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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 483

The Countess Cathleen by the Irish writer William Butler Yeats tells the story of how Countess Cathleen saves the souls of the struggling peasants working in and around her estate.

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The story starts with an Irish family—the mother, Mary, and the son, Tieg—waiting for the father, Shemus, to return from a trip in search of food and money. Ireland is going through a major famine and as Tieg states, people are starting to lose their faith in God.

What is the good of praying? father says
God and Mother of God have dropped asleep

Soon after Shemus arrives with nothing, the Countess Cathleen makes a surprise visit on her way back to her estate. A kind and moral person, she takes the time to listen to the peasants' tales of struggle, and when they finish, she offers them all the money in her purse. It's not much, but Countess Cathleen says she will give them more if they come by her castle the next day.

As soon as she leaves, Shemus and Tieg berate her for not giving them enough, and they call upon the devils to come and help them.

Whatever you are that walk the woods at night,
So be it that you have not shouldered up
Out of a grave-for I'll have nothing human-
And have free hands, a friendly trick of speech
I welcome you. Come, sit beside the fire.

Two merchants arrive and offer money in exchange for their souls. Mary has no interest and reiterates her strong belief in God, but Shemus and Tieg agree to spread the word of the merchant's arrival and offer.

Upon hearing about the merchants, Cathleen is distraught and promises to put an end to the peasant's misery by selling all she has and sharing the proceeds with the peasants.

How I much have I in castle?
How much have I in pasture?
How much have I in forests?
Keeping this house alone, sell all I have

Hearing of Cathleen's offer, the merchants arrive at her estate and steal all her money. They then set up their soul selling business at Shemus's and Mary's house.

Finally, Cathleen arrives at their home to tell the merchants that she is willing to sell her soul for 500,000 crowns on the condition that the merchants give back the souls of the peasants. The merchants agree. As Cathleen dies, she tells her servant to share the 500,000 crowns among the people.

The play finishes with an angel swooping down to tell everyone that, for her sacrifice, God has accepted Cathleen into heaven.

The light beats down; the gates of pearl are wide
And she is passing to the floor of peace,
And Mary of the seven times wounded heart
Has kissed her lips, and the long blessed hair
Has fallen on her face; the Light of Lights
Looks always on the motive, not the deed,
The Shadow of Shadows on the deed alone.

Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 863

During a famine, an Irish peasant family talks about strange creatures that appear, portents that evil supernatural forces are abroad in the land. The Countess Cathleen and her companions arrive, searching for the way to her castle. The peasants bitterly complain to her of their state, and she gives them what she is left in her purse after previous charity to other starving folk. She invites the family to her castle the next day to receive more.

After her departure, Shemus and Teigue complain at the meagerness of her charity, while Mary scolds them for ingratitude. Irked by his wife’s words, Shemus asserts his independence by rashly calling three times on the supernatural creatures of the woods to enter his house. Two traveling merchants appear, ostentatiously displaying their wealth. They offer money for souls and send Shemus and Teigue to broadcast their offer to the countryside. Cathleen arrives at her castle, where Aleel tries to distract her with a story about Queen Maeve of the fairies, who weeps for a mortal who died of love for her—not because she...

(The entire section contains 1346 words.)

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