The Play

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 657

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 wish. For his part, Michael says, he loves Delia more than her dowry.

The celebration over the dowry and the upcoming marriage is interrupted by renewed sounds of cheering. When Michael goes to the door to listen, the mysterious old woman appears again. The father hurries to hide the dowry money. From outside the window, the old woman stares directly at Michael. Michael, in a tone of dread, says, “I’d sooner a stranger not come to the house the night before my wedding.” The old woman comes around to the door, and since the Gillanes have the sense of hospitality shared by all Irish peasants, she is invited in.

A conversation follows in which ordinary questions seemed charged with mystery. The old woman says that she has wandered many years because there were “too many strangers in the house.” She has had “trouble” and her beautiful green fields were taken from her. She sings to herself of men who have died for her, and she says that many men will die for her tomorrow. She refuses food and money, saying, “If anyone will give me help he must give me himself, he must give me all.” The old woman gets up to go and Michael rises as well: He will go with her. Peter and Bridget are shocked—what of his marriage, what of his fine new clothes? The dowry will have to be returned.

The old woman begins to sing once more; Michael moves as if in a trance. The old woman leaves. There is shouting, and the neighbors break in, bearing the news that the French have landed at Killala. All the young men are going to join the French forces and fight against the English. Michael begins to leave. Delia, his intended, pleads with him to stay. Bridget presses his wedding clothing into his arms. Michael turns to Delia, but once again there...

(This entire section contains 657 words.)

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is the sound of the old woman singing. Michael drops his wedding clothes and leaves his family and his fiancé. Patrick comes running into the cottage. Peter asks him where the old woman is. Patrick saw no old woman, he reports, only a beautiful young girl who had “the walk of a queen.”

Dramatic Devices

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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 in so many words. Consequently, on one level the play can be enjoyed simply as a classic ghost story. A young man, on the very night before his wedding, is visited by a mysterious old hag. She has some power over him. After a conversation filled with riddles, she begins to sing, luring the young man to follow her—much as mermaids were said to sing as they lured sailors to their deaths. The young man leaves the things he knew and loved—his family and his fiancé—to follow a goal in a different, more mysterious and exciting world. The old woman is briefly seen, in a final glimpse, as the beautiful young woman the bridegroom sees. It was said of Maude Gonne, the beautiful young actor and Irish activist who first played the old woman, that she performed “magnificently and with weird power.” The tall and willowy performer “charged her lines with rare musical effect and crooned fascinatingly.”

On the other hand, the audience for which the play was first presented, and subsequent audiences familiar with Irish history or traditions, realized immediately that the old woman is a personification of Ireland itself. There was even a popular street ballad called “Shan Van Vocht” or “The Poor Old Woman” which told of the French help for Irish rebellions.


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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.


Critical Essays