What does the change of the old woman to a young girl with the walk of a queen signify in the play Cathleen ni Houlihan?

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The old woman in the play is a personification of Ireland itself, struggling under the domination of Britain. Thus, for example, when she speaks of her four fields stolen from her, she's actually referring to the four provinces of Ireland.

At the end of the play, we see the rebellion...

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The old woman in the play is a personification of Ireland itself, struggling under the domination of Britain. Thus, for example, when she speaks of her four fields stolen from her, she's actually referring to the four provinces of Ireland.

At the end of the play, we see the rebellion taking shape, with the French landing and the soon-to-be-married Michael being inspired to join the rebellion instead. It is in this context and in this moment that we find the transformation in the old woman into the image of the young and regal girl.

If we hold that the woman is herself a symbol, then it seems to me that this transformation is ultimately tied up to the cause of Irish independence. The old woman represents an ancient country and culture subjugated by Britain. This transformation, shaped within this context of the rebellion, is symbolic of the hope for independence, with this personified Ireland restored to a state of youth and regal dignity.

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As a young woman with the walk of a queen, Cathleen symbolizes a romanticized view of pre-colonial Ireland. As an ardent Irish nationalist, Yeats was fascinated by ancient Celtic folklore and believed that the old traditions contained timeless truths that had gradually been lost in the mists of time ever since the English first arrived. The transformation of Cathleen from an old crone into a young woman symbolizes the reconstruction of a long-vanished past in which Ireland was youthful, confident, and independent, able to stand on its own two feet without foreign domination and control. As well as looking to the past, Cathleen's rediscovered youth also points to the future: an exciting future in which a re-born Ireland will finally break free from British rule and rediscover not just its independence as a nation but also its long-suppressed cultural identity.

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Cathleen ni Houlihan by William Butler Yeats is an allegory of Ireland, with the mysterious old woman representing Ireland herself. The country is first represented as an old women for several reasons. First, Yeats was interested in Irish folklore and the ancient traditions of the Celts. The age, wisdom, and mystery of Cathleen ni Houlihan suggests the ancient Celts, who lived in Ireland before the conquest by the British, and Cathleen's quest for her green acres the desire of the Irish to reclaim their sovereignty over their historic lands. Her old age, though, has a second signification, that of being tired and downtrodden, only able to sing of her lost glory rather than to reclaim it. While this singing is portrayed positively -- the songs of Cathleen represent the Irish artistic and poetic tradition which Yeats greatly admired -- nonetheless the image is one of impotence.

When Michael Gillane joins the rebellion at the behest of Cathleen, she appears to regain her youth and power. This image is one of Ireland as the proud and independent country Ireland might become if freed of British oppression, something for Yeats that in part depends on the liberation of the spirit of the peasants (represented by the Gillanes) close to the Irish soil, rather than just the intelligentsia of Dublin. 

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