Academic journal article The Modern Language Review

"Dead Many Times': Cathleen Ni Houlihan, Yeats, Two Old Women, and a Vampire

Academic journal article The Modern Language Review

"Dead Many Times': Cathleen Ni Houlihan, Yeats, Two Old Women, and a Vampire

Article excerpt

The figure of Cathleen ni Houlihan as an Old Woman representing Ireland now seems familiar, virtually a national revolutionary icon, for better or for worse; (1) however, the figure was effectively invented in the play W. B. Yeats and Augusta Gregory wrote in 1901, Cathleen ni Houlihan. (2) Cathleen's portrayal there is a departure from earlier depictions and was to establish the 'definitive Cathleen'. It does this by joining together two discrete, well-established, and very different figures: beautiful young Cathleen ni Houlihan and the legendary aged Cailleach Bhearra. This linking would seem to have been accomplished not by Yeats but by Lady Augusta Gregory (with Yeats's assent); both figures were considerably more familiar to her than to Yeats. It would appear that she, taking her clue from a dream Yeats had, connected the two distinct personages and refashioned the traditional young Cathleen ni Houlihan into the composite Old Woman/Young Queen, an innovative, powerful, and deadly fusion of mother figure and sweetheart. In her creation she had an agenda specifically tailored for Yeats's immediate concerns, as will be seen; yet the transformation was significant for Ireland as well. This study will consider some of the transactions involved in framing that portrayal, as well as some implications of the destructive figure for Ireland.

Looking back on its genesis, when introducing the play in February 1903, Yeats famously recalled,

One night I had a dream almost distinct as a vision, of a cottage where there was well-being and firelight and talk of a marriage, and into the midst of that cottage there came an old woman in a long cloak. She was Ireland herself, that Cathleen ni Houlihan for whom so many songs have been sung and about whom so many stories have been told and for whose sake so many have gone to their death. (3)

Unable to develop it, he said, he then took it to Lady Gregory and put himself, dramatically, into her hands. He wrote that he did not have 'country speech' and 'could not get down out of that high window of dramatic verse' (p. 232). What she did is significant: her steering of its composition not only helped shape Cathleen. It also helped to distance Yeats from Maud Gonne and provided a vehicle for remaking him into someone more acceptable not to 'Mother Ireland' but to another 'old woman', Augusta Gregory herself. Through her contributions Gregory moulded certain themes within the play, particularly the transaction between Michael Gillane (the play's central character) and the eponymous Old Woman. That shaping involves a series of destructive, asexual, and menacing discourses.

Yeats had admitted some cooperation with Gregory from the beginning and there had been contemporary suspicions about the extent of her authorship. (Oliver Gogarty, though notoriously unreliable on matters to do with Gregory, recorded, 'I think he [Yeats] said that it was understood that a play might be attributed to the one who had the idea'.) (4) The case that it was genuinely collaboration has been convincingly put by James Pethica and it seems clear that Gregory's part was not merely advice in any simple sense. (5) According to much current opinion, in Roy Foster's words:

Textual evidence suggests that Gregory wrote most of the play; her own diaries, and contemporary rumour, bear this out. WBY always gave her due credit, but implied that the plot and construction were his. This annoyed her in later life but at the time she accepted that his name would sell. [...]

Cathleen ni Houlihan, as it became [...], bears the hallmarks of the other plays Gregory came to write. It is straightforward, rather heavy-handed, reliant on predictable dramatic by-play and--for all its mechanical construction--dramatically very powerful. (6)

What Yeats almost certainly contributed was the verse the Old Woman speaks. However, most of the dialogue, the plotting, and the resolution of the play seem to be strongly influenced, if not provided, by Gregory. …

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