The economic subtext of The Rising of the Moon provides an approach to its depiction of class realities within the Irish nationalist community and is a means of focusing on the play’s unmistakable if unsophisticated ideological content. There is a price on the Man’s head. That is the fact upon which the action of the play, such as it is, pivots. The amount named in the opening conversation between the policemen is a description of the value placed on the escapee by those with the power to set the market in such matters. It is also an expression of the economic status of those who are carrying out the will of such empowerment.
The police make themselves known not only by means of this financial signature but also by the fact that they are to be differentiated from the escapee’s jailers, without whose help, it is suggested, the Man would not have broken free. The way in which their sympathies are engaged is putatively at odds with those of their colleagues in the security forces. Moreover, their implied opposition to the Man’s freedom places them in a singular position regarding the local community as a whole. This is suggested by the Man’s disguise as a ballad-singer. To disguise himself as the anonymous purveyor of works that reflect and stimulate popular sentiment is to present himself as the voice of the people, a role whose undisguised nature is revealed as the play unfolds. The implication is that the police are opposed not merely to the Man’s freedom in the narrow, practical, legalistic sense of the word: Their allegiance makes them the enemies of the larger freedom for which the Man is such a powerful spokesperson.
The Sergeant is the dramatic point at which such concerns converge. He is at once the policeman with the greatest degree of visibility and responsibility in the play and the one who finds himself radically susceptible to the appeal of the Man’s rhetoric. This vulnerability is partly a matter of the moment, of the heightened sense of duty that the escape has created, and of the weight of official responsibility that the Sergeant has been asked to bear. The Man’s words and songs inevitably prey upon the Sergeant’s situation. Yet more than the moment is at stake. The Man is able to remind the Sergeant of the time before he was a policeman, when in his youth he was as familiar with popular ballads as any other one of the plain people of Ireland.
The Man’s reminders threaten to unmask the Sergeant by appealing to a level in him that has been buried beneath the uniform. It is not surprising that the Sergeant finds the Man’s singing unbearable and intolerable. Not only is the subject matter of the songs seditious—or at least addressed provocatively to the law and order which the Sergeant represents—but the songs themselves also possess an emotional appeal, evoking days of youth, enthusiasm, and commitment. They appeal to a presocial version of the Sergeant, an embodiment of himself that has not been tenable since he entered the police force. The inner man, which the Man evokes, is by implication a more valid and less constrained personage, one who was at home in his community and shared the community’s awareness and articulation of its most far-reaching ambitions.
Loyalty to this earlier self dictates the Sergeant’s behavior at the end of the play. His furious dismissal of the constables, and of the light that they literally might shine on the proceedings, expresses that loyalty and hints at the possibility that his actions are being guided...
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by a different light, one which as been rekindled through his contact with the Man. This possibility is established by the Man, as he goes to hide behind the barrel and quotes the key word from the first ballad he sings: “Granuaile,” one of the names in which Ireland’s identity was both disguised and enshrined by poem and legend. Indeed, what the Man says to the Sergeant at this point could be repeating the fact that the Man is “the friend of Granuaile” or could be a statement of the new truth that it is the Sergeant who has rediscovered his affiliation with the motherland.
Yet, Lady Gregory is careful to have the Sergeant’s closing words act as a caution against taking too lofty a view of him. The economic aspect of the play is explicitly reintroduced in these final lines, revealing that the Sergeant has not undergone a permanent transformation into a patriot by making good the Man’s escape; the stolid, narrow, self-interested elements of his personality are still to the fore. By questioning what he has done for the Man, and comparing it with the reward of a hundred pounds, the Sergeant raises issues of value. The Sergeant himself may be in a quandary as to how best to attach value to the events of the play. Yet his doubt is not one which the play’s contemporary audience would share. Thus, The Rising of the Moon attains an ideological gloss on the forces that it brings into conflict by making the audience its accomplice.