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  • Cathleen ni Houlihan and the Disability Aesthetics of Irish National Culture*
  • Marion Quirici (bio)


peter (laying his hand on patrick’s arm).

—Did you see an old woman going down the path?


—I did not; but I saw a young girl, and she had the walk of a queen.

lady gregory and w. b. yeats, cathleen ni houlihan (1902)

The transformation of the Old Woman at the end of Lady Augusta Gregory and William Butler Yeats’s Cathleen ni Houlihan (1902) entails a restoration not only of youth but also of ability. Because the Old Woman, or Cathleen ni Houlihan, symbolizes Ireland itself, the “walk of a queen” denotes national self-sufficiency as well as personal autonomy. Unlike most iterations of the sovereignty myth, this play makes no mention of the beauty of the transformed heroine. Instead, it asserts her power as embodied in a graceful and authoritative gait. By reading Cathleen ni Houlihan through the framework of disability studies, this essay offers an original interpretation of a much-analyzed canonical work and demonstrates the centrality of constructs of ability and disability to the Irish nationalist movement.

Disability studies is an interdisciplinary field founded on the principle that disability is not an individual affliction but a social category made meaningful by cultural ideals of normalcy, productivity and reproductivity, and progress. Originating in activism, the field invites us to observe how culture values and devalues human variations in order to regulate which bodies and which populations are deserving of rights and freedoms. A disability-studies methodology provides [End Page 74] tools for understanding power and oppression: because disability is assumed to signify inferiority, to associate a given population with disability is to justify that group’s disempowerment. With greater attention to disability studies, scholars of Irish literature and history would recognize in the infamous “Irish question” a doubt that the Irish were fit to be free—and in Revivalist thought, a related anxiety surrounding the fitness of Irish bodies and minds. In this essay I situate Cathleen ni Houlihan, the most mobilizing of Revivalist works, in the context of colonial caricatures and political representations of Ireland as disabled and unfit for freedom.

From the time of the failed rebellion of 1798 and the subsequent Act of Union (1800), writers circulated caricatures and stereotypes of Irishness that invoked notions of disability. By reconstructing the history through which Ireland and the Irish were degraded via representations incorporating disability, this essay reads the early nationalist response to Cathleen ni Houlihan as an intense identification with a narrative of cure or rehabilitation. The fraught connotations of disability and nationality in turn-of-the-century Ireland gave Yeats and Gregory’s play dramatic power and tragic significance. The Old Woman’s transformation from debility to capacity offers a revolutionary symbol of rejuvenation and rehabilitation. But the play itself complicates the narrative of cure even as it presents it: Cathleen’s rehabilitation is achieved through Michael’s willingness to face disablement or death on her behalf. The symbol of a fit and able Ireland is sustained through the violence of rebellion and its concomitant war injuries, traumas, and scars. In reading the tension between various signifiers of disability in the text—symbolic and literal, physical and mental—this essay argues that Cathleen ni Houlihan’s complex engagement with stereotypes of Irish disability allows it to function as a stimulus for national feeling while remaining, as a literary object, ambivalent.

Irishness and Disability

When Gregory and Yeats collaborated on Cathleen ni Houlihan in 1902, characterizations of the Irish as unfit for freedom had long been an obstacle to political autonomy. Throughout the nineteenth century disability was invoked by those in favor of the cause of Irish [End Page 75] independence as well as by those opposed. For proponents of liberty like Henry Grattan, the Irish incapacity for self-rule was politically imposed. He declared in his 1800 speech against Union, “He, the minister (his budget crammed with corruption), proposes to you to give up the ancient inheritance of your country, to proclaim an utter and blank incapacity to make laws for your own people, and to register this proclamation in an act which...


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