Cathleen ni Houlihan
Happy, Vigorous, Spiritual; De Valera’s Fantasy in the Abbey Theatre
Ireland has, through the arts and its cultural heritage, often been perceived as a fantasy country; fantasy in the sense that it is often depicted in a simplified, romanticized fashion. This can be seen in William Butler Yeats’s and Lady Gregory’s rendition of Ireland as the romantic heroine Cathleen Ni Houlihan, or in the prevalence of Celtic culture, exemplified by organisations such as the Gaelic League. Eamon de Valera’s 1943 St Patrick’s Day speech, ‘On Language & the Irish Nation’, is yet another example of a romanticized, simplified, and idyllic Ireland, this time used for political, rather than artistic or cultural, purposes. It is clear to see through a large bulk of Irish literature, specifically the drama of the Abbey Theatre, however, that the Ireland de Valera depicted in this speech, a “happy, vigorous, spiritual” Ireland, never truly existed in the past or present; de Valera exploited Ireland’s romantic imagination to create political propaganda.
De Valera’s speech created an image of Ireland that was inconsistent with realistic literary portrayals of the country. In the speech, de Valera stated that his idyllic Ireland “would be home to people who valued material wealth only as a basis for the right of living, of a people who, satisfied with frugal comfort, devoted their leisure to the things of the spirit”. De Valera here tries to portray Ireland as populated by economically sound people, people who recognize the importance of the immaterial over the material, and are thus content with living on the basic necessities of life. What he is actually doing, however, is disguising Ireland’s poverty behind a romantic image. In a multitude of texts written before the 1943 speech, Ireland is portrayed as existing in poor economic circumstances.
During the early 20th Century, the Abbey Theatre, Ireland’s national theatre founded by Yeats and Lady Gregory in 1904, produced several plays that were set within an impoverished environment. The setting of Juno and the Paycock, by Sean O’Casey, is an example of the poverty that the working class in Dublin lived in during the 1920s. The opening of Act 1 is set in the “living room of a two-room tenancy occupied by the Boyle family in a tenement house in Dublin”. The tenancy buildings in Dublin were known for being poor living conditions, designed to house as many workers as possible in as little space possible. These urban slums are clearly in contrast to de Valera’s ideal of “a land whose countryside would be bright with cosy homesteads”, and thus suggests that de Valera actively aspired to a new form for Ireland; not one that necessarily has the majority of the population living in rural areas, but one that captures a nostalgic aesthetic of the past. This image of Ireland envisioned by de Valera can also be seen not to be necessarily rural due to other dramatic depictions of Ireland’s poor, such as J. M. Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World. The entire play is set within a “Country public-house or shebeen, very rough and untidy” on a “wild coast of Mayo”. County Mayo, known for its difficult terrain, would have been recognized by Synge’s audience as a difficult place to live, therefore already presenting the environment in a negative light. Furthermore, due to the inclusion of a “shebeen”, an illegal pub, it is clear to see that there is none of the wholesome imagery brought forth by de Valera’s speech. In these two plays there is clearly a lack of validity in the existence of what de Valera envisioned. The realistic settings and environments presented by O’Casey and Synge are in direct contrast to the idealizations of de Valera. De Valera is clearly attempting to disguise Ireland’s rampant poverty, to present an Ireland, shiny and plentiful, that does not exist.
Was the population, then, content with these conditions as de Valera suggests through saying that the Irish were “satisfied with frugal comfort”? Juno and the Paycock paints a difficult picture of the frugality of the Irish working class. Captain Jack Boyle, the plays anti-hero protagonist, is portrayed as lazy and unwilling to work. Whenever Boyle receives a job offer he is suddenly overcome by a fit of leg cramp, his wife, Mrs Boyle, saying that “It’s miraculous that whenever he scents a job in front of him, his legs begin to fail him!” (O’Casey, pp. 205) It is heavily implied by O’Casey that these leg cramps are less of a product of any genuine physical disability, and more of idleness, Boyle being entirely reluctant to get a job. Mrs. Boyle goes on to say that “you [Mr. Boyle] can’t climb a ladder, but you can skip like a goat into a snug!” (O’Casey, pp. 206) A snug, being a private room in a public house, implies that Boyle is far more eager to drink than he is to work, and thus is faking the leg cramps to avoid employment and go to the pub. This presents a problem when de Valera states that the Irish are “satisfied with frugal comfort”. In one sense, yes, Boyle is satisfied by his family’s frugality, his wife being the main earner, and any earnings she brings home he spends on drinking, and thus he is satisfied. However, it is doubtful that this is the type of satisfaction that de Valera envisioned. Perhaps, then, O’Casey is presenting a selfish satisfaction, where the family suffer due to the selfishness of the father, hardly the ideal de Valera presents in his speech.
It is more likely that de Valera envisioned something more akin to the Gillane family of Yeats’s and Gregory’s Cathleen Ni Houlihan, a family living in a small 18th Century cottage preparing for a wedding. The satisfaction with their frugality can be seen when Peter and Bridget, husband and wife, discuss their son’s wedding clothes:
“PETER. … Those are grand clothes, indeed.
BRIDGET. You hadn’t clothes like that when you married me, and no coat to put on of a Sunday more than any other day.
