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Cathleen Ni Houlihan

Cathleen Ni Houlihan

yeats play irish ireland

a play by W. B. Yeats, published in 1902, the year of its production at St Theresa's Hall by the Irish Literary Theatre in which Maud Gonne played the title role. It was enormously successful and must be considered Yeats's only truly popular work for the theatre. By comparison with his other dramas Cathleen Ni Houlihan, which is written mainly in prose, has a highly effective straightforwardness as a patriotic allegory. The aged and distressed figure of Cathleen Ni Houlihan symbolizes Ireland in the tradition of the country's personification in folklore as the Shan Van Vocht, or ‘Poor Old Woman’; Cathleen's four fields, representing the four provinces of Ireland, have been seized by strangers and she appears at the house of Michael Gillane to seek assistance. Gillane is preparing for his marriage; Cathleen, who is presented as a powerfully mysterious figure, prevails upon him; he chooses self-sacrifice in Cathleen's cause rather than personal good fortune, moved by the assurance that those who help her ‘shall be remembered forever’. Gonne's passionate performance, concluding with the old woman's transformation into a regal young beauty, emphasized the nationalist import of the play, which intensified the commitment to Irish independence of some of its audience. In the late poem ‘The Man and the Echo’ Yeats asks uneasily, with reference to the events of 1916, ‘Did that play of mine send out | Certain men the English shot?’

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