Cathleen Ni Houlihan, written collaboratively by W.B Yeats and Lady Gregory in 1901, is a play centered around the 1798 Irish Rebellion. In the early 20th century, Ireland was still under colonial rule, and many longed for an independent Irish state. This play looks back at the Irish Rebellion and Irish history to imagine a popular Irish fable, that of Cathleen ni Houlihan, for the stage.
The play is one of the most well-known patriotic plays of the time. It is mostly remembered for its personification of Ireland as an old frail woman who has had her “four green fields” usurped, and who lures a young man into sacrificing himself in order to retrieve them. This idea of young Irishmen sacrificing their lives for the motherland became an important inspiration for the later Easter Risings of 1916.
Lady Gregory’s authorship was long overshadowed by Yeats, but her contribution has since come to light. It is believed that she penned most of the play’s lines, while Yeats focused on the otherworldly lines of Cathleen Ni Houlihan herself. Gregory did not try to take credit for the play, even when Yeats took full ownership of the play’s influence and wrote, “Did that play of mine send out/ Certain men the English shot?”