PETER. That is true, indeed. We never thought a son of our own would be wearing a suit of that sort to his wedding, or have so good a place to bring a wife to.”
The play is set in Killala, a village in County Mayo, and therefore it is insinuated that the Gillane family are rural peasants. It is clear to see from the above dialogue that they align with de Valera’s idyllic populous, people “satisfied with frugal comfort”, Peter and Bridget admiring their sons basic necessities: clothes for a wedding and a solid roof for him and his wife to live underneath. However, it is impossible to trust this as a realistic depiction of the working class as Yeats and Gregory wrote the play as a piece of cultural propaganda, hoping to embolden the men of Ireland into rising up against British colonial rule. It is unlikely that Yeats and Gregory attempted to make the Gillane family a realistic portrayal of the Irish peasantry, more likely romanticising them for artistic purposes. Therefore, it is clear to see that Irish drama negates the Irish frugality de Valera envisioned in his speech.
If the people of Ireland failed to live up to the noble frugality of de Valera, did they live up to his immaterial expectations; were they a people who “devoted their leisure to the things of the spirit”? In reference to Cathleen Ni Houlihan it can be said that there is devotion to the spirit as Michael, the Gillane son soon to be married, leaves at the end of the play to help fight the English, showing a devotion to the cause of Irish independence and nationalism. However, due to the play’s status as propaganda, we have to disregard this as an unrealistic representation of the Irish populous. If were to look at Juno and the Paycock, we once again see a mixed representation of what de Valera portrayed in his speech. On the one hand, Boyle shows a total lack of devotion to the spirit; he drinks, he is idle and refuses to provide for his family, and he is ultimately left penniless and alone by his family and friends. Boyle clearly does not embody a devotion to the spirit, but is rather a bleak portrayal of the Irish working class.
Boyle’s son, however, is a different case. Johnny Boyle has lost an arm due to involvement in the War of Independence, and regularly shows to have an intellectual interest in the fight for Irish independence: “Ireland only half free’ll never be at peace while she has a son left to pull a trigger.” (O’Casey, pp. 214) Furthermore, Johnny is shown as having devout Catholic beliefs, and often prays to the Virgin Mary: “Blessed Mother o; God, shelter me, shelter your son!” (O’Casey, pp. 222) These two traits added together may show Johnny as having “devoted [his] leisure to the things of the spirit”, placing much of his focus on the immaterial (politics and religion) than the material, thus acting more towards the idea that de Valera envisioned in his speech. Does the spiritual devotion of Johnny counteract the spiritual removal of Boyle? Possibly not, both Boyle and his son do not meet pleasing demise by the play’s conclusion, Boyle being abandoned by his family and Johnny being executed by the IRA. However, it could be said that the difference in generation between father and son suggests that de Valera’s idealized Irishman, “devoted … to the things of the spirit”, is something new for Ireland, that the idyllic “happy, vigorous, spiritual” Ireland is part of the nation’s future, an improvement upon its past. Perhaps also, then, O’Casey is suggesting that this improvement upon Ireland’s past is an unlikely outcome, Johnny, the strongest case for de Valera’s perfect Irishman, being executed at the hands of his countrymen before he can become representative of Ireland’s populous. Idealism, O’Casey suggests, is not impossible so much as it is improbable.
The drama of the Abbey Theatre can be seen as undermining the idealized Ireland of Eamon de Valera. De Valera offered through his speech an Ireland devoid of any realism, a fantasy designed to capture the imaginations of his subjects, and distance themselves from the harshness of their everyday lives. In fact, the drama of the Abbey Theatre proves that de Valera’s idyllic Ireland was far from just a fantasy, but had no precedent in history; only in allegorical propaganda such as Cathleen Ni Houlihan did any form of an idyllic Ireland exist, and that play is devoid of much realism. However, through plays such as Juno and the Paycock, there was a sense of hope for de Valera’s idyllic Ireland, that the future could possibly bring about an Ireland, “happy, vigorous, [and] spiritual”.
The Prosopopoeia of Ireland as a Woman: A Double-Edged Sword for Irish Nationalism
The Irish Literary Revival has been about promoting a National consciousness, leaving the recurring English stereotypes of Ireland behind, and striving for new beginnings with a free Irish State. Ireland had oftentimes been subjected to two tropes. The first was the loathsome “Stage-Irishman”, depicted as a cowardly drunk, and the second was the soft passive woman. Ireland, historically attributed to this feminine image was prevalent due to its celtic mythology, occult past and goddess symbolism. The revivalists took these images and reinvented them to suit a budding Nation in need to rediscover its identity after centuries of colonialism. These figures transformed the coward Irishman into a young soldier or artist, ready to fight for its country, and the weak female into a powerful mother figure reminiscent of old Irish traditions, personifying Ireland as a Motherland. Cathleen Ni Houlihan, the most well-known play with patriotic themes of the Literary Revival, was written by W.B Yeats and Lady Gregory. They promoted an embodiment of Ireland, as a frail woman after having her “four green fields” usurped, and luring a young man into sacrificing his life to retrieve them for her.
