Kate and Eileen – The Aunts of Inishmaan

The Cripple of Inishmaan is a narrative about a small group of acquaintances on an even smaller Irish island. There’s Cripple Billy, his aunts Eileen and Kate, the town gossip-monger Johnnypateen, not-nice-girl Helen, and her foolish younger brother, Bartley. There’s also a doctor, a fisherman named Babbybobby, and Johnnypateen’s alcoholic mother. This cast represents a parade of disabilities—most of them not of the physical sort. To me, two of the most interesting characters are the aunts, who are undeniably good but nevertheless manifest a particular style of disability.

Billy was born with a physical disability. His body is weak and he walks funny. However, Billy is intelligent, shown reading more often than not, clever, and thoughtful. He becomes the bar by which the disabilities of the other characters are measured. Billy’s own differences become a scale on which to judge the deformities of the able-bodied characters.

Billy’s aunts open the play. They are quite elderly, but very sweet in that Irish grandmother sort of way. They are very fretful and compassionate towards Billy, concern which manifests as clinginess and ultimately irritates their little ward. These two also own the little town store, which becomes the locus of interaction where most of the show takes place. When they begin to worry, though, their comfortable shroud of fragile normality shows its cracks.

Early on, characters comment on Kate’s talking-to-rocks phase. When she gets nervous, it seems, her recourse is to lose touch with reality. She begins to talk to rocks. In the show we see her slip to this level in reaction to Billy’s disappearance. While she is in this state of mind, she is shown to be incredibly absent-minded (going into the back room to look for Bartley’s sweets, she returns a long time later having forgotten that he was even there) but nevertheless pleasant. In the UMF production of the show, the actress playing Kate spoke all of her dialogue during this time with a sweet, upward lilt that communicated harmlessness. It was actually quite close to distress.

Bartley also reveals for us the root of Kate’s collapse by explaining a conversation he had overheard, between Kate and her rock, where Kate asked the rock how Billy was doing in America. Compared to characters in the show whose drives were less pure, Kate appears to be a veritable beacon of loving tenderness encased in a timid mentality.

Aunt Eileen, though able to maintain her grasp on reality, shows her anxiety in other ways: namely, stress-eating. She lies to Bartley about what sweets they have at the store, and is then revealed to have eaten them all herself. She also displays irritability and a short temper, mostly aimed at her sister. The moment when the two clash (which is before Kate slips into full-on rock-mode) is an interesting moment in the play where the two accuse each other of their worst faults, then dissolve in how terribly they miss Billy.

Billy’s disabilities are entirely physical. Intellectually, he has a significant advantage over most of the rest of the cast. The other inhabitants of Inishmaan, such as Kate and Eileen, are explorations of this important idea: all disabilities are not physically, and physical disability is not everything.

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  1. Joan Braun

     /  March 27, 2015

    Hi, Michael,

    What a wonderful series of blogs about the play. I can’t seem to log in as perhaps Henry never set up the password system. If you would tell me how to do it, I would be glad to comment, unless it’s reserved for actual students and faculty.

    I had asked Jayne via e-mail how the actors coped at first with the verbal brutality in the treatment of Billy, the constant “hitting upside the head”, etc. which made it difficult for me to find my way through the emotional tone, between comedy and tragedy. Naturally, she has not found time to respond. Perhaps some of your bloggers might address that?

    Thanks for continuing to include me in your e-mails.


    • Michael K. Johnson

       /  April 13, 2015

      Hi, Joan, for some reason, the blog held your comments for approval. You’ve commented and been approved before, and usually that allows you to comment directly thereafter. I’m not sure why the system held your comments this time, but you should be able to comment directly from here on out.


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