In the early 1900s Ireland was conflicted with war. During this time period Yeats and Gregory wrote Cathleen Ni Houlihan, to send a message to the Irish people about serving one’s country. In his play Cathleen Ni Houlihan, Michael understands through Cathleen, a symbol of Ireland, the importance of sacrificing worldly needs in order to protect the motherland, and rises to become a hero. Yeats also shows that only devout devotion to one’s country leads to its prosperity. The prosperity that Yeats desires for Ireland is not monetary. Yeats believes true prosperity is attained when the Irish people have a deep devotion to Ireland, and a strong sense of pride in Ireland and its culture. Through its heroes Ireland maintains its pride, and culture. Essentially, the materialistic reasons for living life, such as affluence, are inconsequential in the grand scheme of the country. Family, though important, is not as vital as duty towards the motherland.
Cathleen Ni Houlihan is seen as a symbol of Ireland. This symbolism is first alluded to when Cathleen speaks about her four green fields and how she “hopes of getting my four beautiful fields back again” (Yeats 7). The four fields refer to Ireland’s four provinces. This reference emphasizes that Cathleen is the symbol for Ireland. Yeats’s description of Cathleen as a “poor old woman” symbolizes the magnitude of trouble Ireland is in (Yeats 9). Ireland is depicted as a woman in order to appeal to the chivalry of men, so that they will be willing to rise to protect Ireland with valiance. Yeats also uses Cathleen as a device to show how devout nationalism can bring a country back to prosperity because when Michael resolves to give up his materialistic desires and comforts Cathleen she is transformed into “a young girl with the walk of a queen” as observed by Michael’s younger brother Patrick (Yeats 11) .
Yeats uses the transformation of Cathleen from an old woman to young girl to show that devotion and self-sacrifice are necessary to rejuvenate Ireland. The prosperity that Cathleen wants for Ireland is not monetary, but rather feelings of pride for Ireland and a sense of duty towards the motherland creates the prosperity Cathleen desires. She states that because she has “good friends that will help me…I am not afraid” (Yeats 9). The good friends are the heroes that are sacrificing themselves to help Ireland. Cathleen is not worried about money or victory; she is more concerned about people fighting for Ireland. Thus Michael’s heroism, though it is the ultimate sacrifice, enables Ireland to prosper. Yeats believes that sacrificing oneself for their country is hard not only for the person, but also for their family.
However, in the end it is worthwhile because the people live forever in the memories of the future generations of Ireland. Yeats distinctly proves his point when Cathleen says to Michael “It is a hard service they that take that help me. Many that are red-cheeked now will be pale-cheeked…they that have red cheeks will have pale cheeks for my sake, and for all that, they will think they are well paid.
They shall be remembered forever” (Yeats 10). Even though their sacrifice seems futile because the men will lose their lives, won’t be able to raise their children, and lose their family, but, in the end, their heroic deeds will give them fame that will last far beyond their mortal lives. Through their sacrifice they will give future generations of Ireland a richer culture and pride in Ireland. Thus, in the end their seemingly futile conquest leads to glory for Ireland. Michael is inspired by Cathleen’s words and rushes to fight for Ireland, forgetting all about his marriage and other familial responsibilities.
Michael’s sudden rush to fight for Ireland may seem sudden since he was raised and brought up in an environment where financial security and family are more important than self-sacrifice and duty to one’s country. However, Michael is fundamentally different from his family. Peter has a more pragmatic outlook towards life than Michael. For example, when Peter and Bridget are talking about why Michael chose to marry Delia Peter conjectures that “it’s likely that Michael himself was not thinking much of the fortune but of what sort she was to look at”, but Michael responds that “you would like a nice comely girl to be beside you, …the fortune only lasts for a while, but the woman will be there always” (Yeats 5). Michael genuinely likes Delia for who she is, not for her looks or for her fortune.
Thus Michael shows that he has more depth than his father. Michael is different from Peter because he is empathetic and trusts others. For example, when Cathleen says that “many a man has died for my love” Peter’s response is “her troubles have put her wits astray”, but Michael is receptive and shows his curiosity and empathy by asking how many have died for her, and how long ago has it been since they died for her (Yeats 8). Rather than doubting her honesty and assuming that Cathleen is crazy, Michael is sympathetic towards Cathleen. Similarly, Bridget has a narrow, logical outlook on life.
She is a planner, and says that because of the money they will get from Michael’s marriage they will able to give Patrick “learning, and not to send him tramping the country like a poor scholar that lives on charity” (Yeats 4). Since both of Michael’s parents have materialistic desires and lack the depth Michael has they are unable to understand why Michael leaves, and are not persuaded by Cathleen. Similarly Delia is unable to understand Michael’s decision even though she is from the same generation. Delia’s worldliness makes it hard for to her understand Michael. Yeats proves that devotion to motherland is shown not by the new generation, but rather by those who have depth.
Though many would argue that war is futile because in the span of a hundred years, multiple wars occur and essentially nothing is resolved. However, the heroes who sacrificed their lives are joined together through their shared sense of loss and steep Ireland in a rich culture filled with valiant heroes and martyrs. In short, war brings together these heroes through their united goals and mutual victories and losses. Yeats eloquently describes this when Peter, Michael, and Bridget are curious to know what the cheering is about and later on learn that Irish people are cheering because of the help the French are giving them in the war.
Thus, through the shared hopes and losses the Irish heroes becomes a united force instead of a conglomerate of separate regions. Through the play Cathleen Ni Houlihan, Yeats supports and encourages Irish nationalism. He hopes that the Irish people will be able to sacrifice their petty concerns in order to help Ireland prosper thus unifying Ireland. Ultimately, attaining materialistic desires is inconsequential. Patriotism, devotion and self sacrifice are far more important and, in the end, far more rewarding.
Yeats, W.B. Cathleen Ni Houlihan. Modern and Contemporary Irish Drama. Ed. John P. Harrington. New York: Norton, 2009. 3-11. Print.
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