Critical Context

Cathleen ni Houlihan is a very slight play, but its fulsome political implications and themes have provided it with an important place in Irish literature well out of proportion to its length. It was on the bill of plays produced in 1902 by the Irish Literary Theatre, the organization which was to grow into the Irish National Theatre Society Limited, usually known as the Abbey Theatre. Despite its short length, Cathleen ni Houlihan was among the most popular plays in the repertoire of the Abbey Theatre, and it was revived frequently until World War II.

A leader in the movement for Irish independence, and ultimately a member of parliament in the new Irish nation, Yeats realized early the value of theater as a political force. Cathleen ni Houlihan is his third play and apparently the first written with performance utmost in his mind. All of his plays from Cathleen ni Houlihan on were written for the Abbey Theatre, the impetus for which had grown out of a desire to create an Irish theater with its own Irish drama in order to advance the cause of an Irish nation. The three writers associated with the formation of the Abbey Theatre—Yeats, Lady Augusta Gregory, and John Millington Synge—were able to realize their dream which began with Cathleen ni Houlihan.

As Yeats continued to write for the theater, his interest in the mixture of the natural and the supernatural, of the mundane and the spiritual, which is demonstrated in Cathleen ni Houlihan, is further elaborated. Ireland itself became an example of Yeats’s sense of the continuity between the supernatural and the natural, at once a place and an ideal, a blend of the personal and the legendary.

Yeats was well aware of the power of his blend of the mythic and the actual and of the place held by Cathleen ni Houlihan in the political struggles of Ireland. Twenty-seven years after its first performance, he was to ask in his poem “Coole Park”: “Did that play of mine send out/ Certain men the English shot?”