the story of a mortal who died from unrequited love for the queen of the fairies; now, he says, she weeps not because she has realized his love too late, but because he was so unimportant that she no longer remembers his name. This is Aleel’s fear for himself, and it seems to come true when Cathleen dismisses him from her company to find the peace he urges for her. He...
(The entire section is 757 words.)