The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Cathleen ni Houlihan takes place in the Gillane cottage near Killala in 1798. Peter Gillane, the master of the house, hears a strange noise. Then both his son, Patrick, and his wife, Bridget, hear the noise: It is cheering. They wonder about the cause but are soon brought back to their principal concern, the upcoming marriage of the family’s eldest son, Michael. Bridget unties a bundle and shows Peter and young Patrick the fine clothes Michael will wear to his wedding, finer clothes than they have ever seen. Patrick, curious about the cheering, returns to the window, where he spies a strange old woman. She turns away from the house and takes another path. Patrick, as interested in ghost stories as any other twelve-year-old, says that the old woman reminds him of the tales of an old woman who travels through the Irish countryside whenever there is impending war or trouble. His mother hushes him and tells him to go open the door for his brother, Michael, the bridegroom. Immediately upon Michael’s entering, his father questions him about the bridal dowry. Did he bring it with him?

The dowry, it turns out, is especially good, bringing a fortune into the Gillane family—more money than they have ever possessed. Peter is proud of the bargain they have struck, for when he married Bridget she brought no dowry. She has been a fine wife and mother, but, as Peter says, “money is good too.” He goes on to list all the land and cattle they will buy with the money. Michael points out that Delia is so much in love with him that she will be glad for Peter and Michael to spend her dowry as they...

(The entire section is 657 words.)

Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Cathleen ni Houlihan follows a romantic tradition in which the mystic and inexplicable are set in highly ordinary circumstances; such a device tends to heighten the sense of mystery. In order to make the mystery more believable, Yeats returns to another century, and he sets the action not in an urban environment but in a rural peasant’s cottage. Thus, although there are the trappings of a real situation, it is “long ago and far away,” thereby allowing for the entrance of unreal forces. The old woman is a typical folk figure much like the old witch in the forest. Like other phantoms she has inexplicable powers to lure the young. In this case a young man is lured away from his beautiful loving bride and the dowry which will alleviate the poverty of his family.

The sense of the mysterious is intensified by the use of folk songs about death, persecution, and dying, by Yeats’s use of highly poetical prose, and by the use of a series of ordinary questions such as “Will you have a drink of milk, ma’am?” to which are given strange and portentous answers: “It is not food or drink that I want.” A normal conversation takes on the quality of riddles from a weird and uncanny world. Hence from a slight and inconspicuous episode, the preparations for a poor farmer’s wedding, Yeats builds a call for the most momentous of actions— rebellion and revolt in the name of a new nation.

He does so, however, without ever stating the call...

(The entire section is 478 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Archibald, Douglas N. M. Yeats. Ann Arbor, Mich.: Book Demand, 1983.

Brown, Terence. The Life of William Butler Yeats: A Critical Biography. Oxford, England: Blackwell, 1999.

Moore, John Rees. Masks of Love and Death: Yeats as Dramatist. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1971.

Nathan, Leonard E. The Tragic Drama of William Butler Yeats. New York: Columbia University Press, 1965.

Rajan, Balachandra. W. B. Yeats: A Critical Introduction. 2d ed. London: Hutchinson, 1969.

Skelton, Robin, and Ann Saddlemyer, eds. The World of W. B. Yeats. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1967.

Watanabe, Nancy. A Beloved Image: The Drama of W. B. Yeats, 1865-1939. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1995.