Ireland, still under the control of Great Britain at the turn of the twentieth century, was a country left disillusioned by the effects of colonization. The loss of their political and economic power and especially the loss of their language to the hands of the dominant colonizer left the country without an identity independent of English influence. At this time, The Irish people required a means to express, if not their political independence, then at least their cultural individuality.

At the close of the century the Irish cultural movement gave a voice to Irish frustration and disillusionment and provided a means of asserting their distinctly separate identity through the search for unique aspects of Irish culture. This movement reflected the need to ‘reject the dominant ideology of the British colonial government and replace it with a new national ideology’ that was of equal importance. ‘The Irish National Theatre developed over a period of many years amidst a dynamic upsurge of cultural nationalism that helped to fill the vacuum left by the demise of the political nationalist movement under Parnell.’ People looked to the national theatre to create an image of a new independent Irish nation and to represent the Irish people in a more positive light than that of dominant English melodrama. The stage was used as a place to contest issues of political and economic power as playwrights like W. B. Yeats, Lady Augusta Gregory, J. M. Synge and Sean O’Casey strove to create images of ‘Irish-ness’ that would be effective in asserting Ireland’s cultural identity. Whether these representations are accurate portrayals of Ireland is debatable, but they are certainly firmly rooted and influential in Ireland’s quest to be recognised as a nation wholly separate and independent from its colonizer and in the political nationalist movement of the time.To this question of ‘Irish-ness’ the idea of nation is extremely important. In fact, the development of Irish theatre in the twentieth century has been so plagued by the idea of defining and establishing the idea of an independent Irish nation that it is essential to define the word ‘nation’ itself. As Lauren Kruger asserts, the impulse to ’theatrical nationhood manifests itself fully only in the course of the nineteenth century and particularly as representations of the ruling bloc confront the (counter) hegemonic claims of emergent groups’. S. E. Wilmer defines nation as a ‘collective body of like-minded individuals with a common will and national spirit’ and Benedict Anderson suggests the ’formal universality of nationality as a socio-cultural concept’ in his book entititled Imagined Communities: reflections on the origins and spread of nationalism. He asserts that the concept of ‘nationhood’ has become such a vital commodity in contemporary society that one cannot be without one, thus why so much importance is placed on defining a particular cultural and political identity in Ireland. He explains ‘ Nation-ness is the most universally legitimate value in the political life of our time…Since World War II, every successful revolution has defined itself in national terms’. The role of any national theatre according to Shaun Richards is to ‘stage the pressing concerns, or historical foundations of the nation and define characteristics according to which the aspirant nation could be identified and distinguished’. It seems that the establishment of a national theatre in itself was a step in the assertion of an independent Irish culture as an alternative to a theatre that was considered strongly anti-national. Plays put on in the early days of the Abbey were considered to have as much political impact as political speeches or nationalist demonstrations. As Marvin Carlson describes:

Few of the emerging national/cultural groups of the post dramatic period neglected to utilise the drama as a powerful tool for awakening a people to a common heritage and, not infrequently, encouraging them through an awareness of this heritage to seek both national identity and national liberty in opposition to the demands of dominant and external political and cultural influences . In ‘Imagined communities’, Benedict Anderson emphasises this notion of ‘awakening’ as a common trope for nascent nationalism, the sense that the people of the nation are ‘awakened’ to the call of their ‘natural’ national allegiances. In the nationalist drama and the work of many national theatres of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, one can see the attempt to ‘awaken the nation’ to what was professed as its natural sense of nationhood and to promote and foster a notion of natural identity.
In other words the national theatre essentially fulfils the role of a public forum in which ideas of nationhood and representations of ‘Irish-ness’ are presented to the public for acceptance or rejection. The Irish people see a vision of themselves played out on stage which they may or may not like thus allowing their judgement to become a deciding factor in the shaping of a new national identity, a concept previously prevented by colonial oppression.

