Memory and Literary Revival

Cathleen Ni Houlihan

This was a play written in 1902 by William Butler Yeats and Lady Gregory and is filled with symbolism and focuses on men sacrificing their lives for Irish independence. Cathleen Ni Houlihan represents Ireland and she goes to a home where there is about to be a marriage and convinces the future groom, Michael, to give up the wedding and go fight. When she is trying to convince Michael to choose his country over his bride, Cathleen Ni Houlihan admits that there will be many deaths saying that, “They that have red cheeks will have pale cheeks for my sake, and for all that, they will think they are well paid”.[1] Death is common during the time around the rising, but becoming a martyr is somethings that is admirable, so oftentimes people welcomed death so they could create themselves a heroic memory. The martyrs would be remembered forever, which is why this theme is so ingrained into this play. It would be possible to convince men to go out to fight for their country.  This play is about Irish Independence, but there are themes of martyrdom in other works, like the musical about American Independence, Hamilton and 1776.

This is such a simple play that contains many symbols and has the goal of convincing men to fight for Ireland, but it does not go as much as create a dialogue after to bring up issues of the present.  While this play was written about the rising of 1798, it was meant to inspire people for the 1916 Rising. Throughout the whole play, there is constant reference to memory and its influence on the public. This men that died while fighting for Ireland were considered heroes, which is why memory and martyrdom were such important themes that are incorporated into works about revolution. Cathleen Ni Houlihan says,

They shall be remembered for ever,

They shall be alive for ever,

They shall be speaking for ever,

The people shall hear them for ever.[2]

When people are passionate about something, they are likely to dedicate their lives to it, and in the case of revolution, it might cost them their lives. Memory is valued, and many men during times of revolution from Britain wanted to be remembered as a hero.



The Plough and the Stars

In Sean O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars, an important theme that appears throughout is martyrdom. Jack Clitheroe fights with the Irish Citizen Army, and he ultimately loses his life in pursuit of Independence from Ireland. In the play, O’Casey says that Nora’s grief “will be a joy when she realized that she has had a hero for a husband.”[3] After Jack’s death, he becomes a martyr for the Irish in their fight for freedom. O’Casey wants to show his audience this patriotic narrative in order to preserve the fight for Irish independence, as well as the Easter Rising of 1916, so future generations can be inspired by the action of the men from the Rising.

This play glorifies martyrdom from the perspective of the working-class. It shows the negative effects of martyrdom, which undermines the patriotic narrative.  Nora was too scared to tell Jack of his military promotion because she was afraid that he could possibly die in combat. Nora was pregnant and ends up losing the baby because of an altercation, and with the stress of this, Nora soon finds out that Jack has died. This patriotic narrative tells Nora that she should be proud of her martyr husband, but that is not the case.[4] O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars shows the ugly side of martyrdom that Yeats’ Cathleen Ni Houlihan does not show. O’Casey’s play creates a collective memory of death instead of national independence.


Further Links:


Memory and Political Melodramas

Memory and Musicals

Literary Revival

Identity and the Literary Revival

Reception and the Literary Revival

Hamilton and Cathleen Ni Houlihan?: Irish and American Dramatic Representations of Colonial Rebellion

[1] William Butler Yeats and Augusta Gregory, Cathleen Ni Houlihan (London: Macmillan, 1903), 8.

[2] Yeats and Gregory, 9.

[3] O’Casey, Sean. The Plough and the Stars, 231.

[4] O’Casey, 177.

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