The Workhouse Ward Characters

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First produced: 1908, at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, Ireland

First published: 1909

Type of work: Play

Type of plot: Comedy

Time of work: The 1900’s

Locale: A ward in Cloon Workhouse, Ireland

Characters DiscussedMichael Miskell

Michael Workhouse Ward, TheMiskell, a pauper and current resident of the Cloon Workhouse. Michael is an old and disputatious peasant who spends his time talking to his former neighbor, Mike McInerney, who is now his fellow workhouse inmate. Michael seems determined to have the last word, to suffer the most, and to come from the greatest family. In short, he is in a continual battle to defend his position against his old neighbor and fellow pauper. He is cunning and has the verbal skills to question the value of another’s possessions or family while inflating his own situation. He rehashes old grudges and charges such as being bitten by Mike’s dogs after returning from a fair day. Apparently that incident happened many years earlier, but Michael claims that it caused his downfall because he has been “wasting from then till now.” Although their lives have been so closely tied together, his dearest wish is to be buried at a distance from his old neighbor. Although he dismisses all troubles and obstacles with words, however, he is vulnerable to not having an opponent with whom to contend. When Mike McInerney indicates that he is to leave with his sister, Michael poignantly asks if Mike is going “to leave me with rude people and with townspeople . . . and they having no respect for me or no wish for me at all.” He needs someone to talk to because his life is talk, and, “with no conversable person,” he is miserable.

Mike McInerney

Mike McInerney, an old farmer who has lost his land and been reduced to pauper status in the Workhouse. He spends his time defending himself against the assaults of Michael Miskell and making countercharges against his adversary. He does seem to have been better off in earlier years than Michael, but his strategies of attack and defense are quite similar to those of his opponent. He claims, for example, that the banshee cries for the famous family of the McInerneys but never for the low Miskells. Their equal battle is turned in his favor by the arrival of his sister, Honor Donohue, with the invitation to join her in her seaside home. His victory does not lead to a final cry of triumph, however, and he softens his attitude to his old adversary by first offering him his pipe and then taking the unusual step of asking his sister to take Michael into the household. When she refuses, he is content to remain where he is; for all of its difficulties, a workhouse of continual verbal battles is preferable to a more regular but boring life without talk and the constant excitement of verbal battle. At the end of the play, they return to the battle that has been going on for so many years as Mike defends against Michael’s attacks the house he has just rejected. Their battle finally exhausts words, and they resort to a final barrage of pillows, mugs, and whatever is within reach. Their relationship is a marriage of enemies that only death can dissolve.

Honor Donohue

Honor Donohue, an elderly woman, Mike’s sister. She masks her need for a man in her home with a newfound charity to her impoverished brother. Although she is eager to have her brother help out in the house, she is not an obliging fool. When she is faced with the prospect of having two quarreling old men with her day and night, she proves as resilient as they are stuck in their ways. She immediately leaves them and goes off by herself with the clothes she had offered to Mike, to seek “a man for my own.” She is not interested in living through words and roles; the practical business of living comes first in the life of which she takes charge.

Sources for Further StudyAdams, Hazard. Lady Gregory. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1973.Ellis-Fermor, Una. The Irish Dramatic Movement. 2d ed. London: Methuen, 1967.Fay, Gerard. The Abbey Theatre: Cradle of Genius. New York: Macmillan, 1958.Kohfeldt, Mary Lou. Lady Gregory: The Woman Behind the Irish Renaissance. New York: Atheneum, 1985.Kopper, Edward A. Lady Isabella Persse Gregory. Boston: Twayne, 1976.Mikhail, E. H. Lady Gregory: Annotated Bibliography of Criticism. Troy, N.Y.: Whitston, 1982.Mikhail, E. H. Lady Gregory: Interviews and Recollections. Totowa, N.J.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1977.Saddlemyer, Ann, and Colin Smythe, eds. Lady Gregory, Fifty Years After. Totowa, N.J.: Barnes and Noble, 1987.
Categories: Characters