The Gaol Gate

by Isabella Augusta Persse

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The structure of this play is almost invisible, beginning as the continuation of a conversation which has probably been going on all night on the road from Daire-caol to Galway; proceeding seamlessly as a two-sided, then a three-sided conversation; and culminating in a monologue by Mary Cahel. That is not to say that there is no structure, for the organization is very tight and purposeful: first, the exposition of what the two women know, hope, and fear; then, their exploration of possibilities for the future, built on the assumption that the rumors at home are true and Denis has traded his companions for his own life and freedom; and finally, the revelation of the truth and Mary Cahel’s triumphant, vengeful determination to have the truth of the matter told far and wide.

Lady Gregory’s artistry is proven by the invisibility of the structure, for one is drawn into the very inner lives of Mary Cahel and Mary Cushin by overhearing a conversation between two apparently very ordinary women. The “Kiltartan dialect,” which Lady Gregory had already perfected and popularized in Cuchulain of Muirthemne (1902) and Gods and Fighting Men (1904), is the sound of the peasants and simple folk she knew and loved, and from whom she collected much of her folklore. There are no great dramatic flourishes or technical effects—only the simple and heartbreaking dialogue of two women who are not sure whether they should fear their son’s and husband’s death or the disgrace of the family name.

While suspense is created by the guesses and hopes of the two women until they learn the truth, tension is provided by the submerged clash of personalities between Mary Cushin and Mary Cahel and the more open clash between the feelings of Mary Cushin and the attitude of the gatekeeper toward criminals.

From the start, Mary Cahel appears to be the stronger of the two main characters. When Mary Cushin reports the sergeant’s boast that he had gained a confession from Denis by the use of strong drink, she says there would be no blame for Denis if he had implicated his companions, “his wits being out of him with drink.” When Mary Cushin says that it was Terry who fired the shot and Pat who instigated it, her mother-in-law’s only comment is that she should be silent and not help the sergeant in his inquiries. It is Mary Cahel who has insisted that they come to Galway to warn Denis of the poisonous atmosphere at home, and it is she who proposes a solution in the sale of the landholding to buy her son, daughter-in-law, and grandson a passage to America. As for herself, she is prepared to go to the workhouse, rather than return to Daire-caol and face the hate of the neighbors. When she learns of her son’s death, she falls to her knees and simultaneously grieves for her son and gives thanks that he did not inform against anyone. When she has had her say, she turns to her daughter-in-law and asks reproachfully if she has been left to keen Denis alone. Finally, when the gatekeeper has returned and told them that Denis did not inform, her concluding speech is worthy of any song of praise and mourning in Gods and Fighting Men.

Beneath the surface, however, there is more to Mary Cushin than one might suspect, because her finest moments are bracketed by those of her mother-in-law. When Mary Cahel asks if she is to be left alone in the keening, Mary Cushin responds with the second-longest speech in the play, detailing the many ways...

(This entire section contains 763 words.)

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in which she will miss him and concluding with a complaint that the worst of it is that his name and the name of his child will be blackened by the word that he was an informer. It is to this complaint that Mary Cahel’s powerful final speech is addressed.

When she asks if they will receive Denis’ body and the gatekeeper replies that he has already been buried, Mary Cushin says that it is a hard thing to have had no kindred at the burial, and this elicits the gatekeeper’s harsh reply about the order of things for a man to be hanged. While Mary Cahel stoically accepts the fact of Denis’ death and leaves the audience with her ringing determination to retrieve has name, Mary Cushin’s last words are a questioning of justice and an all-inclusive curse placed on those who executed Denis and on Terry Fury as well, for firing the shot.