Cathleen Ni Houlihan Summary

William Butler Yeats

Cathleen Ni Houlihan

  • Plot overview and analysis written by an experienced literary critic.
  • Full study guide for this title currently under development.
  • To be notified when we launch a full study guide, please contact us.

Cathleen Ni Houlihan Summary

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics. This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of Cathleen Ni Houlihan by William Butler Yeats.

“Cathleen Ni Houlihan” is a one-act play by Irish poet and dramatist William Butler Yeats and Irish dramatist and theater manager Lady Gregory, written and first performed and published in 1902. Centering on the events of the 1798 rebellion against British rule in Ireland, it is a nationalistic play centering around the titular heroine, who is a fictional representation of Irish independence. She appears as an old woman at the home of a family celebrating their son’s wedding and encourages the young man to leave his home and fight for Ireland. Exploring themes of sacrifice, cultural pride, Irish folklore, and the concept of the country as a mother figure, “Cathleen Ni Houlihan” was reprinted in a collection of Yeats’ plays, titled Nine One-Act Plays. Although very much a play of its time and place, it is considered a classic of Irish literature although it is rarely performed today.

“Cathleen Ni Houlihan” is set in the Gillane family cottage in County Mayo, just off Killala Bay. Michael, one of the sons of the Gillane family, is preparing to marry Delia Cahel the next day, and arrives back at the cottage carrying Delia’s dowry in a bag. His parents are happy to see him, but then they notice a mysterious old woman lurking around the family home. They greet her warmly and invite her in, but not before hiding the dowry bag filled with precious goods. Michael is distrustful of the woman at first, waiting close to the door, while his parents Peter and Bridget welcome the old woman into their home. As she speaks, it’s clear she’s very different from the peasant family. She speaks in a high-class way, almost possessed by a higher power, which is different from the down-to-earth peasant dialect of the Gillanes. She talks about her tale of woe, where she was evicted from her home and how she’s travelled far. She has wandered away from her homeland because there are too many strangers in her house, and she laments how they have usurped her land. Peter and Bridget begin to speculate on who she could be.

The woman begins singing a song of Gaelic folklore, and Michael becomes fascinated by her. She explains that she’s singing songs of a young man who loved her and sacrificed his life for her. Now it’s Peter who is unmoved by her words, but Michael is captivated. She tells tales of many young men who have gone into battle for her, many of whom did not make it home. Peter and Bridget attempt to distract her with something to drink, and offer her money to make her go away. However, she says that she doesn’t require any of those things. What she actually wants is for a person to give themselves completely over to her. She announces that the time has come for her to leave, and as she prepares to go, Michael announces that he wants to come with her. He’s forgotten all about his planned marriage for tomorrow. The old woman then reveals herself to be Cathleen Ni Houlihan, the legendary warrior of Irish independence, and she steps off the stage. However, her singing can still be heard in her absence as the rest of the characters discuss this revelation.

Michael is in a hypnotic state, as it’s like Cathleen has possessed him. Bridget tries to snap him out of it, but at this point a group of neighbors, along with Delia and Michael’s brother Patrick arrive. Patrick tells them that all the neighbors are about to enlist with the French to fight the British, in hope that it will lead to Irish independence. Delia begs Michael not to follow in their footsteps, but Michael is still under Cathleen Ni Houlihan’s enchantment. He rushes outside to follow her, passionately arguing for the other men of the village to join him. The neighbors pour out of their houses, joining the enlistment march. The family is in anguish as they watch their sons march off to war. Peter asks Patrick if he had previously encountered an old woman on the way home, but Patrick says he hasn’t seen her. He has, however, seen a young woman who he described as walking like a queen, indicating that Cathleen Ni Houlihan takes many forms, and she is now restored to her full power and majesty.

William Butler Yeats, also known as W.B. Yeats, was an Irish poet, dramatist, and advocate for Irish independence. He is considered one of the driving forces of the Irish Literary Revival, and won the 1923 Nobel Prize in Literature. He was the co-founder of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, and is considered one of the most important figures in 20th-century Irish literature.

Isabella Augusta, aka Lady Gregory, was an Irish dramatist, folklorist, and theater manager who was the co-founder of the Irish Literary Theater and the Abbey Theatre, along with William Butler Yeats and Edward Martyn. She was well-known for her modern retellings of classic Irish folk tales and was one of the nobility’s strongest advocates for Irish independence.