The development of Irish women in drama

Essay, 2015

7 Pages, Grade: 2,0



“The development of the idea of the Irish woman from Cathleen to Juno”

Even though the role of the Irish women was bounded to home and family Irish women were seen as a symbol for Irelands struggles for independence, which is also expressed through the development of the role of women in Irish Drama. This essay will examine the evolution of the idea of the Irish woman by comparing the different types of women presented in selected Irish plays including Cathleen Ni Houlihan by W.B. Yeats, The Playboy of the Western World by J.M. Synge and Juno and the Paycock by Seán O´Casey. In order to analyse the plays it is necessary to provide biographic information about the playwrights. The comparison of the plays requires a short introduction to their plot regarding the main (female) characters and their analysis. Cathleen Ni Houlihan will be examined first, followed by The Playboy of the Western World and Juno and the Paycock. The question of the evolution of the idea of the Irish women shall be discussed in the conclusion with reference to the presented plays.

William Butler Yeats was born 1865 in Dublin but spent his childhood in the Co. of Sligo which influenced his interest in the rural life and the peasant families. He was a dramatist and a poet and enjoyed several honours including the Noble prize during his last years. Under the patronage of Lady Gregory and with Edward Martyn he founded the Irish Literary Theatre in 1899 which became the Abbey Theatre in 1904. Due to the influence of Maude Gonne, with whom he shared a friendship with, W.B. Yeats became involved in the political ideas of the republicans during the 1890s and joined several republic campaigns supporting the dream of an independent republic free from the English influence. 1939 he died in France. (Kelleher (ed.), pp. 53-58).

About the origin of the idea of Cathleen Ni Houlihan W.B. Yeats said: “One night I had a dream almost as distinct as a vision, of a cottage where 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 Kathleen 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[A1] ” (Jeffares, p.109).

The influence of Lady Augusta Gregory can be seen in the first part, which she claims as hers, including the setting and the women´s speech. Lady Gregory, who had an upper- middle class background, supported the idea that the best way to strengthen women was to give them a strong position in their home, which is reflected by the presentation of Bridget, wife and mother, who is the one who cares and knows about the household (Yonce, Courtney 2014). Nonetheless she can be characterized as superficial interested in material goods (e.g. “Look what she brought into the marriage (Harrington, p.4), to Michael: “Look here Michael, look at your clothes” (Harrington, p.10)). Delia, the daughter- in-law, focussed on her wedding- might follow the ideas of a worm and safe home.

By leading Michael to die for her, Cathleen Ni Houlihan subverts the values of Delia and Bridget bounded to home and family; it can be concluded that Cathleen Ni Houlihan stages two different types of women: Gillane and Delia, focussed on material goods and Cathleen Ni Houlihan, characterized as symbolic, nomadic, virginal and sacrificial. On the other hand, it can be said that the women presented in Cathleen Ni Houlihan have different functions: Bridget and Delia as supporting roles regarding household and family and Cathleen Ni Houlihan represents the inspiring function of women.

The “weird” and “ghostly” power of Cathleen Ni Houlihan is underlined by using the motive of the puella senilis- the old woman transforming into a young girl with “the walk of a queen” refers to the Celtic Ur- myth of blood- sacrifice for the goddess Eire who is able to rejuvenate through the death of young men. Maud Gonne, a feminist and- like Yeats- member of The Golden Dawn, played the title figure at the premiere on the 6. of April 1902, which put an even stronger emphasis on the occult power of Cathleen Ni Houlihaan (Quinn, pp.429-432).

Regarding the role of women in Cathleen Ni Houlihan it can be stated that the four women in the play represent three different ideas of Irish women: Bridget and Delia with supporting and caring function, Cathleen Ni Houlihan as the old, nomadic, legendary women, and the trans- formed Cathleen representing women as an inspiring source to die for.

The Playboy of the Western World written by John Millinton Synge was influenced by his first visit of the Aran Islands in 1898 where he developed the story of how a Connemara man killed his father with a spade in a hit of temper and fled to the island and threw himself into the mercy of the locals. Synge was born 1857 as a descendant of an old Protestant Anglo- Irish- family. Due to his illness he was home educated and therefore spent his childhood in loneliness. 1895 Synge travelled to Paris where he met Yeats. Shortly afterwards he joined the Irish League and became the literary director of the Abbey- Theatre. Even though Synge was influenced and attached by many of the leading figures of the literary scene he remained apart. Even in his political point of view- a nationalist rebel- he stood apart because he felt un confortable with other co-patriots.

The premiere of The Playboy of the Western World was on the 26. Of January 1907. A dialogue between Christy and the Widow Quinn provoked a conflict in the audience were nationalists and supporter of the English stood up against one another, which caused other conflicts up to one week after the premiere.