This was later an important inspiration of the Easter Risings in 1916, in which there were massive casualties. Years later, writers such as Dorothy MacArdle, will not only attribute fault to this theme of representing Ireland as a woman, but also leaving her voice to be interpreted by men. In her 1924 short story “The Portait of Rosin Dhu”, she writes a gothic piece about this tradition and its implications in gender roles, confusing nationalist identity and possibly being pointedly accusatory of Yeats’ character. It is therefore interesting to examine how this powerful emblem managed to somehow contradict its initial ambition, which has had empirical repercussions for the women taking part in this Cultural Revival. This goes back to this notion of idealistic men elevating these ideals past the point of comprehension, therefore killing their meaning, beauty and leaving the real women to be cast aside a revolution they earned their part in.
A Recurring Theme in Irish Nationalist Culture: The Case of Cathleen Ni Houlihan.
The Historical Narratives and Themes
Set during the 1798 rebellion, Cathleen Ni Houlihan is a play about a young man Michael, just a few days before his marriage to Delia, who is enchanted by an Old Woman, later to be revealed as the legendary Cathleen Ni Houlihan, a personification of Ireland. The short one act takes place in Michael’s family home, where he has just brought the dowry back to his parents. This literal bag of coins is centred on the stage, which is soon physically replaced by the Old Woman, symbolizing her transcending presence over materialism. This manifestation of Ireland as a woman has long been a tradition in Irish Literature, and this particular embodiment seems to encompass a few recurring myths.
The Sovereignty Goddess, representing the power of Kingdom, would present herself as a hag to the rightful king, and seduce him into mating, ending with her transforming into a young beautiful woman. It it never said if the Old Woman transforms into a “beautiful” woman, but it mentioned that the young girl had “the walk of a queen,” further referring to the Sovereignty Myth. There is also a heavy influence with Aisling tradition of poetry, in which a poet meets a young woman through a dream or vision. She declares herself as Ireland, going by many names such as Cathleen Ni Houlihan or Roisin Dhu, awaiting the impending return of the rightful king. The last tradition influencing this play would be the Morrigan, the Goddess of War, a transforming entity able to psychologically affects armies, much like the Old Woman seems to touch something undefinable in Michael, leading him to follow her out the door, ready to lose his life in her name.
Cathleen Ni Houlihan as an Archetypal Mother Ireland
Unlike most of the traditional myths however, the Old Woman, although she refers to her long list of lovers, she is entirely desexualized. This version of Ireland is not described by her physical appearance, but her aura and speech pattern divulge an ethereal quality to her character. Once the sexual aspect of the woman is removed, she becomes a mother, as feminine chastity ensures blood purity of the offspring. This role of mother, is one worth protecting, and one in which the men that are fit and able, have the duty to fight for. This Ireland is crippled by colonialism and longs for its freedom, which is conveying this message of revolt to the audience. The woman alludes to this when she says “If anyone would give me help he must give me himself, he must give me all”. In her analysis of the aesthetics of the play and their implications for Irish Nationalist Culture, Marion Quirci writes “The characters are viewed through the fog of a hundred years of Irish History”. One could see how the characters are all the product of generations of decline in what Nationalist deem true Irishness, further compelling the audience to build up resentment, and most dangerously perhaps, to associate the Revival movement with a history of violence on the name of Mother Ireland. The figure of Mother Ireland, not only legitimizes the Patriarchy that marginalizes the other female characters on stage, Bridget and Delia, but promotes this cult of the Virgin Mary, effectively politicizing motherhood. This has trapped the women of this Revival to one role.
The Implications of Maud Gonne’s Performance
On the play’s opening night on April 2nd 1902, it was an instant success, due in no small part to the fact that Maud Gonne, a Nationalist darling, and this casting carries much weight in the hearts of the growing patriotic audience. Gonne, a known outspoken Irishwoman against British Imperialism, becomes herself, a strong embodiment of a free state for Ireland. Renowned for her oratory and stage presence, she accepted the role, on the condition she could have some creative input, and her most poignant contribution to the plot, is the decision to have Michael make his decision on stage and follow her out the door. Yeats and Gregory had wanted for him to be torn between choosing to stay with his family, or follow Cathleen to a likely death. This decision is all the powerful, as the audience finds themselves also leaving the theatre right after this pivotal scene, mirroring the same action as Michael, therefore planting the seeds of revolution in their mind. Furthermore, the fact that Maud Gonne is dressed as a hag on stage, but is transformed into a young woman with the walk of queen off-stage, is also a striking image for the audience to leave with, as she was known for her beauty. However, she embodies this desexualized figure, having the effect of empowering women with the potential of female activism through the fundamental identity of an Irishwomen, which was widely attributed to motherhood. This denial of female desire, or engaged female activism may have inflicted the legacy of the many women taking an active part in the Revival. Gonne blurs the lines between symbolic ideals and reality.
