The Prosopopoeia of Ireland as a Woman: A Double-Edged Sword for Irish Nationalism

The Irish Literary Revival has been about promoting a National consciousness, leaving the recurring English stereotypes of Ireland behind, and striving for new beginnings with a free Irish State. Ireland had oftentimes been subjected to two tropes. The first was the loathsome “Stage-Irishman”, depicted as a cowardly drunk, and the second was the soft passive woman. Ireland, historically attributed to this feminine image was prevalent due to its celtic mythology, occult past and goddess symbolism. The revivalists took these images and reinvented them to suit a budding Nation in need to rediscover its identity after centuries of colonialism. These figures transformed the coward Irishman into a young soldier or artist, ready to fight for its country, and the weak female into a powerful mother figure reminiscent of old Irish traditions, personifying Ireland as a Motherland. Cathleen Ni Houlihan, the most well-known play with patriotic themes of the Literary Revival, was written by W.B Yeats and Lady Gregory. They promoted an embodiment of Ireland, as a frail woman after having her “four green fields” usurped, and luring a young man into sacrificing his life to retrieve them for her.

This was later an important inspiration of the Easter Risings in 1916, in which there were massive casualties. Years later, writers such as Dorothy MacArdle, will not only attribute fault to this theme of representing Ireland as a woman, but also leaving her voice to be interpreted by men. In her 1924 short story “The Portait of Rosin Dhu”, she writes a gothic piece about this tradition and its implications in gender roles, confusing nationalist identity and possibly being pointedly accusatory of Yeats’ character. It is therefore interesting to examine how this powerful emblem managed to somehow contradict its initial ambition, which has had empirical repercussions for the women taking part in this Cultural Revival. This goes back to this notion of idealistic men elevating these ideals past the point of comprehension, therefore killing their meaning, beauty and leaving the real women to be cast aside a revolution they earned their part in.

A Recurring Theme in Irish Nationalist Culture: The Case of Cathleen Ni Houlihan.

The Historical Narratives and Themes

Set during the 1798 rebellion, Cathleen Ni Houlihan is a play about a young man Michael, just a few days before his marriage to Delia, who is enchanted by an Old Woman, later to be revealed as the legendary Cathleen Ni Houlihan, a personification of Ireland. The short one act takes place in Michael’s family home, where he has just brought the dowry back to his parents. This literal bag of coins is centred on the stage, which is soon physically replaced by the Old Woman, symbolizing her transcending presence over materialism. This manifestation of Ireland as a woman has long been a tradition in Irish Literature, and this particular embodiment seems to encompass a few recurring myths.

The Sovereignty Goddess, representing the power of Kingdom, would present herself as a hag to the rightful king, and seduce him into mating, ending with her transforming into a young beautiful woman. It it never said if the Old Woman transforms into a “beautiful” woman, but it mentioned that the young girl had “the walk of a queen,” further referring to the Sovereignty Myth. There is also a heavy influence with Aisling tradition of poetry, in which a poet meets a young woman through a dream or vision. She declares herself as Ireland, going by many names such as Cathleen Ni Houlihan or Roisin Dhu, awaiting the impending return of the rightful king. The last tradition influencing this play would be the Morrigan, the Goddess of War, a transforming entity able to psychologically affects armies, much like the Old Woman seems to touch something undefinable in Michael, leading him to follow her out the door, ready to lose his life in her name.

Cathleen Ni Houlihan as an Archetypal Mother Ireland

Unlike most of the traditional myths however, the Old Woman, although she refers to her long list of lovers, she is entirely desexualized. This version of Ireland is not described by her physical appearance, but her aura and speech pattern divulge an ethereal quality to her character. Once the sexual aspect of the woman is removed, she becomes a mother, as feminine chastity ensures blood purity of the offspring. This role of mother, is one worth protecting, and one in which the men that are fit and able, have the duty to fight for. This Ireland is crippled by colonialism and longs for its freedom, which is conveying this message of revolt to the audience. The woman alludes to this when she says “If anyone would give me help he must give me himself, he must give me all”. In her analysis of the aesthetics of the play and their implications for Irish Nationalist Culture, Marion Quirci writes “The characters are viewed through the fog of a hundred years of Irish History”. One could see how the characters are all the product of generations of decline in what Nationalist deem true Irishness, further compelling the audience to build up resentment, and most dangerously perhaps, to associate the Revival movement with a history of violence on the name of Mother Ireland. The figure of Mother Ireland, not only legitimizes the Patriarchy that marginalizes the other female characters on stage, Bridget and Delia, but promotes this cult of the Virgin Mary, effectively politicizing motherhood. This has trapped the women of this Revival to one role.