Previous representations of the Irish had been primarily from an English perspective and had been extremely negative, the typical Irish-man being a comic-side kick in the English melodrama, always drunk, hot-headed, fiery and primitive, lacking in intelligence and refinement in comparison the dignity of the English gentleman. Declan Kiberd argues that Ireland was set up by the English as a foil to set off their virtues. In comparison to the hot headed Irish man the English man seemed all the more genteel. In David Hume’s book entitled The History of England, the negative image of the Irish is seen at its very worst. ‘The Irish from the very beginning of time had been buried in the most profound barbarism and ignorance…distinguished by those vices alone to which human nature, not tamed by education or restrained by laws, is forever subject’. In his book, Hume fosters the perpetuated myth that the English colonized Ireland because the Irish were too primitive and barbaric to control the country themselves. As illustrated by the mission statement of the Abbey Theatre, cultural nationalists sought to dispel this falsity by presenting an Ireland far removed from these vulgar representations. ‘We will show that Ireland is not the home of buffoonery and of easy sentiment, as it has been represented, but the home of ancient idealism. We are confident of the support of all Irish people, who are weary of misrepresentation’. Although nationalist in principle, cultural nationalism is a separate phenomenon to political nationalism in that it does not seek to form any kind of political or economic change but rather a regeneration of community through cultural means. As Hutchinson relates, ‘cultural nationalism is a movement of moral regeneration which seeks to reunite the different aspects of the nation…by returning to the creative life-principle of the nation’. He explains that this results in its proponents being artists and scholars as opposed to the politicians and political activists that control the political nationalist movement. Once the ‘creative force’ is recovered it is projected to the nation for judgement. Scholars and artists like Yeats and Lady Gregory sought this creative life force in the old mythology of Ireland, in the folktales and legends of Cuchulain. Introducing this archetype into national consciousness would help to create a history far removed from that which had been imposed by dominant British culture. The legends and folk tales would act as an alternative history which would help to differentiate Ireland from its colonizer and become a foundation on which notions of national identity would be built. ‘The ancient legends of Ireland undoubtedly contain situations and characters as well suited for drama as most of those used in the Greek tragedies which have come down to us’. The Irish buffoon had suddenly become a brave warrior fighting for town and country, a country that could not be defeated. Kiberd describes how ‘As a poet, [Yeats] invents an ideal Ireland in his imagination, falls deeply in love with its form and proceeds to breathe it, Pygmalion like, into being’. ‘He saw the pursuit of beauty as an esoteric quest for hidden ideals, as opposed to the pragmatically oriented grain of historical and social circumstances’.

While primarily Yeats’s plays are dominated by images of ancient mythical heroes like Cuchulain in On Baile’s Strand and the premise of the Abbey was non-political, Cathleen ni Houlihan is more representative of his early pro-nationalist political stance. Co-written with Lady Gregory, the play presents the character of an old woman, ‘Mother Ireland’ who has lost her ‘four beautiful green fields’, the four provinces of Ireland, to strangers. She convinces Michael, a young Irishman, to leave his fiancee and family and fight for her. Unlike Yeats’s other plays, Cathleen ni Houlihan presents a blatant call to action, to both Michael and the audience, for the nationalist cause through the creation of a ‘Mother Ireland’ figure, popular in nationalist ideology, ‘calling out to her sons to fight for their country. As the spirit of a suppressed people longing for independence, she speaks in metaphors to an audience on stage as well as in the audience, urging them to fight for independence’. The image of Cathleen has been described as a ‘divine vision embodying the eternal sovereignty of Ireland and predicting liberation from foreign oppression’. This was further emphasised by the fact that Cathleen was played by Maud Gonne, a famous nationalist political activist and the love of Yeats’s life. Thus the archetypal nationalist figure of Mother Ireland as portrayed by another icon of political nationalism holds even more political resonance. The last image of the old woman’s transformation into a beautiful girl with the ‘walk of a queen’ holds political power in the fact that it marks a departure from one state to another. Ireland is currently in a state of liminality or limbo and it is suggested by Yeats and Gregory that by crossing this threshold Ireland can enter a different state, a state of independence and freedom from imperial rule. Nationalist plays like this were effective in recruiting for the nationalist cause through the creation of national pride and identity and ‘notions of blood sacrifice and a genderized, mythically based relationship between virile prowess and national devotion would be instrumental in 1916 when a violent insurrection formed the prelude to the Irish war of Independence.’ Pride in one’s nation or ‘imagined community’ as suggested by Anderson, stems from the sense that nation is essentially a comradeship with one’s fellow citizens. He describes how one’s willingness to die for the nation must inevitably stem from a sense of intense fraternity, asserting ‘These deaths bring us face to face with the central problem posed by nationalism: What makes the shrunken imaginings of recent history generate such colossal sacrifices? I believe that the beginnings of an answer lie in the cultural roots of nationalism’. Perhaps, contrary to popular opinion, Cathleen ni Houlihan does not serve so much as a call to arms as a warning of the dire consequences of fanatical nationalism. More recent literary theorists suggest that Michael is an unfortunate victim of ‘a vampiric shape shifter who feeds at his blood’. ‘Rather than celebrating single-minded patriotism, or validating Michael Gillane as a martyr who earns the status of mythic hero, the play’s action has instead come to be seen as embodying a tautly conflicted critique of the attractions and dangers of idealistic nationalism’.

