Cathleen ni Houlihan
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,
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.
"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
"Did that play of mine send out
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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