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Universit degli Studi di Padova

Facolt di Lettere e Filosofia

Dipartimento di Lingue e Letterature Anglo Germaniche e Slave


Corso di Laurea Triennale in Lingue, Letterature e Culture Moderne Classe LT-11


Tesina di Laurea

The Myth of C Chulainn and its Role in the Irish Renaissance

Relatore Prof.ssa Alessandra Petrina

Laureando Emanuele Bonato n matr. 590308 / LTLCM

Anno Accademico 2010 / 2011


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TABLE OF CONTENTS 1.PREFACE 2. A PRESENTATION OF C CHULAINN AND THE ULSTER CYCLE 2.1 Irish mythology and the Ulster cycle 2.2 C Chulainn, a human hero 3. THE CELTIC REVIVAL: BUILDING A NEW IRISH IDENTITY 3.1 The need for Irish culture 3.2 The Celtic Revival 3.3 The theatre 3.4 Why C Chulainn as the model for a cultural revival? p. 12 p. 14 p. 16 p. 21 p. 6 p. 8 p. 5

4. C CHULAINN IN THE CELTIC REVIVALS LITERARY PRODUCTION: FROM LADY GREGORY TO YEATS 4.1 Lady Gregorys Cuchulain of Muirthemne 4.2 Yeatss C Chulainn: poetry and drama 4.2.1 The C Chulainn cycle: five different C Chulainns on the stage 4.2.2 Yeatss poems about C Chulainn BIBLIOGRAPHY p. 23 p. 26 p. 27 p. 44 p. 47

1. PREFACE The aim of this work of research was to analyse the function and the importance of the mythical figure of C Chulainn in the literary movement of the Irish Renaissance. In the first chapter I have presented the legend of C Chulainn placing it in the wider context of Irish mythology. Remembering, then, the most meaningful episodes of the life of this hero I have highlighted his most significant characteristic that have turned out to be, on the one hand, ability in battle, doughtiness, braveness, loyalty, honesty and integrity, while on the other hand an extremely simple humanity. In the second chapter I have focused my attention on the socio-political situation of Ireland between the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth century, which, disillusioned by the abortive attempts to obtain political independence from England, favoured the building of a cultural unity. Afterwards I have introduced the movement of the Irish Renaissance, which, especially through the revival of folk and mythological tradition and taking C Chulainn as a model, aimed to redefine the idea of Ireland and to achieve a cultural independence. Then I have explained the importance of the theatre that was a powerful means to communicate with the people becoming expression of Irish feelings and life. Finally, I have tried to understand why C Chulainn was the model of this movement: his humanity made him an example close to the common people and at the same time thanks to his nature of warrior he was seen as the defender of Ireland from the outside threats, arriving to gain even a great political importance. In the third chapter, finally, I have analysed more in detail the presence of C Chulainn in some literary works, such as Lady Gregorys Cuchulain of Muirthemne, which made this hero well known amongst all the people of Ireland, and Yeatss plays of the cycle of C Chulainn, which setting on the stage some episodes of the legend of the hero were expression of the situation of Ireland and of the consequent thoughts of the author.

In the Irish Renaissance C Chulainns role was that of a model and a source of inspiration for Irish people, which saw in him a valiant hero and at the same time a human being similar to them; he had the capacity to reawaken that sense of Irishness in the people of Ireland. However, it must be said that he had great importance also beyond this literary movement, in fact, even though the Revivalists had entrusted C Chulainn with the task of bringing cultural independence and unity, he was taken as an example in the rebellions that led to the birth of the Republic of Ireland. 2. A PRESENTATION OF C CHULAINN AND THE ULSTER CYCLE 2.1 Irish mythology and the Ulster cycle The aim of my thesis is to analyse the figure of C Chulainn, probably the best known Irish mythical figure, and its importance in the social and cultural movement of the Celtic Revival. However, it is essential beforehand to provide some general information about this aspect of Irish cultural heritage, in order to make such an analysis clear and understandable. Irish mythology is an important branch of the wider Celtic mythology, which is intended
to include the popular tradition and legendary tales of the Celts, the fabulous actions and exploits of their heroes and deities, the tradition of their early migrations, their fairy tales, and the popular beliefs in regard to the supernatural world.1

