Cathleen ni Houlihan is a play about Ireland’s long fight for independence. The particular incident referred to in the play, the landing of a squadron of French soldiers at Killala, was one of many battles in the struggle to form a free Irish nation. The Killala adventure was inspired by the revolutionary fervor in France at the time. The invasion failed, but it marked one more milestone in the Irish march to statehood. William Butler Yeats uses this event from the past as a rallying point for the Irish independence movement of the early twentieth century—a movement that was just getting organized when this play was first performed.
Subsidiary themes are also sounded throughout the play. The poverty and hard life of the Irish peasant are depicted in the small cottage, the family’s delight at being able to purchase ten acres of land, the absence of any money until the arrival of the dowry, and the anguish of the mother and father when Michael gives up the dowry to fight with the French. The Irish love of family is strongly represented, as is the pervasive influence of the Church.
It is above all the Irish penchant for the mysterious that forms the base of the play. In Cathleen ni Houlihan, Ireland is seen in allegory as a female spirit, ancient and unfathomable but also capable of transforming herself into a beautiful and queenly young woman. Whether old woman or young queen, the assaulted and mistreated land still has the spiritual force to pull young men to her defense and her glory. Yeats calls out to all young people to forgo their personal desires, as they did in 1798 and in other attempts to attain freedom, and give all in the fight for Irish independence.