- A Spindle for the Battle: Feminism, Myth, and the Woman-Nation in Irish Revival Drama
Alas for one glorious hour, one ray of sun that shone On the gold cathbarr of Maeve, and the might of her battle array. As we sit forlorn at the spindle the hours drag slowly on.—Eva Gore-Booth, “Lament of the Daughters of Ireland” (1904)
In “Elise and the Great Queens of Ireland,” Elin Ap Hywel laments an opportunity lost when turn-of-the-century Irish nationalists failed to embrace the unrulier women of Celtic mythology. Citing the influence of “Irish Catholicism’s received pieties,” Ap Hywel argues that bold and passionate characters like Maeve and Grania offered models of independent action that might have helped to transform imperialist discourses on Irishness. 1 While the particular pieties of the Anglo-Irish Protestant Ascendancy, which was, after all, especially influential in the propagation of cultural nationalism, must certainly also be taken into account, Ap Hywel’s comment glosses over the possibility that these particular female figures might not transform but rather reinforce existing prejudices. Commentators including Matthew Arnold and Ernest Renan had already classified the Irish as an essentially feminine people—and thus, in Arnold’s words, as “romantic and attractive” but also as “undisciplinable, anarchical and turbulent.” 2 If elevated to the status of national symbol, Maeve, who goes to war to gain one bull for her herd when she discovers that her husband’s flocks are larger than her own, and Grania, who elopes from her wedding with another man only to marry her former suitor after he murders his rival, might very well offer proof for such colonialist assertions.
Theatrical renderings of the mythology that played such a large role in the Revival project of Irish self-fashioning tended to soften representations of these female characters. Instead, nationalists preferred to put forward the figure of the woman-nation who could return to Irish men a sense of their own masculinity by standing as a [End Page 33] passive ideal in need of their rescue. 3 Writers including W.B. Yeats, Alice Milligan, Edward Martyn, AE and John Millington Synge thus generally opted to depict active male heroes who either protected passive heroines (like the popular Deirdre) or overshadowed more harshly drawn villainesses (like Milligan’s Grania). In all Yeats’s plays exploring the deeds of the Ulster hero Cuchulain, Maeve, Cuchulain’s traditional adversary and foil, never appears on stage; although serving as an ominous background threat, the vibrant and violent queen is not allowed to become a presence like the male hero. Stephen MacKenna, in a letter to Synge, contended that “the stage might rejuvenate Ireland, used Cuchulainly,” a comment that suggests its author’s preference for not only a “breezy, spring-dayish,” muscular heroic ideal but more specifically for an ideology that preserved the relative positions of gendered individuals within that system. 4 More interested in redefining the image of the nation—of rejecting a feminine characterization in order to embrace a masculine one—many Revival writers overlooked the possibility of reconstituting Irishness by rethinking what it might mean to be a woman.
While England debated the “woman question,” Irish nationalists blamed the suffrage movement for turning Irish women’s attention “Englandwards,” thus distracting them from their true task. Although some influential women gained prominence in nationalist circles, their entry into political organizations was not always easily granted. 5 Nor were women’s contributions to the movement itself always fully acknowledged. When Inghínidhe na hÉireann (the Daughters of Erin) shouldered the primary responsibility for bringing to the stage Cathleen ni Houlihan, Yeats and Lady [End Page 34] Augusta Gregory’s dramatization of the appearance of the woman-nation ideal in a rural peasant household, Inghínidhe’s contribution to the evening was largely overlooked by history, and the roles that these women performed did little to alter traditional views of femininity. 6 Indeed, the tension in Cathleen between the needs of real women and those of the emblematic national female who arrives at their door, combined with the conventional idealization of the heroine in AE’s Deirdre, the evening’s other offering, meant that...