After 1906 however, Yeats began to shy away from blatant nationalist ploys, perhaps reluctant to address such politically charged issues in light of previous reactions, and concentrated on more elevated subject matter. He became vaguely anti-nationalist in fact, withdrawing into a ‘haughty class-bound elitism and made a habit of denouncing the vulgarity of most nationalists’. Some might even argue that Yeats’s plays were not truly designed for the stage, containing minimal action and lots of dense verse, inaccessible to the average Irish man. He was consciously extremely elevated in language and thought and while some might argue that this was effective in constructing a beautifully picturesque Irish ideal, others would say that Yeats, while inventing a new Ireland in replacement of old representations, failed to represent the real Ireland in any way. Playwrights like Gregory, Synge and O’Casey were much more successful in creating an Ireland that was true to life. As Maud Gonne related to Yeats in 1905:

Lady Gregory knows the soul of our people and expresses it as no one else does. Through the surface of triviality, of self avance, of folly which often jars on one, she never ceases to see and to express in her writing that deep passion which only heroic action or thought is able to arouse in them, and when once aroused makes them capable of sacrifice for ideals as no other people on earth are.
Lady Gregory, through her gift for the handling of dialogue and use of humour and hiberno-English really manages to capture the spirit of the Irish people in a way that Yeats never did. Plays like The Rising of the Moon and Spreading the News are effective in demonstrating that even as an outsider she knew the Irish people and the reality of life in Ireland as opposed to an exoticised idealism.

In trying to determine a new image of Ireland to oppose those of the English, Irish theatre became a place of experimentation where the Irishman and nation was presented in numerous ways. Instead of seeking an accurate portrayal of themselves, the Irish only wanted to be presented in a positive way with no room for improvement or development, thus explaining reactions to such productions as Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World. As Christopher Murray suggests, the Irish Literary Theatre may have acted as a ‘mirror up to nation’ but the mirror ‘does not give back the real; it gives back images of perceived reality’, or reality in an ideal world. In being permitted to choose which images of Ireland are desirable or otherwise, the Irish Literary Theatre promoted ideas of Ireland that were as much of a fabrication as the ideas perpetuated by English colonizers. Ireland is neither the home of buffoonery or of ‘ancient idealism’ but perhaps somewhere in between. As Richards observes, ‘theatre creates a self-enforcing loop in which image accords with audience desire for self-presentation in which only validated images are deemed to be ‘in the true’’. Essentially, the Irish Literary theatre movement in accordance with cultural nationalism does nothing more than perpetuate more false information about the Irish nation and proceeds no further in giving the Irish people a true sense of identity.


Wilmer, S. E., Theatre, History and National Identities, Helsinki: Helsinki University Press, 2001

Richards, Shaun, The Cambridge Companion to twentieth century Irish drama, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Anderson, Benedict, Imagined communities: reflections on the origins and spread of nationaliam, London: Verso, 1983.

Kiberd, Declan, Inventing Ireland, London: Vintage, 1996


Murray, Christopher, Twentieth Century Irish Drama: Mirror up to nation, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1997.

Harrington, John. P., Modern Irish Drama, New York: W. W. Norton and co., 1991