The Workhouse Ward by Lady Gregory: Summary and Analysis

'The Workhouse Ward' is a one-act comedy by Lady Gregory. The play shares most of the elements of a comedy. A comedy is a dramatic genre that is primarily intended to amuse the audience. Comedy is associated with humorous behavior, wordplay, pleasurable feeling, release of tension, and laughter. A comedy frequently exposes incongruous, ridiculous, or grotesque aspects of human nature. It generally follows a fixed pattern of theatrical surprises that leads to a sense of exhilaration in the spectator. In this regard the Workhouse Ward, which is based on the life of workhouse ,fulfills all these characteristics of a comedy. But the play is also important, because from this play we get a picture of the life of a workhouse. Moreover, the play discusses the relationship between two old men.

The main characters of the play are two old men Mike Mcinerney and Michael Miskell. These two old men have been neighbors since youth. They incessantly quarrel with each other. Now they live in a paupers' infirmary or workhouse. But still they keep up their old habit of quarreling.

The play was set in the late 18 century and early 19th century Ireland. During that age the workhouses were common in many parts of Ireland. Ireland was still smarting from the potato famine and of course were still under English rule. The workhouses was the result of the Poor Laws. The workhouses were built to support the homeless people. To those workhouses in town and village, flocked the famine stricken, who could find no accommodation.It was only as a last resort, and when all hope was dead, that the people came to the workhouse. In those famine days the workhouse held a very important place in the lives of the poor people.

Lady Gregory makes a comedy out of the life of the workhouse dwellers. Lady Gregory’s portrayal of these two characters makes 'The workhouse ward' as a lively piece of drama. Mike Mcinerney and Michael Miskell are two old bachelors, who have no close relatives and are without any financial help. They find themselves at the end of their life in the ward of a local workhouse.

In the days before their retirement to this workkhouse they had many verbal differences. When they were active, they were neighbors. Now in this workhouse they also live in two side by side wards or rooms. Previously when they were neighbors, they had a constant practice of exchanging offensive words and epithets. Whenever a little disagreement arose between the pair they drew on these words and phrases and hurled them at each other with a will. Now in this workhouse, they keep up their old habit of exchanging offensive words. The play 'The workhouse ward' depicts their life and conflicts in the workhuse. Their conversation is full of fun and comedy. The very elements of fun are seen from the opening of the play. The opening conversation of them is as follows.

Michael Miskell: Isn't it a hard case, Mike McInerney, myself and yourself to be left here in the bed, and it the feast of Saint Colman, and the rest of the ward attending on the Mass.

Mike McInerney: Is it sitting up by the hearth you are wishful to be, Michael Miskell, with cold in the shoulders and with speckled shins? Let you rise up so, and you well be able to do it, not like myself that has pains the same as tin-tacks within in my inside.

Michael Miskell: If you have pains within in your inside there is no one can see it or know of it the way they can see my own knees that are swelled up with rheumatism, and my hands are twisted in ridges the same as an old cabbage stalk. It is easy to be talking about soreness and about pains, and they maybe not to be in it at all.

Mike McInerney: To open me and to analyseme you would know what sort of pain and a soreness I have in my heart and in my chest. But I'm not one like yourself to be cursing and praying and tormenting the time the nuns are at hand, thinking to get a bigger share than myself of the nourishment and of the milk.

Michael Miskell: That's the way you do be picking at me and faulting me. I had a share and a good share in my early time, and it's well you know that, and the both of ud reared in Skehanagh.

Mike McInerney: You may say that, indeed, we were both of us reared in Skehanagh. Little wonder you to have good nourishment the time we were both rising, and you bringing away my rabbits out of the snare.

Michael Miskell: And you didn't bring away my own eels, I suppose, I was after spearing in the Turlough? Selling them to the nuns in the convent you did, and letting on they to be your own. For you were always a cheater and a schemer, grabbing every earthly thing for your own profit.

Mike McInerney: Amd you were no grabber yourself, I suppose, till your land and all you had grabbed wore away from you!

Michael Miskell: If I lost it myself, it was through the crosses I met with and I goijng through the world. I never was a rambler and a card player like yourself, Mike McInerney, that ran through all and lavished it unknown to your mother!

Mike McInerney: lavisehd it, is it? And if I did was it you yourself led me to lavish it or some other one? It is on my own floor I would be to-day and in the face of my family, but for the misfortune I had to be put with a bad next door neighbour that was yourself. What way did my means go from me is it? Spending on fencing, spending on walls, making up gates, putting up doors, that would keep your hens and ducks from coming in through starvation on my floor, and every fourfooted beast you had from preying and trespassing on my oats and my mangolds and my little lock of hay!

The main activity here is verbal. The words become weapons in the sustained verbal battle which we witness from the start to the finish. It is also very funny that Mike Mcinerney and Michael Miskell have convinced the nuns into believing that they’re sick, so they don’t have to work. Each time the characters exchange any offensive word or arguments, the audience is delighted.

But apart from the apparent delight and fun there is also a serious study of human relation in the depiction of the life of these two charaters. It is true that Mike Mcinerney and Michael Miskell quarrel with each other. But still there is a bond between them. Regarding their relation Lady Gregory said ’ I sometimes think that the two scolding apupers are a symbol of ourselves in Ireland—"it is better to be quarrelling than to be lonesome." Lady Gregory also said about the relationship between these two old men: 'They fight like two young whelps that go on fighting till they are two old dogs'.

This is the perfect study of their relation. These two homeless people are most lonely. So, they spend their time bouncing off each other. But there grows a bondage between them. It is seen when Mike McInerney's widowed sister comes to take her brother out of the workhouse ward, but he refuses to go. He finally won’t go out of loyalty to his friend, who just argues with him anyway.

Thus, we see that Lady Gregory beautifully writes a comedy on the basis of the life in a workhouse. The play is full of fun and comedy. But the playwright also gives emphasis on the study of human relation.