I find it incredibly strange, yet fascinating, that literature often represents Ireland as a “poor old woman,” or sean bhean bhocht in Irish. It seems that a country wouldn’t want a frail, poor woman to represent it, yet the symbol matches the history of Ireland: it’s been taken advantage of by other nationalities several times.
Yeats’s play Cathleen ni Houlihan tells an interesting yet short description of the poor old woman and, in doing so, expresses nationalism. The woman is described as “the strange woman that goes through the country whatever time there’s war or trouble coming” (http://www.readbookonline.net/readOnLine/26361/). The woman’s speech is very interesting. She declares: “I have travelled far, very far; there are few have travelled so far as myself, and there’s many a one that doesn’t make me welcome…. Sometimes my feet are tired and my hands are quiet, but there is no quiet in my heart. When the people see me quiet, they think old age has come on me and that all the stir has gone out of me. But when the trouble is on me I must be talking to my friends.” She answers that she has been wandering because there are strangers that have taken her “four beautiful green fields,” which are meant to represent the four provinces of Ireland.
Yeats also shows an interesting juxtaposition between the two generations through the response to the woman. The son declares that he’d rather not a stranger come in before his wedding, but the mother responds: “Open the door, Michael; don’t keep the poor woman waiting.” Michael is at first uneasy of the woman, yet he is transfixed by her song and story. She doesn’t want food, drink, or money; instead, she speaks only of meeting her friends that will help obtain her fields. Those that help her, she says, “shall be remembered for ever, they shall be alive for ever, they shall be speaking for ever, the people shall hear them for ever.”
Bridget contrasts this woman to a “stout fresh woman” that was seen at a market; thus, Ireland is not stout or fresh. Yet the stubbornness of the Irish people and its civil war does not seem to equate with a poor old woman. Yeats shows a different view of the character at the end of his play, whenever Patrick says he sees not an old woman but “a young girl, and she had the walk of a queen.” This transformation of the woman is so fascinating to me because it shows different aspects of Ireland: yes, the country and its people have been mistreated and mocked, yet it maintains its dignity and pride in walking like a queen. The country may seem so old, yet its people are fresh at heart and draw in others like Michael to the cause. Therefore, I think Yeats’s play offers an accurate portrayal of Ireland herself, encompassing both her history and her character.