A play within a play
On Monday 24th April 1916, the evening the Easter Rising began, Cathleen Ni Houlihan’ a short play by William Butler Yeats was scheduled for performance at the Abbey Theatre-Dublin. The performance of this mythic play about the rebirth of Ireland had to be cancelled due to the real life theatre unfolding on the streets outside.
Cathleen Ní Houlihan is a one-act play written by Yeats in collaboration with Lady Gregory in 1902 and first performed on 2 April of that year. The play is startlingly nationalistic, encouraging in its last pages that young men sacrifice their lives for the heroine Cathleen Ní Houlihan, who represents an independent and separate Irish state. The title character first appears as an old woman, at the door of a family celebrating their son Michael’s wedding. She describes her four "beautiful green fields," representing the four provinces, that have been unjustly taken from her. With little subtlety, she requests a blood sacrifice of the young bridegroom, declaring that "many a child will be born and there will be no father at the christening". When Michael agrees and leaves the safety of his home to fight for her, she appears as an image of youth with "the walk of a queen," professing that of those who fight for her: "They shall be remembered forever, They shall be alive forever, They shall be speaking forever, The people shall hear them forever." When this play first appeared on an Irish stage, it was seen as a call to battle for Irish patriots. It was considered a sacred work by many and Constance Markievicz called the play a ‘Gospel’ from her prison cell shortly after the 1916 rising.
In the musical drama ‘Michael Collins’, ‘Cathleen Ni Houlihan’ is employed as a theatrical framework, parallel to which the Collins’ story can unfold. The Mother Ireland character hangs over proceedings while the remaining ‘Abbey Players’ act as narrators and commentators, not unlike the chorus of a Greek tragedy.
‘Cathleen Ni Houlihan’ is Ireland herself…for whom so many songs have been sung and for whom so many had gone to their death…’ W.B. Yeats