Lady Gregory Overclouded by W.B Yeats
Cathleen Ni Houlihan was long known to be Yeats’ most successful work, a statement he never took the time to clarify. After the Easter Rising in 1916, in which many revolutionaries attributed the play with its inspiration, Yeats would write “Did that play of mine send out/ Certain men the English shot?”, taking full ownership of the impact of the play, even though the very premise of the play was based on a legend she had heard on her estate. Lady Gregory, refused to stake claim as to not deny Yeats, her lifelong friend, his most popular success. However, recent historical findings have made it clear that Gregory was responsible for writing most of the lines, specifically the entire dialogue of the family, and some suggest she had a hand in the Old Woman’s lines as well. Yeats, responsible for the otherworldly lines of Cathleen, attributed the success of the play to the dynamic between high (Ethereal language) and low (The empirical action) art. Not only is this a condescending way of demeaning Gregory’s considerable contribution to the piece, but it is denying that the realistic dialogue of the family is what audience’s connected with the most.
Lady Gregory’s lack of reaction to this, is suggestive of how her role in this Revival is complimentary with this promotion of the image. She embodies the role, ironically written by Yeats as an homage to Maud Gonne, of Cathleen in a more discernible way. She already is somewhat of a surrogate mother figure to Yeats, but also she serves Ireland for reasons beyond individual practical advantages. She devotes her life to the Abbey, a cultural hub of the Revivalist Movement, by raising money, directing, writing etc. Her political views could also be considered quite patriarchal in essence, considering she did not speak out against Yeats for taking full credit for their collaborative piece, possibly highlighting her traditional views of gender roles. She did not have much in common with other prominent female figures of the Revival such as Gonne or the Gore-Booth sisters, and did not support the women’s suffrage. She was much older when she became involved in politics, therefore attributing her public persona to a calm sexless matron of Irish Culture, even though her life was by no means chaste or her convictions weak-minded.
“The Portrait of Roisin Dhu”: An Icarian Cautionary Tale.
A Response to the Status Quo
Many writers have criticized Yeats for his attachment to unattainable ideals, and many have found Cathleen Ni Houlihan incredibly troubling, especially after the Easter Risings of 1916. Dorothy MacArdle, a gothic novelist and member of Cumann mBan, writes “The Portrait of Roisin Dhu” in 1924. The short story is about the dangers of the Revival practice of having women be symbolic and passive, while the man gives her a voice. MacArdle, a prolific writer of the Revival, was among the many women writers to be left out of the narrative for the better part of the century. The narrative follows Maeve, a young woman helping her morose cousin Hugo Blake, a painter trying to find inspiration. He decides to paint a portrait of Roisin Dhu, and sets off to find her. He returns with the delicate Nuala, a princess from the West Islands. As Hugo begins to paint her, Maeve notices she gradually starts suffering emotionally and physically, but Hugo maintains he is making her even more sublime than she could have ever been in actuality. Over the course of a few months, Nuala slowly decays, leaving but a shell of her former self. Once the painting is complete, she collapses and dies. This plays with the premise of Edgar Allen Poe’s “Oval Portrait” with the Irish the tradition of representing Ireland as a Woman. When Hugo comes to the realization of his actions, he is horrified. It is implied he commits suicide by drowning in the lake.
Hyper-Masculine Against Hyper-Feminine.
MacArdle artfully writes a thinly veiled critique of this recurring theme of representing Ireland as a woman, particularly prevalent in male nationalist writing, and even more pointedly towards Yeats. Hugo Blake, a Yeats-like artist, described as “passionate and lonely”, strives to elevate a human being to exaggerated heights to the point of killing the subject. The obsession of focusing on unattainable dreams, are impossible expectations to meet and eventually destroying the very idea worth fighting for. Hugo believes he is doing the world a favour by capturing this otherworldly beauty, however his relentless dissatisfaction makes him lose track of what made Nuala beautiful in the first place, echoing this idea that men become so enthralled with this ideal to the point of dying for it.
The story also focuses on the two women, and juxtaposes them as both tropes of symbolic and reality. Nuala is the symbol of Ireland, the ideal free state fought for by the nationalists. Her reason to be is to strengthen national identity. Her passive and voiceless nature is problematic, as all she will ever be known for, shall be through the single-minded perception of a man. Hugo finds the idea of marrying Roisin Dhu “[…] and outrageous question […]”, therefore desexualizing her, leaving her motherly aspect transparent. MacArdle opposes both women as both sides of the female nationalist coin. Maeve mentioned being aware of Nuala’s deteriorating state, however she does not attempt to step in. It may therefore be implied that Maeve let Nuala die out of a erroneous sense of political convictions of womanhood overcoming the strong need of female alliances. Both women, either in spirit or in actuality, are sacrificed to feed a timeless symbol.
The Black Rose: A Confused Symbol
Nuala is described as “so delicate and so remote,” and then Hugo says “For these red lips, with all the mournful pride,” evoking the Yeats poem “The Rose of the World”, dedicated to Maud Gonne.It is significant that she chooses to mention this poem, as it highlights an inconsistency in Yeats work. Roisin Dhu is a black rose, a flower existing only in imagination. When Yeats writes the poem, the rose is not representing just any woman, it is Maud Gonne, a nationalist activist that had over the years embodied this role of Ireland, especially after playing Cathleen Ni Houlihan. He has not only attributed this surreal quality to an actual woman, Gonne does not truly fit as a desexualized Mother figure since he is in love with her. He regularly attributes the image of Ireland with this romantic undertone, which begs to question if his body of nationalist work a labour of blind love to win over this untameable spirit?
