Gender Politics and Irish Nationalism in Cathleen Ni Houlihan

July 16, 2021 by Essay Writer

“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.

Works Cited:

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.

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