More precisely, Irish mythology refers to the legends and traditions of the people of Ireland (meant as the island and not as the contemporary Republic of Ireland) and is composed of four main cycles of stories and tales: The Mythological cycle, which concerns the ancient Irish deities and the origin of the Irish people. Amongst the most important sources there is the collection Leabhar Gabhla ireann (The Book of the Conquest of Ireland), a twelfth century pseudo-history that embodies and embroiders earlier tradition.2

1 MacBain, Alexander, Celtic Mythology and Religion: with Chapters upon Druids and Celtic Burial, Stirling: MacKay, 1917, p. 9. 2 Dixon-Kennedy, Mike, Celtic Myth and Legend: an A-Z of People and Places, London: Blandford, 1996, p. 190. 6

The Ulster cycle, in which the deeds of C Chulainn are told, and whose tales are about what is considered the only Heroic Age of Irish literature.3

The Fenian cycle, called also the Ossianic cycle after the bard Ossian that is believed to be the narrator, which collects verse and prose about the feats of Fionn mac Cumhaill, the legendary Irish hero [...] who organized the first regular Irish army in the middle of the third century.4

The Historical cycle, which comprises narrations of events happening in Ireland and the genealogies of the Irish kings from the fifth to the eleventh century.

The Ulster cycle, the one I am interested in in this research, collects over thirty different tales set in a period around the birth of Christ in a huge realm that covered all northern Ireland, including Donegal5 named Ulaidh, Ulster6 in English. Most of these tales can be found in three manuscripts: the Book of Fermoy, handwritten probably between the fourteenth and the sixteenth century7; the Leabhar na hUidhre (The Book of the Dun Cow), an eleventh- or twelfth-century text that is [...] based on material of a much earlier date8, and above all the Book of Leinster, probably the most important source of Irish mythology, written before 1160 and now preserved in the Library of Trinity College Library, Dublin.9
[T]he subject matter of the Ulster Cycle is a king and his court; the main characters are warriors, members of the military aristocracy which underpinned early medieval Ireland as it did.10

The court is that of Emain Mhacha, near Antrim,11 and the king is Conchobar mac Nessa, in fact the real protagonist of the whole cycle, which begins with his birth and develops around his kingdom, until his old age. The central tale of the Ulster Cycle is the Tan B Cuailng (The Cattle Raid of
3 MacCana, Proinsias, Celtic Mythology, Feltham: Hamlyn, 1970, p. 97 4 Dixon-Kennedy, p. 139. 5 Dixon-Kennedy, p. 285. 6 Nowadays Ulster is one of the four provinces in Ireland (the others are Connacht, Leinster and Munster) and comprises nine counties: six of them belong to Northern Ireland, three to the Republic of Ireland. 7 Royal Irish Academy website, URL http://www.ria.ie/Library/Special-Collections/Manuscripts/Book-of-Fermoy.aspx, (accessed July 2011). 8 Dixon-Kennedy, p. 192. 9 Dixon-Kennedy, p. 192 10 Clancy, Thomas Owen, Court, King and Justice in the Ulster Cycle, in Heather Fulton, ed., Medieval Celtic Literature and Society, Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2005, p. 167. 11 Antrim is one of the six Ulster counties that belong to Northern Ireland, it is situated in the north-east of the island. 7