As one can observe, the image of Virgin Mother is a strong component of Irish identity, especially during the Revival in which there was an active movement to define Irishness. She is a powerful emblem for public ideology, however it becomes quite apparent that this has caused empirical collateral damage. Dorothy MacArdle manages to shine the light on the issues promoted by Yeats and Gregory’s Cathleen Ni Houlihan. The female presence is dissolved to an idea of virtual womanhood, but has also had real and even violent repercussions. The rebellion casualties are often talked about, and demonstrate how a patriotic play could have led the young men to be willing to give their lives for Ireland. It is also significant to mention how these patriarchical notions had repeatedly belittled female activists. A particular interesting example is “In Memory of Eva Gore-Booth and Con Markievicz” by Yeats, is empirical evidence of his disappointment in women’s involvement in nationalist causes, believing them to lose their beauty once they became outspoken. Constance Markievicz, one of the sisters inspiring this piece, was arrested for her involvement in the 1916 Easter Rising, sentenced to death, a later pardoned (much to her dismay), which would strip her from her status of martyr. Finally, even with the suffragette movement later on, many of the prominent women nationalist artists were historically cats in the shadows of their male counterparts until relatively recently, where the Irish Literary Revival took a new perspective with a wider array of voices that had longed to be heard.
Bobotis, Andrea “Rival Maternities: Maud Gonne, Queen Victoria, and the Reign of the Political Mother”. Victorian Studies 49.1 (2006): 63–83. Web…
Butler Cullingford, Elizabeth. “Shrill Voices, Accursed Opinions”, (Pethica, pp. 399-407)
Crilly, Anne. “Banning History”. History Workshop 31 (1991): 163–165. Web…
Kiberd, Declan. “Mothers and Daughters” Inventing Ireland. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1996. Print.
Meaney, Gerardine. “Feminisms, Nationalisms and Identities”, Gender, Ireland, and Cultural Change: Race, Sex, and Nation. New York: Routledge, 2010. Print.
Molinor, Jennifer. ”Dying for Ireland.” Violence, Silence, and Sacrifice: The Mother-daughter Relationship in the Short Fiction of Irish Women Writers, 1890-1980. ProQuest, 2008. Print.
Nic Congáil, Ríona ““life and the Dream”: Utopian Impulses Within the Irish Language Revival”. Utopian Studies 23.2 (2012): 430–449. Web…
Quirci, Marion Essay, “Cathleen Ni Houlihan and the Disability Aesthetics of Irish National Culture”, (Eire-Ireland, 50:3&4, FallWinter 2015, pp. 74-93)
Gender Politics and Irish Nationalism in Cathleen Ni Houlihan
“I am writing a woman out of legend. I am thinking how new it is – this story. How hard it will be to tell” (Eavan Boland). Much of twentieth-century Irish literature engages in issues relating to gender. Although stereotypical representations of men and women were often core to many narratives, some authors chose to abandon the gender archetypes to which they were culturally confined. In their co-authored play Cathleen Ni Houlihan, authors Lady Gregory and William Butler Yeats present their audience with contrast gender ideologies throughout their respective contributions to the text. While the play in its entirety is political and is therefore a critical piece of Irish nationalism within the genre of Irish literature, diverging political statements are made within.
Within her critical text Ascendancy Nationalism, Feminist Nationalism, and Stagecraft in Lady Gregory’s Revision of Kincora, professor Maureen Hawkins highlights the inferiority complex among gender roles and their relation to Irish nationalism. She notes that although many women “played prominent roles in the political and cultural nationalist movements, they and their efforts were marginalized and sometimes suppressed” (Hawkins, 95). Similarly, within English Radicals and Reformers, authors, Edward Royle and James Walvin, comment upon the “emancipation” of women regarding their position in nationalist movements (Royle & Walvin, 188). Women and their role within politics were greatly undermined.
Although Lady Gregory has been coined as the “woman behind the Irish Renaissance”, this title does not allude to her influential role regarding the establishment of Irish literature. Her contributions were often overshadowed by her fellow – and predominantly male – literary associates, like those of William Butler Yeats and John Millington Synge. However, her work merits extensive recognition for their feminist undertones, as she attempts to reframe gender ideologies and expose the nature of Irish nationalism. Recent scholarship has addressed exactly this situation: “Ireland has, of course, long been gendered – by the political nationalist metanarrative and the cultural nationalism of traditional history and literature – as a women victimized by the colonizing English male. For an equally long time, the lives of actual Irish women were arguably colonized by Irish men, at the same time both genders were colonial subjects of England” (Bradley & Valiulis, 6).
Within twentieth century Irish literature, the Irish woman was generally confined to the limitations of her role as a maiden or an old hag. With little mention of independent thought or action, their characters were often not of great significance. In fact, “In the literature of the emerging nation, women reverted to being a site of contest rather than an agent of her own desire. No nationalism in the world has ever granted women and men the same privileged resources of the nation-state” (Kiberd, 406-7). However, known for her feminist ideals, Lady Gregory plays upon this discrepant allegory by empowering her female characters. In Cathleen Ni Houlihan, mythology is used to dramatize a lost and homeless Ireland that can only be vindicated by acts of heroism. Arrays of symbols evoke the ongoing theme of nationalism, but the most prominent is of Cathleen herself. An elderly woman who can only be revived as young and beautiful upon the sacrifice of young men, Cathleen becomes a personification for Ireland, as she requires these men to take action on her behalf and protect her from external forces:
“Bridget. What was it put you wandering? Old Woman. Too many strangers in the house. Bridget. Indeed you look as if you’d had your share of trouble. Old Woman. I have had trouble indeed. Bridget. What was it put the trouble on you? Old Woman. My land that was taken from me. Peter. Was it much land they look from you? Old Woman. My four beautiful green fields” (Gregory & Yeats, 5).
