- Staging HiberniaFemale Allegories of Ireland in Cathleen Ní Houlihan and Dawn
Did that play of mine send outCertain men the English shot?W. B. YEATS, “MAN AND THE ECHO,” 1939
In the midst of the Irish uprisings of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a subsidiary war was being fought on a cultural front. In tandem with the movement to liberate Ireland from British sovereignty, a parallel crusade was gaining momentum, one that sought to assert Ireland’s artistic independence from what was felt to be Britain’s malign cultural domination. Within this artistic revolution, theatre was used by notable groups like the Irish Literary Theatre and Inghinidhe Na h-Éireann (Daughters of Ireland) as a prime battleground to reassert national authority over depictions of the “real” Ireland and the Irish, and to offer an alternative to the (mis)representations of Irishness emanating from a colonial force. To this end, W. B. Yeats and Augusta Gregory’s play Cathleen Ní Houlihan and Maud Gonne’s Dawn both featured anthropomorphic incarnations of Ireland as a female character. In this essay I examine the context in which the two plays were written, and their dramaturgical and political use of the allegorical female figure. I believe that this trope was employed both in conversation with Irish mythological tradition and in reaction to derogatory representations of Ireland in foreign popular arts and media. I also consider these works within the framework of the roles and representations of women as part of the Irish nationalist agenda. [End Page 71]
The foundation of the Irish Literary Theatre in 1898 was partially predicated on the desire of the founders to use the stage as a medium for a proud self-definition of the “true” Irish character. In the manifesto written by William Butler Yeats, Lady Augusta Gregory, George Moore, and Edward Martyn at Gregory’s home in Coole in 1897, they state: “We propose to have performed in Dublin in the spring of every year certain Celtic and Irish plays, which whatever their degree of excellence will be written with a high ambition, and so build up a Celtic and Irish school of dramatic literature. We hope to find in Ireland an uncorrupted and imaginative audience trained to listen by its passion for oratory, and believe that our desire to bring upon the stage the deeper thoughts and emotions of Ireland will ensure from us a tolerant welcome, and that freedom to experiment which is not found in theatres of England, and without which no new movement in art or literature can succeed.”1 This was intended both as an action of revolution—ushering in a new era of cultural as well as national independence—and a counterstrike against what the founders considered to be the proliferation of negative colonial representations in the theatre. The Irish Literary Theatre’s founding charter goes on to say that this performance project will prove “that Ireland is not the home of buffoonery and easy sentiment, as it has been represented, but the home of an ancient idealism. We are confident of the support of all Irish people, who are weary of misrepresentation, in carrying out a work that is outside all the political questions that divide us.”2
However, a little context: it is worth noting that Yeats, Gregory, and Martyn’s paean to the “uncorrupted and imaginative” Irish audience they planned to cultivate and satisfy was, in reality, a slightly snobbish fiction. In A History of the Irish Theatre, 1601–2000, Chris Morash wryly notes the irony of the group’s origins: “In a sense, the Irish Literary Theatre came into being by imagining an empty space where in fact there was a crowded room.”3 Ireland (and Dublin in particular) enjoyed a thriving theatrical tradition in the late nineteenth century. Melodramas by playwrights like Dion Boucicault (produced by both indigenous and imported companies) that engaged in the so-called “buffoonery and easy sentiment” of the archetypal “stage Irish” play were highly popular and profitable on national tours and in Dublin theatres like the Queen’s Royal Theatre. In fact, the Royal, established in 1884 under the management of the English entrepreneur J...