The Shadow of a Gunman takes place amid the disruptions of the Troubles caused by the Irish Rebellion of 1916 and the subsequent war between the Irish and British in the country. Its focus is not the battlefield, however, but the tenement, and the characters are not conventionally heroic but very human and flawed. The most important character is Donal Davoren, a poet who has no interest in the social or political life of his country. He exists, instead, in a world of words and dreams, as he struggles to create beauty in a Dublin tenement. He shares an apartment with Seumas Shields, a former Republican who still has a few friends in the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and now makes a precarious living selling suspenders and buttons. He is no poet, although he knows a substantial amount of poetry; he believes, instead, in the Roman Catholic Church as a means of finding security and peace in a troubled time. He is also superstitious and constantly reading meaning into signs.
The last major character, Minnie Powell, is perhaps less well developed than the others. She is an enthusiastic Republican and a romantic. She seems to have an independence that the others lack, but her romantic dreams are fed by the same patriotic illusions that animate most of the minor characters in the play. She is attracted to Davoren because she thinks that he is a gunman on the run. When she reveals this perception to Davoren, he allows her to continue thinking of him in this heroic manner because it enables him to have a relationship with an attractive young woman, but this irresponsible furthering of an illusion ends up producing the tragedy at the end of the play.
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