The Implications of Maud Gonne’s Performance

On the play’s opening night on April 2nd 1902, it was an instant success, due in no small part to the fact that Maud Gonne, a Nationalist darling, and this casting carries much weight in the hearts of the growing patriotic audience. Gonne, a known outspoken Irishwoman against British Imperialism, becomes herself, a strong embodiment of a free state for Ireland. Renowned for her oratory and stage presence, she accepted the role, on the condition she could have some creative input, and her most poignant contribution to the plot, is the decision to have Michael make his decision on stage and follow her out the door. Yeats and Gregory had wanted for him to be torn between choosing to stay with his family, or follow Cathleen to a likely death. This decision is all the powerful, as the audience finds themselves also leaving the theatre right after this pivotal scene, mirroring the same action as Michael, therefore planting the seeds of revolution in their mind. Furthermore, the fact that Maud Gonne is dressed as a hag on stage, but is transformed into a young woman with the walk of queen off-stage, is also a striking image for the audience to leave with, as she was known for her beauty. However, she embodies this desexualized figure, having the effect of empowering women with the potential of female activism through the fundamental identity of an Irishwomen, which was widely attributed to motherhood. This denial of female desire, or engaged female activism may have inflicted the legacy of the many women taking an active part in the Revival. Gonne blurs the lines between symbolic ideals and reality.

Lady Gregory Overclouded by W.B Yeats

Cathleen Ni Houlihan was long known to be Yeats’ most successful work, a statement he never took the time to clarify. After the Easter Rising in 1916, in which many revolutionaries attributed the play with its inspiration, Yeats would write “Did that play of mine send out/ Certain men the English shot?”, taking full ownership of the impact of the play, even though the very premise of the play was based on a legend she had heard on her estate. Lady Gregory, refused to stake claim as to not deny Yeats, her lifelong friend, his most popular success. However, recent historical findings have made it clear that Gregory was responsible for writing most of the lines, specifically the entire dialogue of the family, and some suggest she had a hand in the Old Woman’s lines as well. Yeats, responsible for the otherworldly lines of Cathleen, attributed the success of the play to the dynamic between high (Ethereal language) and low (The empirical action) art. Not only is this a condescending way of demeaning Gregory’s considerable contribution to the piece, but it is denying that the realistic dialogue of the family is what audience’s connected with the most.

Lady Gregory’s lack of reaction to this, is suggestive of how her role in this Revival is complimentary with this promotion of the image. She embodies the role, ironically written by Yeats as an homage to Maud Gonne, of Cathleen in a more discernible way. She already is somewhat of a surrogate mother figure to Yeats, but also she serves Ireland for reasons beyond individual practical advantages. She devotes her life to the Abbey, a cultural hub of the Revivalist Movement, by raising money, directing, writing etc. Her political views could also be considered quite patriarchal in essence, considering she did not speak out against Yeats for taking full credit for their collaborative piece, possibly highlighting her traditional views of gender roles. She did not have much in common with other prominent female figures of the Revival such as Gonne or the Gore-Booth sisters, and did not support the women’s suffrage. She was much older when she became involved in politics, therefore attributing her public persona to a calm sexless matron of Irish Culture, even though her life was by no means chaste or her convictions weak-minded.

“The Portrait of Roisin Dhu”: An Icarian Cautionary Tale.

A Response to the Status Quo

Many writers have criticized Yeats for his attachment to unattainable ideals, and many have found Cathleen Ni Houlihan incredibly troubling, especially after the Easter Risings of 1916. Dorothy MacArdle, a gothic novelist and member of Cumann mBan, writes “The Portrait of Roisin Dhu” in 1924. The short story is about the dangers of the Revival practice of having women be symbolic and passive, while the man gives her a voice. MacArdle, a prolific writer of the Revival, was among the many women writers to be left out of the narrative for the better part of the century. The narrative follows Maeve, a young woman helping her morose cousin Hugo Blake, a painter trying to find inspiration. He decides to paint a portrait of Roisin Dhu, and sets off to find her. He returns with the delicate Nuala, a princess from the West Islands. As Hugo begins to paint her, Maeve notices she gradually starts suffering emotionally and physically, but Hugo maintains he is making her even more sublime than she could have ever been in actuality. Over the course of a few months, Nuala slowly decays, leaving but a shell of her former self. Once the painting is complete, she collapses and dies. This plays with the premise of Edgar Allen Poe’s “Oval Portrait” with the Irish the tradition of representing Ireland as a Woman. When Hugo comes to the realization of his actions, he is horrified. It is implied he commits suicide by drowning in the lake.

Hyper-Masculine Against Hyper-Feminine.

