Cathleen ni Houlihan, a one-act play written by William Butler Yeats and Lady Gregory, is first performed in Dublin on April 2, 1902 with Maud Gonne in the leading role. It is first published in the October 1902 number of Samhain magazine.
The play centers on the Irish Rebellion of 1798. The play is startlingly nationalistic, in its last pages encouraging young men to sacrifice their lives for the heroine Cathleen ni Houlihan, who represents an independent and separate Irish state. The title character first appears as an old woman at the door of a family celebrating their son’s wedding. She describes her four “beautiful green fields,” representing the four provinces of Ireland, that have been unjustly taken from her. With little subtlety, she requests a blood sacrifice, declaring that “many a child will be born and there will be no father at the christening” and that “they that have red cheeks will have pale cheeks for my sake, and for all that, they will think they are well paid.” She convinces the future groom, Michael, to give up the wedding and go fight.
After the youth leaves the safety of his home to fight for her, she appears as an image of youth with “the walk of a queen,” professing of those who fight for her: “They shall be remembered forever, They shall be alive forever, They shall be speaking forever, The people shall hear them forever.”
Death is common during the time around the rising, but becoming a martyr is somethings that is admirable, so oftentimes people welcome death so they can create themselves a heroic memory. The martyrs will be remembered forever, which is why this theme is so ingrained into this play.
Cathleen ni Houlihan is such a simple play that contains many symbols and has the goal of convincing men to fight for Ireland. While the play is written about the rising of 1798, it is meant to inspire people for the 1916 Easter Rising. Throughout the whole play, there is constant reference to memory and its influence on the public. The men that die while fighting for Ireland are considered heroes, which is why memory and martyrdom are such important themes that are incorporated into works about revolution.
(Pictured: Scene from a production of “Cathleen ni Houlihan,” circa 1912)