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Cathleen ni Houlihan

For centuries, drama in Ireland, like its people suffered from the colonization by England. Although for most of its history Ireland had small theatres in its scattered towns and city Dublin, the plays and players were almost always English in origin or influence. The playwrights of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were London men who wrote about London subjects despite their Irish birth or up-bringing. In the nineteenth century the lovable, comical and patriotic "stage Irishman" emerged to charm audiences with his harmless buffoonery.

However, a great change was at hand beginning in the 1890's. Calling upon Irish artists to seek out Ireland's folk tradition and folk memory for a "new means of expressing themselves", William Butler Yeats led a "colonization in reverse."

No other work by Yeats more clearly expresses the cry to break free of the English shackles than his "little play" Cathleen ni Houlihan. In April 1902 W. G. Fay's National Dramatic Society sponsored the first production of Cathleen ni Houlihan. The debut was terrifyingly successful and its revolutionary message well-received by militants. Yeats' portrayal of Ireland as the traditional wronged old woman calling on her children for help was seen as a clarion cry to political action. In the years since Cathleen ni Houlihan has continued to be viewed as a battle-cry for the Irish republican movement and considered a sacred work. Constance Markievicz called the play a "gospel" from her cell shortly after the 1916 Irish Easter Rebellion.

The play was simple and very effective. Yeats sought to lift the audience as a whole out of their surroundings and transport them to a land of Irish myth and make-believe. Cathleen ni Houlihan is staged simply in a peasant family cottage. The author compared the small stage background to the background of a portrait. "It often needs nothing more than a few shadowy forms to suggest wood or mountain."

Statuesque Maud Gonne as Mother Ireland, is symbolized by a mysterious old woman who arrives at a peasant household near Killala Bay in County Mayo where the son of the house is about to be married. The time is 1798 and there are rumours of a French invasion to aid the Irish peasant rebels rising against their English oppressors. The play immediately evokes the sense of past in present when the young man is called from his wedding preparations to a higher patriotic duty through the song of the Old Woman. Calling on young Peter Darcy to revolt, the Old Woman proclaims blood-sacrifice as the only means to redeem the nation. In return she promises that the heroes "shall be remembered for ever." Those who have sacrificed themselves for Ireland have not done so in vain, she tells the young man:

"They shall be remembered forever,
They shall be alive forever,
They shall be speaking forever,
The people shall hear them forever."

The Old Woman mesmerizes the bridegroom-to-be reminding him of her "land that was taken from me," and Ireland's "four beautiful green fields." Speaking of the "strangers in her house" the Old Woman tells her listeners that she can never rest until the English have left her land and returned to her the stolen Four Provinces.

Lady Gregory's masterful use of the traditional peasant language successfully provided Yeats' characters with "speech from real life" and a "slow-moving country dialect." Yeats genius artistry and gift for mythic symbolism refined Maud Gonne's Old Woman into a mythological personification of Ireland. In a note to Lady Gregory in 1903 Yeats describes the mythical figure as " Ireland herself...for whom so many songs had been sung and for whom so many had gone to their death."

Written during Yeats' period of nationalist commitment and his early years in love with Maud Gonne, the play specifically served to have her for the title role. Maude Gonne and Constance Markievicz together mask Cathleen ni Houlihan, a central theme for Yeats' works. One function of Ireland-as-woman is to exonerate nationalism from any suspicion of aggression. There is a strong similarity between Cathleen ni Houlihan and Joan of Arc. As a suffering female, Ireland must always be the passive and virtuous victim of a British male bully.
Not surprising, the idea for the play came to Yeats in a dream. He writes in 1908:

"One night I had a dream almost as distinct as a vision of a cottage where there was well-being and firelight and talk of a marriage, and
into the midst of that cottage, there came an old woman in a long
cloak. She was Ireland herself, that Cathleen ni Houlihan for whom
so many stories have been told and for whose sake so many have
gone to their death. I thought if I could write this out as a little play
I could make others see my dream as I had seen it...We turned my
dream into the little play Cathleen ni Houlihan."

Despite the political and nationalist tones of Yeats' own description of his Cathleen ni Houlihan and its historical reference to the failed 1798 Irish rebellion led by Wolfe Tone, in the years following its success the author's joy was overshadowed by his uneasiness over its contribution to the events of Easter 1916.

"Did that play of mine send out
Certain men the English shot?"

Yeats concludes Cathleen ni Houlihan with a transformation of the Old Woman into a young girl with "the walk of a queen" as the French forces land in Killala Bay. The idea of "rebirth" with the coming of the end to British domination strongly reflects Yeats' commitment to a new Golden Age for Ireland, the birth of the Irish Drama, an Irish manna of soul-music, founded on the people's suffering, born of oppression and their essential and inevitable freedom.

Questions should be directed to Ireland32 at: Ireland32@gmu.edu

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