The reader is immediately able to make connections between Cathleen’s abstract dialogue and their parallels to Irish history, supporting the ideal that she is an embodiment of Ireland. For instance, editor, James Pethica, writes that the “four beautiful green fields” allude to the four provinces of Ireland: Munster, Leinster, Ulster and Connacht. According to Rosalind Clark’s The Great Queens: Irish Goddesses from the Morrigan to Cathleen Ni Houlihan, “To the audience it is clear that her talk has a double meaning, but to the family in the play it sounds perfectly natural at first: the old woman’s situation is only too unusual among Irish beggar women. There is another side of her talk that they cannot understand, but they put that down to the fact that she has had so much trouble that it ‘has put her wits astray’. But these speeches are full of meaning and produce intense emotion in the audience, who are suddenly realizing that this old woman is Cathleen” (Clark, 174). Cathleen claims that she has been wandering because there are “too many strangers in the house” (Gregory & Yeats, 5). The authors are hereby refering to real world conflict by insinuating Great Britain’s reign over Ireland (the British are strangers within the house of Ireland). By adding a realistic aspect to the text, themes of nationalism are legitimized and Lady Gregory and Yeasts’ arguments carry influential depth to their audiences.
Enlisting the help of “friends”, Cathleen entices men to “die for her” with promises of fame and glory. She tells Michael, the son of the Gillanes, about the series of heroes who have sacrificed themselves. Abandoning his betrothed, he becomes eager to do the same.
“Peter [to Patrick, laying on his arm]. Did you see an old woman going down the path? Patrick. I did not, but I saw a young girl, and she had the walk of a queen” (Gregory & Yeats, 9).
This feminine representation reflects an idyllic male image of womanhood. However, as women were often characterized by their docile and nurturing nature, Cathleen’s blood thirst is a shocking contradiction to this traditional female archetype:
“Cathleen Ni Houlihan celebrates death [and] summons men to die for an abstract notion of the four beautiful green fields and idealised concept of Ireland” (Innes, 109).
In her article “Thinking of Her… as… Ireland: Yeats, Pearse and Heaney”, Elizabeth Cullingford examines this depiction of Ireland as a woman and concludes that this representation is neither natural nor stereotypical, but “rhetorically invisible” (Cullingford, 3). Gregory presents her audience with an opposition to the traditional social structure of Ireland, wherein men fight and defend their country on behalf of a woman. By straying from the stereotype in which women served as passive symbols of the nation, Gregory exposes the patriarchal nature of nationalism and uses literature as a means of shattering gender ideologies.
William Butler Yeats was undoubtedly a leader among the Irish Literary Revival whose writing embodied nationalist elements of Irish spirit and culture. In his contribution to Cathleen Ni Houlihan, Yeats contrasts materialistic life with the glory of sacrifice in order to elucidate the need for Irish independence. However, his approach to the play offers a diverging political statement than that of Lady Gregory, shying away from feminine empowerment and underlining instead the importance of nationalism.
“They shall be remembered forever, They shall be alive forever, They shall be speaking forever, The people shall hear them forever” (Gregory & Yeats, 8).
Through Michael’s willingness to fight for Cathleen as a nation, Yeats’ is making personal and political commentary. He presents man as a patriot and an active defender of the female Ireland and uses literature as a means of evoking and representing his own nationalistic pride. Women, however, function solely as metaphors – submissive and empty symbols that ultimately diminish the humanity of man. Through Yeats’ symbolism and the subtle reinforcement of traditional female stereotypes, he reinstates the inferiority complex and legitimizes the patriarchal dominance that Lady Gregory denied.
Returning to Boland’s quotation regarding the writing of a woman out of legend, we begin to understand that literature is personal and often reflects the opinions and biases of the author. In their collaboration, Cathleen Ni Houlihan, Lady Gregory and William Butler Yeats present their audience with a paradox regarding the feminine condition and its relation to Irish nationalism. While Cathleen is depicted as an asexual mother of the nation and a mythical emblem of Irish nationalism, she is also an empty symbol that drives the distortion and marginalization of women. Through Cathleen’s character, Lady Gregory voices political statement, tackles patriarchal power structures and expresses her own frustrations towards the social restrictions of her time. Her text presents a forceful argument for the inclusion of women into the broader political sphere. Yeats, however, undermines these feminist ideologies by hollowing the role of the woman throughout the play. Serving merely as a symbol for the nation, he does not grant women political acknowledgement. Offering their audience diverging political statements, Lady Gregory and William Butler Yeats ultimately unite in their call for Irish nationalism.
Bradley, Anthony and Maryann Gialanella Valiulis. Gender and Sexuality in Modern Ireland. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1997.
