Illuminations: Maud Gonne: “She Had the Walk of a Queen”
By: J. Michael Finn
Cathleen Ni Houlihan (In Irish: Caitlín Ní Uallacháin, or literally, “Cathleen, Daughter of Houlihan”) is a mythical symbol and emblem of Irish nationalism found in literature, art and song, representing the personification of Ireland as a woman.
Cathleen Ni Houlihan is sometimes referred to in song and story as the Sean Bhean Bhocht (pron. shan van vokt), the Poor Old Woman, and often depicted as an old woman who needs the help of young Irish men to fight and die in order to free Ireland from English rule. She is also sometimes referred to as a young Lady Ireland.
Irish artist Sir John Lavery painted his wife Hazel Lavery as Cathleen leaning on an Irish harp. For most of the 20th Century this image was used on all Republic of Ireland banknotes. The figure of Cathleen Ni Houlihan has also been invoked in nationalist Irish politics.
As a literary figure, Cathleen Ni Houlihan was most famously used by Irish poet William Butler Yeats and Lady Augusta Gregory in their 1902 play, Cathleen Ní Houlihan.
Yeats himself best described where his idea for the play originated: “One night I had a dream almost as distinct as a vision, of a cottage where there was well-being and firelight and talk of a marriage and into the midst of that cottage there came an old woman in a long cloak. She was Ireland herself, that Cathleen ni Houlihan for whom so many songs have been sung and about whom so many stories have been told and for whose sake so many have gone to their death. I thought if I could write this out as a little play I could make others see my dream as I had seen it …”
Although the concept of the play came from Yeats, he needed to develop the characterizations and speech of the County Mayo family depicted in the play. This was contributed by collaboration with Lady Augusta Gregory, who co-authored the play.
The one-act play was first performed on April 2, 1902 at St. Theresa’s Total Abstinence Hall in Dublin. The play centers on the 1798 Rebellion and the landing of the French forces at Killala in County Mayo. In the play the title character of Cathleen first appears as an old woman. She appears at the cabin door of a family preparing to celebrate their son’s wedding as the French are landing at Killala.
The old woman describes her four “beautiful green fields” that have been unjustly taken from her. These fields symbolize the four provinces of Ireland (Leinster, Connacht, Munster and Ulster). The family, wrapped up in its own plans and concerns, doesn’t recognize the woman.
With little subtlety, the old lady requests a sacrifice, when she declares: “It is a hard service they take that help me; many that have been free to walk the hills and the bogs and the rushes will be sent to walk hard streets in far countries; many a good plan will be broken; many a child will be born and there will be no father at the christening to name it; and for all that, they will think they are well paid.”
It is clear to the audience that the old woman is Ireland, mourning over the loss of her land to “strangers,” mourning for those “lovers” who died for her sake, and trying to convince the young man about to be married to leave his home to fight for her. She says, “I have good friends that will help me. They are gathering to help me now. I am not afraid. If they are put down today, they will get the upper hand tomorrow.” As the young man agrees to fight and leave the safety of his home, Cathleen appears as a young woman, singing 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.”
A key part of the play for Yeats was casting the person who would portray Cathleen Ni Houlihan. For several years Yeats had been in love with Irish nationalist and political activist Maud Gonne. She had rejected his proposals of marriage and although she considered him a friend, she resisted taking the relationship any further. This unrequited love ended up inspiring many of Yeats’ poems. It was an easy decision for Yeats – Maud Gonne would portray Cathleen. Maud requested that the play be produced by the organization she founded – Inghinidhe na hEireann (Daughters of Erin). Of course, Yeats agreed. Although she was living in France, at the time, Maud agreed to come back to Dublin to star in the play.
Maud Gonne was a smart, articulate and statuesque beauty who was well known in nationalist and literary circles in Ireland. Besides being an activist for several nationalist causes, she had acted previously in many plays produced by the Inghinidhe. She was best remembered for her portrayal of Joan of Arc. The trick in this play would be convincing the audience that she was an old woman who would, at the end of the play, transform into a beautiful young woman.
On opening night Maud convinced everyone that she was indeed Cathleen, Daughter of Houlihan. As the old woman, Maud wore a heavy cloak that covered most of her body. She walked in a crouch and spoke as an old woman. When she removed her cloak at the end of the play and drew herself up to full height to become the young woman it was said, “She became the very image of a free nation.” When the woman is heard singing, the young boy is asked if he had seen an old woman going down the path, he replies, “I did not, but I saw a young girl, and she had the walk of a queen.”
After watching the play a fellow actress wrote about Maud, “Watching her, one could readily understand the reputation she enjoyed as the most beautiful woman in Ireland, the inspiration for the whole revolutionary movement. In her, the youth of the county saw all that was magnificent in Ireland. She was the very personification of the figure she was portraying on the stage.”
A critic wrote, “… but above all Miss Gonne’s impersonation had stirred the audience as I have never seen another audience stirred.” Yeats was very pleased with the performance. He wrote to Lady Gregory that Maud Gonne played the part “magnificently and with weird power.”
By the third and final performance, crowds had to be turned away from the fully booked theater. The Inghinidhe lacked the resources to rent the hall for more than three performances. In that short time, however, the play and Maud’s performance entered the realm of Irish nationalist mythology and became an inspiration to many. So inspiring was her performance that after the failure of the 1916 Rising, Yeats asked himself in a poem, “Did that play of mine send out certain men the English shot?”
Another significant result of this play was that its success resulted in the establishment of the Irish National Theater Company. Yeats became its president and Maud joined Lady Gregory, George Russell, and Douglas Hyde on the board of directors. The Irish National Theater Company greatly shaped Irish theater changing the way people viewed and connected with the theater. It created nationalistic pride by producing plays for the Irish written by the Irish.
*J. Michael Finn is the Ohio State Historian for the Ancient Order of Hibernians and Division Historian for the Patrick Pearse Division in Columbus, Ohio. He is also Chairman of the Catholic Record Society for the Diocese of Columbus, Ohio. He writes on Irish and Irish-American history; Ohio history and Ohio Catholic history. You may contact him at FCoolavin@aol.com.