Table of Contents
Isabella Augusta Persse, better known as Lady Gregory, wrote the play The Rising of the Moon in the early 1900s. It is a comedic tale of police officers and an escaped prisoner they are trying to find, and it explores some of the dynamics between English and Irish people as well as prisoners and their captors.
In the story, a prisoner has escaped from jail and is on the loose. Three men, a sergeant, and two junior assistants are distributing flyers trying to aid in his capture, offering a sum of one hundred pounds, which, at the time was an incredible amount.
After passing out flyers, the men separate and the sergeant decides to sit and wait out on a quay to see if the prisoner can be captured. While he rests there, he thinks about the wealth one would have if they received the hundred pounds, and a man comes up to him.
- Sergeant: He is an irresponsible but brave policeman. Furthermore, he is easily fooled and he seeks acknowledgment.
- The Ragged man: He is a brave man because he can escape from jail and he is a smart man because he can deceive the sergeant well.
- Policeman B: He is an obedient policeman because he obeys whatever the sergeant says. Moreover, he cares about the Sergeant when he suggests the sergeant accept the lantern when he left him.
- Policeman X: He is an obedient man and he respects the Sergeant.
The Police were in search of the wanted criminal
On a moonlit night at an Irish wharf by the sea, three Irish policemen in the service of the occupying English government pasted up wanted posters for a clever escaped political criminal. Convinced that the escaped rebel might creep to the water’s edge to be rescued by sea, they all hoped to capture him for the hundred-pound reward and perhaps even a promotion.
The Sergeant sent his two younger assistants with the only lantern to post more leaflets around town while, uneasily, he kept watch at the water’s edge.
The Ragged Man tries to escape the Sergeant
A man in rags tried to slip past the Sergeant, explaining that he merely wanted to sell some songs to incoming sailors. The Ragged Man identified himself as “Jimmy Walsh”, a ballad singer. When the man headed toward the steps to the water, the Sergeant stopped him, insisting that “Jimmy” leaves by way of town.
Trying to interest the officer in his songs, the man sang a few ballads to the protesting Sergeant, who wanted only to keep the area clear so he could catch the fleeing prisoner if he appeared. He ordered the man to leave the area immediately.
The Ragged Man pretended to start toward town but stopped to comment on the face on the poster, saying that he knew the man well. Interested, the Sergeant’s changed his mind about sending the Ragged man away, and insisted that the stranger stay to furnish more information about the fugitive. The Ragged Man described a dark, dangerous, muscular man who was an expert with many weapons, then he hinted at previous murders of policemen on moonlit nights exactly like the present one.
The Sergeant lets the Ragged man stay with him
Frightened, the Sergeant gladly accepted the Ragged Man’s offer to stay with him on the wharf to help look for the escaped murderer. Sitting back-to-back on a barrel to have a full view of the dock area, the two men smoked pipes together to calm the Sergeant’s nerves. The Sergeant confessed that police work was difficult, especially for family men, because the officers spent long hours on dangerous missions.
Accompanying the Sergeant’s lament, the Ragged Man started to sing a traditional, sentimental song about lovers and the beautiful Irish countryside. Then he began a nationalistic ballad about a legend, oppressed old Irishwoman named Granuaile.
The Sergeant stopped him, protesting that it was inappropriate to sing about Irish oppression when political tempers were flaring between Ireland and England. His ragged companion replied that he was only singing the song to keep up his spirits on their dangerous and lonely watch.
Then the Ragged Man grabbed his chest as if the forbidden singing was necessary to calm his frightened heart, so the pitying Sergeant allowed him to continue his ballad. Again, the man sang about the fabled Irish martyr, Granuaile, but this time he inserted the wrong lyrics. Immediately, the Sergeant corrected the man and sang the proper line, revealing his knowledge of a rebel song, even though he was supposed to be loyal to the English rulers.
The Sergeant becomes nostalgic
The ballad-man slyly began to probe the Sergeant’s memories of former days when, as a young man, the Sergeant lovingly sang several traditional Irish ballads, including “Granuaile”. Confidentially, the Sergeant admitted that he had sung every patriotic ballad the Ragged Man named. The man suggested that the Sergeant and the fugitive perhaps shared the same youthful memories; in fact, the escaped prisoner might even have been among the Sergeant’s close friends in their younger days.
When the Sergeant admitted the possibility, the ballad-man described a hypothetical scene in which the Sergeant joined in with those former singing friends to free Ireland. Therefore, the Ragged Man concluded, it might have been fated that the Sergeant would be the pursued instead of the pursuer.
Caught up in the hypothetical scenario, the Sergeant mused that if he had made different choices—not going into the police force, not marrying, and having children—he and the fugitive could well have exchanged roles.
The possibility became so real for him that he began to confuse his own identity with the escape and imagined himself stealthily trying to escape, violently shooting or assaulting police officers. He was startled out of his reverie by a sound from the water, he suspected that his rescues had, at last, arrived to carry away the fugitive.
The Sergeant Doubted his decisions
The Ragged Man contended that the Sergeant in the past sympathized with the Irish nationalists and not with the law he currently represented. He suggested that the Sergeant still doubted the choice he made for the English law but against “the people”. Boldly singing the rebel tune, “The Rising of the Moon”, as a signal to the rescuers on the water and ripping off his hat and wig, “Jimmy”, the “ballad-man”, revealed that he was, in fact, the fugitive himself, with a hundred-pound reward on his head.
Startled and struggling with his heretofore suppressed sympathies for the rebels, the Sergeant threatened to arrest the escapee and collect the reward when his younger police companies approached. He protested that his rebel sentiments were buried in the past.
Slipping behind the barrel seat they had shared to hide from the nearing officers, the fugitive called on the Sergeant’s love for Ireland to keep his presence secret. Quickly hiding the fugitive’s wig and hat behind him, the Sergeant denied to his subordinates that he has seen anyone. When the officers insisted that they stay to aid their superior on his dangerous watch, the Sergeant gruffly rebuked their noisy offers and sent them away with their lantern.
The escaped rebel gratefully retrieved his disguise, promising to return the favour when, “at the Rising of the Moon”, roles would inevitably be reversed between oppressors and oppressed. Quickly, he slipped into the rescue boat. Left musing alone on the moonlit wharf, the Sergeant thought of the lost reward and wondered if he had been a great fool.
The title of The Rising of the Moon comes from a popular old rebel song that pointed to the rising of the moon as the signal for the rising of peoples against oppression. The main characters of the play represent the two opposing forces in Ireland: freedom and independence, personified by the ballad singer (a Ragged Man), and law and order, represented by the Sergeant.
The ballad singer is aligned with those who want to change the social structure of Ireland what the people now on the bottom will be on top. The Sergeant’s job is to preserve the status quo and avoid such a turning of the tables. Importantly, the Sergeant and the ballad singer represent the two alternatives that face the modern Irish — now as in the past.
One alternative is to accept the power of the English and be in their pay, as the Sergeant; one would then be well fed and capable of supporting a family. The other alternative is to follow the revolutionary path of the ballad singer and risk prison, scorn, and impoverishment. A ballad singer is a ragged man because he has been reduced in circumstances by his political choices.