Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 704
The story is set in an isolated Irish village where the community is closely knit, where the people are bound together by shared suspicions and fears, and where absolute evil is recognizable and verifiable. It relates a test of innocence that the whole community undergoes in an effort to identify a gang of horse thieves. The reader knows that the thieves are led by Anthony Meehan, but the tension of the story is created by the suspense of waiting to see if Anthony will succumb to the test.
Anthony Meehan is introduced as an absolutely evil character: violent, secretive, hateful, fearless, and relentlessly hard-hearted even to his own brother. There is a general assumption in the community at Carnmore that he has sold his soul to the devil, and the narrator frequently refers to him as “diabolical” and “Satanic.” His characterization and the setting are calculated to intensify this almost supernatural quality of evil, and his only relief from this role is when he loves his young daughter, Anne.
Denis Meehan has been his brother’s reluctant accomplice and is vulnerable to the superstition to which Anthony is immune. One night before they set off to steal a valuable horse, Denis reveals that he is afraid because he has found a bad omen in the ashes of the fireplace. When Anthony begins to imagine Denis as “a Judas,” he intimidates Denis with threats of violence against Denis’s family, and only Anne’s appeals for peace calm down her father. Anthony mocks those who are afraid and doubts Denis’s loyalty.
Some days later, the gang reassembles to prepare for the public test of innocence. Anyone who stays away is presumed to be guilty. Some of the thieves relieve their conscience by evasive tricks or theological distinctions between the magistrate’s Bible and the priest’s mass book, but Anthony insists that fears about perjuring themselves are mere superstition. He argues that “religion’s all a sham” and “the world’s all chance”; God cannot exist if he allows evil to triumph and innocence to be punished. Fearlessly, he urges them to be courageous and recognize that Providence allows all kinds of injustice in nature compared with which their actions are insignificant.
On the following morning, the community is assembled, and there is quiet gossip about the test. The usual oath on the Bible is required of those who are under suspicion. One thief is caught using the thumb-kissing trick, and Denis reluctantly perjures himself under the threatening eye of Anthony. The older brother swears with an air of mockery toward the whole proceedings. At this moment, the priest holds up a box covered with a black cloth, the Donagh, and announces that all must retake the oath on this ancient shrine. The Donagh has been used in extreme cases before, and the common belief is that perjury on this religious object brings on the offender “awful punishment . . . sudden death, madness, paralysis, self-destruction, or the murder of someone dear to them.” The priest challenges the guilty to step back and those who want to prove their innocence to come forward. Almost all step back, and soon the two Meehan brothers stand alone, as the tension builds to a climax.
They advance together, but Denis has already made up his mind that he will not swear on the Donagh. Anthony takes the oath and steps aside for Denis, but the younger brother faints. The crowd assumes that he has been struck dead. When he comes to, he calls out, “Save me from that man,” and it appears that he is going to turn witness against the gang. Anthony produces a pistol and prepares to shoot him, but Anne rushes forward; the bullet intended for Denis hits her. Her blood bursts onto Anthony as he desperately tries to ask her forgiveness, but all she has time to do is ask his forgiveness for plotting to deceive her father. Grief-stricken, he collapses and dies.
The community sees in these events the confirmation of its belief in the great power of the Donagh, and for many years swearing on it continues to be used as a test of innocence of even greater reliability than swearing on the Bible.