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

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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.

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 loved him, too, but because she forgot his name. Oona recalls her to the concerns of the day, earning a curse from Aleel for preventing him from relieving Cathleen of distress for ten minutes. The castle steward tells Cathleen that men broke into the castle to steal food; to Oona’s consternation, Cathleen declares the theft to be no sin, since the men must be starving. Shemus and Teigue then arrive with their tale of merchants buying souls; Cathleen, appalled, offers to buy their souls back. Father and son decline the offer, concluding that God turned his back on Ireland. Cathleen then instructs the steward to sell all her property, save only the house, and use the money to buy food for the starving, stating that she intends from that time forward to dedicate herself to others.

Aleel tries to get Cathleen to flee by telling her a dream he had of an angel who urges her to flee. She refuses, asserting that it was a pagan god, not an angel. She tenderly dismisses Aleel from her company to find the peace she cannot have herself and goes in to pray and sleep.

While she sleeps, the merchants enter and rob her treasury, then awaken Cathleen to tell her lies—that her relief efforts came to nothing—and to pass on rumors about their own appearance in the land. They explain men’s willingness to sell their souls as a kind of joy in despair and tell her her own soul would be worth half a million crowns. She begins to suspect their true identities, and they depart as their pursuers close in on them.

Cathleen bids peasants fleeing the evil times welcome to a place where they will be safe, but at that moment, Oona discovers the empty treasury. Although close to personal despair, Cathleen urges all with her to pray for the souls of the famine victims. Meanwhile, other peasants pass the castle, talking about the power and beauty of gold as the merchants follow in silence. They move on, and a forlorn Aleel passes by, singing in a vain attempt to soothe his love-stricken heart.

The merchants set up shop in the house of Shemus and begin dealing for souls, with Shemus and Teigue as their lieutenants. Mary Rua refuses food bought with the devil’s money and lies dead on her bed. Two peasants exchange their souls for money, finding themselves to be worth less than anticipated since the merchants have records of their darkest, most hidden secrets. Aleel, too, offers his soul—for free—since he has no need of it if it cannot help Cathleen. He is refused, since his soul already belongs to the countess. An old, nearly sinless woman sells her soul for a thousand crowns and wishes God’s blessing on the merchants, whereupon she screams as a burning pain passes through her. This frightens the other peasants, who begin to shrink from the merchants.

Cathleen comes to the cottage, offering her soul for the half million crowns on the condition that the other bartered souls be returned to their owners. After the sale, the merchants follow her out, vowing to watch over her until her impending death from a broken heart allows them to take her soul.

Aleel has a vision of the old gods and heroes returning, and Oona arrives at the hut to be told that her mistress already had sold her soul. As they both kneel, in prayer or in despair, Cathleen is carried in to die. Outside, a ferocious storm brews, terrifying the peasants, whose fear is increased by Aleel’s response to the storm: a curse on fate for leaving no hope. Aleel then describes a vision of angels and devils battling in the middle of the storm. He seizes one of the angels to demand word of Cathleen’s fate. The angel describes her arrival in heaven, redeemed by her sacrifice despite the sin of having sold her soul. Aleel kneels before this revelation, while Oona begs for her own death, bemoaning her separation from Cathleen.

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