In this particular scene, Widow Quinn tries to draw Christy apart from Pegeen offering herself- an older women- instead but Christy claims: “It´s Pegeen, I´m seeking only, and what´d I care if you brought me a drift of chosen females standing in their shifts itself…”. It is reported that the word “shift” in this context caused evoked the outcry of the audience: “This is not the West”- but nearly every sentence in this play raised conflicts (Kelleher, pp.192-196).

Through the characters of Pegeen and Widow Quinn Synge represents two contrasting but also similar ideas of the Irish woman. Pegeen is “ a girl you´d see itching and scratching, and she with a stale stink of poteen on her from selling the shop”, whereas Widow Quinn is an older woman demonstrating more experience in life and more authority. The role of Pegeen Mike is bounded to the house, the shop bounded by the will of her father, whereas Widow Quinn represents a more independent character, not bounded to anybody. The setting of the opening scene- showing Pegeen in the Pub working whereas all male characters and Widow Quinn come from outside- underlines that the position of Pegeen is strongly connected to the work in the house. But Pegeen tries to free herself from her father and from her fiancé Michael, who is close to her father by marrying Christy despite her fathers wishes- breaking with social rules. The contradiction of Pegeens character- on the one hand side as dutiful daughter, on the other hand side as hardworking and independent character can also be found in her name: pegeen, deriving from Magaret meaning “mother” and Mike- reference to her father. This might demonstrate as well a mix of stereotype gender character traits. When it is revealed that Christy did not kill his father, Pegeen realises that her emotions for Christy were built up because of her beliefs and her imagination (Finney, 104-11).

Her claiming that she “lost the only playboy of the Western World” refers more to the loss of a part of herself than to the loss of Christy as a person. Moreover, it reflects her pity of loosing the possibility of freeing herself from her father. It is also shown that Pegeen still depends on her father, she goes back to her father not seeing that the life she and Christy talked about still might be possible. Pegeens love for Christy is punctual for it vanishes when she discovers that he has not killed his father.

Both female characters, Pegeen and Widow Quinn, are the only ones who break with social rules and both demonstrate a certain authority against male characters. The isolated position of Widow Quinn underlines her independence whereas Pegeen only wishes to be independent but is not able to fulfil her dream. The character of Pegeen, who is reunited with her father in the end, also critiques the dominate role of male characters- in the end, it is Widow Quinn, who is and remains independent because she is not bounded by male characters- neither father nor fiancé.

As well as in The playboy of The Western World Seán O´Casey´s plays show a clear distinc- tion between male and female characters: whereas the male characters in his plays are comic but lazy, the women are presented as practical and hard-working. His own hard-working mother, raising thirteen children on her own after her husband´s dead, inspired his female characters. Seán O´Casey born on the 30. March 1880 as a child of a poor Protestant family, was an autodidact, autobiography, playwright, pacifist and socialist. The early death of his father in 1886 caused the pauperization of the family- O´Casey grew up under poor conditions which influenced the subjects and settings of his writing for he was the first playwright to write about the poor. O´Casey died on the 18. Of September in 1964 in Torbay (Sanders, 543-545).

Juno and the Paycock, the second play of his Dublin Trilogy and his best- known play was an immediate success. Set in the historical context of Dublin during the Irish Civil War it stages the conflict´s impact on the poor- in this case, a working- class family, the Boyles, where each male character seems to have its female response. Juno, whose name refers to the Roman goddess Iuno, the goddess of marriage and love whose symbol is a peacock (Maxwell, p.98), is married to “Captain” Jack Boyle- the paycock who is irresponsible and useless spending a lot time drinking with his friend Joxer Daly fleeing from the problems of reality. Juno, who proves to be a strong, hard- working character contrasts with the lazy and impractical character Jack Boyle. Also their children, Mary and Johnny, seem to contrast one another: Mary, who, at the beginning of the play, is a shallow character paying most attention to the outdoor appearance of things, tries to improve herself by reading and develops through the play proving that she is a strong character as well presents a contrary character to the weak character of her brother Johnny, who is blinded by his principles and cannot work due to the fact, that he lost his arm in The War of Independence. Johnny, who passed information which lead to the death of Mrs. Tancred´s son, hides in the house fearing for his own life and suffering from psychological breakdowns. Neither Mary, being on a strike, nor Johnny work at the beginning of the play, but Mary in contrary to Johnny, worked at least once. It is remarkable however, that Johnny, despite claiming that “a principle is a principle” (Harrington, p.214), betrays his own comrade, whereas Mary is on strike.


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The development of Irish women in drama
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Irish Drama, Juno, Catherine
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Anonymous, 2015, The development of Irish women in drama, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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