The story of The Gaol Gate is told through the dialogue of two women—the mother and wife of the executed Denis Cahel—which constitutes three-fourths of the entire one-act play; their brief conversation with the gatekeeper takes the remaining one-fourth. Spoken in the “Kiltartan dialect” developed by Lady Augusta Gregory to represent the Gaelic-tinged speech of the people of her district, it is the talk of two ordinary women who have come a long way on foot and who cannot cease worrying and hoping about what they will find when they arrive at the Galway Jail, nor about the truth of the rumors in their home village that Denis has betrayed his comrades, Terry Fury and Pat Ruane.
Through their conversation, one learns the bare facts of the case of Denis Cahel, who was arrested and imprisoned for “firing a shot” in the nighttime—apparently a murder or an attempted murder. From the gatekeeper, they learn that Denis has been executed because his footprint was found “outside the window” and that his two companions have already been released for lack of evidence against them. This news is both a distress and a relief: The two women now know that Denis is irretrievably gone, but they also know that the rumors spread against him as an informer are false.
The dialogue between Mary Cahel and Mary Cushin begins with the end of their journey from Daire-caol, as they remark on the grim exterior of the jail, and—as in any casual conversation—shift by association of word and thought: first to the harsh things that were being said about Denis by the female relatives of Terry Fury and Pat Ruane, then to their certainty that it was in fact Terry who fired the shot and Pat who instigated the deed, and then to the fearful and hopeful speculation about the contents of the letter that Mary Cahel is carrying under her cloak.
The first five speeches of the two women identify Denis Cahel only by the words “he,” “him,” and “man,” introducing his name only after the audience has fully absorbed the grim reality of the jail’s exterior and the horror of “He that was used to the mountain to be closed up inside of that!”
The rest of their short dialogue is devoted to plans and speculations based on the assumption that the letter Mary Cahel is carrying is an announcement of Denis’ imminent release. Because the rumors at home could be true, and Denis might have implicated his companions while under the influence of alcohol, he clearly cannot return home. Rather than accept the money that the government would presumably pay Denis for being an informer, Mary Cahel is prepared to sell the family’s small landholding to pay for passage to America for Denis, Mary Cushin, and their child.
It is at this point in their conversation that the gate of the jail opens and the gatekeeper discovers them waiting outside. After reading their letter for them and reporting Denis’ fate, he disappears to fetch the few clothes that they may claim, and his absence is filled with the “keening” of their grief for Denis’ life and reputation. His return with the news that Denis’ companions were released for lack of evidence is followed by Mary Cahel giving the longest speech of the play, in which she states her intention to tell the world of her son’s heroism and sacrifice.
Praised by George Bernard Shaw as the greatest living Irishwoman, friend and literary collaborator of William Butler Yeats, Lady Gregory was cofounder and director of...
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the Abbey Theatre (the beginning of a serious Irish theater), the interpreter and popularizer of the Irish epics whose versions still appear in bookstores and classrooms, and a playwright of note.The Gaol Gate was her own favorite among her tragedies and is considered one of her two or three best plays. The play was an early success by a woman who began a serious writing career at the age of fifty, was alternately praised and reviled by both sides in the struggle for an independent Ireland, and maintained her own personal and literary voice throughout.
The play, like much of her work, both epic and dramatic, is unusual in its ability to evoke the spirit of the common people in a land which had spent generations being taught that its own culture and traditions were worthless. While maintaining the traditions and values of the nationally downtrodden, Gregory is also able to show the courage and dignity of Gaelic women, whether in the patriarchal, heroic past or in the oppressed, fervent, revolutionary, and still patriarchal present. It is Gregory’s peculiar gift that she can couch such plays as The Gaol Gate in the very language that she uses in her heroic epics. Its characters are palpably real and everyday, but their tragedy is invested with no less dignity and pathos than those of Deirdre and Emer at the death of their loved men.
This play is one of Gregory’s earliest and was reportedly written at speed. Perhaps because of that fact, rather than in spite of it, this work offers an impelling view of the universal condition of women in a patriarchal society. The patronizing sympathy and rigid self-righteousness of the gatekeeper are suitable foils to the women, whose characters speak of deeper and more human values. Hardly “feminist” in tone, the play nevertheless speaks of how women must face and deal with the results of what their men have wrought.
Adams, Hazard. Lady Gregory. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1973. The primary interest of this study, in the chapters entitled “Mythological History,” “Cloon,” and “Wonder,” is the ancient and continuing folk sources of Lady Gregory’s characterizations.
Coxhead, Elizabeth. Lady Gregory: A Literary Portrait. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1961. A sympathetic and comprehensive treatment of the person and her works, noting, among other things, Lady Gregory’s unheralded contributions to Yeats’s Cathleen ni Houlihan (1902).
Frazier, Adrian. Behind the Scenes: Yeats, Horniman, and the Struggle for the Abbey Theatre. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990. More a history than an analysis, this book describes Gregory’s significant part in the founding and maintenance of the theater, as well as in the writing of both Cathleen ni Houlihan and Pot of Broth (1902).
Gregory, Lady Augusta. Seven Short Plays. Dublin: Maunsel, 1909. Lady Gregory’s own note describes the three personally witnessed events from which she wove The Gaol Gate.
Kohfeldt, Mary Lou. Lady Gregory: The Woman Behind the Irish Renaissance. New York: Atheneum, 1985. This may well be the more complete, scholarly work foreseen by Elizabeth Coxhead (above) in her own treatment of Lady Gregory. Carefully researched and replete with documentation from letters and elsewhere, as well as interpretations of the works as they occur in Lady Gregory’s life, the book offers a more complete idea of how much of Cathleen ni Houlihan is Lady Gregory’s creation and an intimate glimpse into her relationship with Wilfred Blunt (with a suggestion of how his time in prison in Galway served to acquaint her with that jail gate). The definitive study.
Mikhail, E. H., ed. Lady Gregory: Interviews and Recollections. London: Macmillan, 1977. Offers Lady Gregory’s and others’ interpretations of her strengths, trials, and successes.
Robinson, Lennox. Ireland’s Abbey Theatre: A History, 1899-1951. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1968. Presents descriptions of Gregory and her work in the words of contemporaries, notes the initial rejection of her first two plays, and confirms her worth as a writer of comedy and drama, as well as a cultural mediator in her translations and adaptations of Molière’s plays.