MacArdle artfully writes a thinly veiled critique of this recurring theme of representing Ireland as a woman, particularly prevalent in male nationalist writing, and even more pointedly towards Yeats. Hugo Blake, a Yeats-like artist, described as “passionate and lonely”, strives to elevate a human being to exaggerated heights to the point of killing the subject. The obsession of focusing on unattainable dreams, are impossible expectations to meet and eventually destroying the very idea worth fighting for. Hugo believes he is doing the world a favour by capturing this otherworldly beauty, however his relentless dissatisfaction makes him lose track of what made Nuala beautiful in the first place, echoing this idea that men become so enthralled with this ideal to the point of dying for it.

The story also focuses on the two women, and juxtaposes them as both tropes of symbolic and reality. Nuala is the symbol of Ireland, the ideal free state fought for by the nationalists. Her reason to be is to strengthen national identity. Her passive and voiceless nature is problematic, as all she will ever be known for, shall be through the single-minded perception of a man. Hugo finds the idea of marrying Roisin Dhu “[…] and outrageous question […]”, therefore desexualizing her, leaving her motherly aspect transparent. MacArdle opposes both women as both sides of the female nationalist coin. Maeve mentioned being aware of Nuala’s deteriorating state, however she does not attempt to step in. It may therefore be implied that Maeve let Nuala die out of a erroneous sense of political convictions of womanhood overcoming the strong need of female alliances. Both women, either in spirit or in actuality, are sacrificed to feed a timeless symbol.

The Black Rose: A Confused Symbol

Nuala is described as “so delicate and so remote,” and then Hugo says “For these red lips, with all the mournful pride,” evoking the Yeats poem “The Rose of the World”, dedicated to Maud Gonne.It is significant that she chooses to mention this poem, as it highlights an inconsistency in Yeats work. Roisin Dhu is a black rose, a flower existing only in imagination. When Yeats writes the poem, the rose is not representing just any woman, it is Maud Gonne, a nationalist activist that had over the years embodied this role of Ireland, especially after playing Cathleen Ni Houlihan. He has not only attributed this surreal quality to an actual woman, Gonne does not truly fit as a desexualized Mother figure since he is in love with her. He regularly attributes the image of Ireland with this romantic undertone, which begs to question if his body of nationalist work a labour of blind love to win over this untameable spirit.

As one can observe, the image of Virgin Mother is a strong component of Irish identity, especially during the Revival in which there was an active movement to define Irishness. She is a powerful emblem for public ideology, however it becomes quite apparent that this has caused empirical collateral damage. Dorothy MacArdle manages to shine the light on the issues promoted by Yeats and Gregory’s Cathleen Ni Houlihan. The female presence is dissolved to an idea of virtual womanhood, but has also had real and even violent repercussions. The rebellion casualties are often talked about, and demonstrate how a patriotic play could have led the young men to be willing to give their lives for Ireland. It is also significant to mention how these patriarchical notions had repeatedly belittled female activists. A particular interesting example is “In Memory of Eva Gore-Booth and Con Markievicz” by Yeats, is empirical evidence of his disappointment in women’s involvement in nationalist causes, believing them to lose their beauty once they became outspoken. Constance Markievicz, one of the sisters inspiring this piece, was arrested for her involvement in the 1916 Easter Rising, sentenced to death, a later pardoned (much to her dismay), which would strip her from her status of martyr. Finally, even with the suffragette movement later on, many of the prominent women nationalist artists were historically cats in the shadows of their male counterparts until relatively recently, where the Irish Literary Revival took a new perspective with a wider array of voices that had longed to be heard.

Works Cited:

Bobotis, Andrea “Rival Maternities: Maud Gonne, Queen Victoria, and the Reign of the Political Mother”. Victorian Studies 49.1 (2006): 63–83. Web…

Butler Cullingford, Elizabeth. “Shrill Voices, Accursed Opinions”, (Pethica, pp. 399-407)

Crilly, Anne. “Banning History”. History Workshop 31 (1991): 163–165. Web…

Kiberd, Declan. “Mothers and Daughters” Inventing Ireland. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1996. Print.

Meaney, Gerardine. “Feminisms, Nationalisms and Identities”, Gender, Ireland, and Cultural Change: Race, Sex, and Nation. New York: Routledge, 2010. Print.

Molinor, Jennifer. ”Dying for Ireland.” Violence, Silence, and Sacrifice: The Mother-daughter Relationship in the Short Fiction of Irish Women Writers, 1890-1980. ProQuest, 2008. Print.

Nic Congil, Rona ““life and the Dream”: Utopian Impulses Within the Irish Language Revival”. Utopian Studies 23.2 (2012): 430–449. Web…

Quirci, Marion Essay, “Cathleen Ni Houlihan and the Disability Aesthetics of Irish National Culture”, (Eire-Ireland, 50:3&4, FallWinter 2015, pp. 74-93)

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