Clark, Rosalind. The Great Queens: Irish Goddesses from the Morrigan to Cathleen ni Houlihan. Maryland: Barnes and Noble books, 1990. Print.
Cullingford, Elizabeth B. “Thinking of Her… as… Ireland: Yeats, Pearse and Heaney.” Taylor & Francis Online (2008): n. pag. Web.
Edward Royle and James Walvin, English Radicals and Reformers (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1981), p. 188.
Innes, C.L. Woman and Nation in Irish Literature and Society, 1880-1935. Hertfordshire: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1993.
Kiberd, Declan. Inventing Ireland. London: Random House, 1996.
Maureen S.G. Hawkins. Ascendancy Nationalism, Feminist Nationalism, and Stagecraft in Lady Gregory’s Revision of Kincora. 1990.
Ryan, Louise and Margaret Ward, Irish Women and Nationalism, Soldiers, New Women, and Wicked Hags. Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2004.
Yeats, William B., and Augusta Gregory. “Cathleen Ni Houlihan.” N.p., n.d. Web.
Be a Good Irishman, and Fight: An Analysis of William Butler Yeats’s Play Cathleen Ni Houlihan
Literary composition was a fueling element in the Irish nationalist movement of the early twentieth century. William Butler Yeats undoubtedly placed himself as a leader in the Irish Literary Revival. While Yeats’s nationalism was not as drastic as some revolutionaries whom he was, perhaps unenthusiastically, acquainted with, he often incorporates a strong commitment to Ireland and her people. To elucidate the motives for Irish independence, Yeats relates the Irish cause to his innate values of love and sacrifice, which envelop a broader propriety. In his play Cathleen Ni Houlihan, Yeats contrasts mundane, materialistic life with the beauty, and the glory of martyrdom, specifically martyrdom for the cause of Irish independence. Yeats suggests that to cede one’s life to a greater cause requires independence and a firm belief in the “Old High Way of Love (Adam’s Curse).” Through his nationalist play, Yeats not only argues for Irish patriotism, but also for the patriotism to be fueled by romantic ideals.Yeats portrays the motives behind Michael and Delia’s nuptials as materialistic and impure. In Michael’s poor Irish family, Yeats shows a desperation for advancement in society. Since Yeats supports the Irish against the tyrannical British forces, he is clearly not against the concept of human betterment in society. However, it seems that Yeats feels that an individual’s progress should not come from sacrifice of pure motives, like love, for the sake of economic advancement. Until Yeats introduces “The Old Woman” into the story, the conversation between Michael and his extended family is focused on their narcissistic fixation on Michael’s wealth. Further compromising the sanctity of marriage, they discuss the wealth Delia will bring Michael in their union. The play begins with the gathering of Michael’s extended family talking about Michael’s aforementioned wedding. However, Michael’s family’s constant association of wealth with marriage leads this jabbering to seem utterly cant-like. Michael’s father, Peter, says “Indeed, I wish I had the luck to get a hundred pounds, or twenty pounds itself, with the wife I married (157)”. Peter’s wife, Bridget, then encourages this materialism by stating how she serves Peter as his wife. She doesn’t suggest adulation or devoted love for Peter, but rather, she states her most significant contribution to the marriage is her physical toil. She says, “If I brought no fortune I worked it out in my bones…while I dug the potatoes, and never asking big dresses or anything but to be working.” The irony in Bridget’s statement is that though she dismisses her immediate materialism by saying that she is “never asking big dresses.” Her lack of recognition of love creates a sense of eternal materialism, as she sees her sole purpose as work. Yeats suggests that Bridget’s, and possibly Ireland’s, forced notion of frugality does not free them from any notions of materialism. Bridget’s recognition that she had to sacrifice her materialism for the good of the family demonstrates that materialism is still a value, as relinquishing it seems to be some sort of sacrifice. Peter then enforces further this artificially dual nature of wealth and marriage when he says “It will be Patrick’s turn next to be looking for a fortune.” Peter synonymous referral of “wife” and “fortune” suggests that in this age, Irish society has lost the emotional concept of family. Michael’s family’s inability to state, or even recognize, the righteous qualities of marriage institute an unholy backdrop to Michael and Delia’s union. Yeats begins the play with a stark sense of materialism. With the materialism comes a mundane society even though it is poor and oppressed. Yeats places Michael at the heart of this society. Given the opportunity for a greater purpose in life, Michael has to choose whether to conform, and struggle like all the rest, or separate, and fight for Ireland. This contrast leads the play to argue staunchly for independence.With the introduction of the “old woman,” the allegorical nature of the play becomes clear. The old woman represents Ireland because she is poor, weakened, and mistreated. However, even in this depleted state, the woman still has an infallible allure which attracts those who are brave and independent. The woman calls upon the Irish to fight for her, for Ireland, and for themselves. The allegorical theme of the story is that if the old, beaten down Ireland is to gain her independence, she will require the unyielding support of her people. Set in 1798, immediately prior to an Irish revolt aided by the French, Cathleen Ni Houlihan takes place at the heart of England’s enclosure movement, where the English nobility seized the land and resources of peasants across Great Britain. Therefore, when the “Old Woman” says “My land was taken from me/ My four beautiful green fields (160),” Yeats is not only indicting the English aristocracy in the infliction of misery, but he is also identifying the wandering “Old Woman” as a symbol for Ireland. Her “four beautiful green fields” represent the four provinces of Ireland: Leinster, Munster, Connacht, and Ulster. Through the dialogue with the “Old Woman,” Yeats identifies the Irish cause, while implementing very pro-Irish imagery in order to emphasize the Nationalism of the play. When asked “what was it put you wandering,” the “Old Woman” responds, “Too many strangers in the house (160).” This openly demonstrates Irish nationalism, because Ireland, according to the “Old Woman,” and Yeats, effectively, have been polluted by the English colonial presence. The “Old Woman” stresses how long the Irish have struggled for independence: “I have travelled far, very far; there are few have travelled so far as myself, and there’s many a one that doesn’t make me welcome (159).” The last portion of that sentence demonstrates that Ireland has been abused by “many a one,” from the Normans to the Vikings to the the English, but also that many of Ireland’s own have rejected this “Old Woman.” Therefore, they have rejected their own duty to stand up for Ireland. Yet the “Old Woman” believes that the fight for Ireland’s independence is still very much alive. She says, “Sometimes my feet are tired and my hands are quiet, but there is no quiet in my heart. When the people see me quiet, they think old age has come on me and that all the stir has gone out of me (160).” She does not think that Ireland has not grown limp with age. However, the “Old Woman” then points out that when Ireland faces times of difficulty and misfortune, she needs support from her patrons, as well as those abroad, such as the French. “But when trouble is on me I must be talking to my friends (160).” The “Old Woman” then states that a love for Ireland is often debilitating to the lover, claiming that “many a man has died for love of me.” This once again underlines the ardent pride which many have for their Ireland, as well as the repeated persecution of the Irish. The “Old Woman” then expresses what she needs, and therefore, what Ireland needs, saying, “It is not food or drink that I want…I it is not silver I want…If anyone would give me help he must give me himself, he must give me all (162).” Here, Yeats brings the thematic lesson back to materialism, when the “Old Woman” states that meager economic sacrifices won’t affect the Irish cause, rather, all she needs is the Irishman “himself.” The “Old Woman” is ever mindful of the risks involved in joining the fight for independence, especially the inherent risk of death, proclaiming, “Many a child will be born and there will be no father at its christening to give it a name (164).” The “Old Woman” then calls upon the family to join the French in fighting for themselves. Michael, entranced by a mystical allure, agrees doubtlessly, “I will go with you (163).” The simple manner in which Michael agrees with the Old Woman affirms the simple nature of what she is asking. No long soliloquies are needed for Michael to ponder this decision; he is simply entranced, without realizing the possible drawbacks to such a monumental decision.The ease with which Michael rejects his materialism for a greater truth demonstrates Yeats’ convictions regarding love and martyrdom. Yeats suggests that to fully love is to be utterly absent of hesitation, and that martyrdom, ironically, leads to eternal life. Michael’s fallacious relationship with Delia is the antithesis of what Yeats would call “The Old High Way of Love (Adam’s Curse.)” Yet in the story, Yeats contrasts Michael’s marriage with his seemingly uncontrollable pursuit for the “Old Woman.” And while Michael’s quest to find the “Old Woman” is not of a romantic journey, the intensity of his emotion mirrors how Yeats feels romantic love should be. In the same quote which the “Old Woman” lets known that death is a symptom of martyrdom, she argues that martyrdom enables, or even ensures eternal life: They shall be remembered for ever,They shall be alive for ever,They shall be speaking for ever,The people shall hear them for ever (164).By placing these claims directly after successive negative aspects of sacrificing oneself for Ireland, Yeats can effectively dismiss the economic or personal drawbacks to the attainment of eternal presence. Yeats also stresses the independence that martyrdom requires. He believes that a man must be able to reject his mundane social norms and habits, the quality of life which he possesses, and his assured stability. A Man must be willing to throw everything away, if he wants to carry out his unshakable convictions of love and pride, which are more universal qualities which contribute to a valid but relatively local Irish nationalism. The final allegorical image of the play reaffirms that martyrdom for Ireland can make Ireland young again, and therefore, can make Ireland belong to the Irish again. “Did you see an old woman going down the path? / I did not, but I saw a young girl, and she had the walk of a queen (165).” Yeats suggests firmly that before any action has taken place, Ireland will become strong again. This requires the Irish to be ready to give themselves to Ireland, and once they abandon their materialistic convictions, Ireland will be saved, at least internally. In William Butler Yeats’s allegorical play Cathleen Ni Houlihan, Yeats argues for marriage be based in the unceasing love of two people above all. He argues that instead of working to improve themselves economically in an oppressed society, the Irish should sacrifice themselves to change their society and return Ireland to her former prowess. He suggests that only through sacrificing oneself for a magnanimous and great cause, can man “be alive for ever.” However, after living through years of violent struggle with the British, Yeats grew weary of his youthful idealism. Later in his career, as the death of young Irishman began to take its toll on Yeats’ naïve outlook towards martyrdom, he responded with a poem, “Man and the Echo” which portrayed his newly cynical commentary on his previous work in “Cathleen Ni Houlihan”: “Did that play of mine send outCertain men the English shot.”