Cooley), the narration of the war between Ulster and Connacht, caused by Medhbha, queen of Connacht, who tried to rob Ulster of the great brown bull Donn Cuailng because she desired [] that her possessions might rival those of [her husband] Ailill, who owned the great white bull Finnbhennach.12 In this tale, as well as in many others belonging to the Ulster cycle, an important role is played by C Chulainn, who, even though not the main character of the cycle, is undoubtedly the best known and the most typical not only of Irish mythology, but even of the Celtic one. 2.2 C Chulainn, a human hero The life and the deeds of C Chulainn have been told and described in several texts, thus it is not possible to give an exhaustive description of this figure in a few pages. Anyhow there are some important aspects and episodes of the story of the hero that need to be mentioned in order to understand the characteristics that have made this mythical figure so important, to the point that he has been chosen as the model for a nation. About his birth there is uncertainty, there are in fact different beliefs about his origin, as the words of Mike Dixon-Kennedy in his dictionary of Celtic mythology suggests:
son of Deichtine (the sister or daughter of Conchobar mac Nessa), some say that his father was the god Lugh, others that it was none other than Conchobar mac Nessa himself, although the husband of Deichtine is usually named as Sualtam.13

Therefore we can already recognise that he is not an ordinary figure, because he possesses two features which frequently mark the sacred birth of the hero: incest and procreation by a god.14 The extraordinariness of C Chulainn is witnessed also in the episode where he gains his name. Born as Sdanta, at the age of four the hero kills with a hurling15 ball the hound of the smith Culann that had attacked him. When the smith complains about the loss of the animal, Sdanta promises to take its place as long as he needs. For that reason he gains the name of C Chulainn, which means the hound of Culann, and as a consequence, he assumes the epithet of the Hound of Ulster.
12 Dixon-Kennedy, p. 271. 13 Dixon-Kennedy, p. 91. 14 MacCana, p. 101. 15 Traditional sport, similar in some way to field hockey, with Celtic origins. 8

The initiation into heroism begins in his childhood: five years old, after hearing from the druid Cathbhadh that taking the arms on that day would give him eternal fame, even though a short life at the same time, he manages to get the arms from Conchobar through deception. Provided that my fame lives, I care not if I be on this earth but a single day,16 he says to the king, this is a sign of the courage and fearlessness that characterise all his life. The first deed after the taking of arms can also help us to outline the features of the hero. With his new war equipment, C Chulainn moves down to the borders of Ulster to fight the three sons of the monster Nechta Scne, responsible of the death of half the Ulstermen. He kills them and hangs their heads on his chariot, and, on the way back, he captures some deer and a flock of swans, arriving to Emain Mhacha mad and still furious with the ardour of battle. In order to cool his anger the Queen of Ulster decides to send out three fifties of the women of Emain [...] to meet him.17 Overtaken by embarrassment, C Chulainn hides his face and is captured by the other warriors of Ulster and plunged into cold water, where he stays three days before finding his reason again and being allowed to enter the royal household. Beside the doughtiness typical of champions in the moment in which he revenges his dead fellow countrymen, at this juncture C Chulainn shows also an extremely simple humanity. As any little kid would have done, he feels ashamed when he sees the naked women and his reaction betrays simplicity and innocence. This episode can be seen also as a decisive passage in the process of maturation of the hero: the encounter with the women can be interpreted as a ritual act [...] employed as a means of propitiation, and the fury of battle signal[s] his entry into the warrior class and his capacity to discharge its corporate function.18 In C Chulainns experience, the courting of Emer is really meaningful too. Emer is the most beautiful woman in Ireland, whom C Chulainn wants to take as his wife. Since she wants him to prove his worth, C Chulainn leaves her for a year to complete his warrior training: he goes to
16 MacCana, p. 105. 17 Gregory, Isabella Augusta, Cuchulain of Muirthemne: the story of the men of the Red Branch of Ulster / arranged and put into English by Lady Gregory; with a preface by W.B. Yeats, London: John Murray, 1902, electronic edition available at http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/celt/cuch/index.htm, p. 20. 18 MacCana, p. 105. 9

Scathach, the woman-warrior that lived in the east of Alban19 another name for nowadays Scotland in order to learn the warlike stratagems which [would] render him invincible.20 During the training period he fights and defeats Scathachs bitter rival, the woman warrior Afe, whom he takes as his mistress and leaves with a child to carry in the womb. Returning to Ireland he kills Emers brothers and can finally take her as his wife. This passage presents an ambiguous relation between C Chulainn and women; if on the one hand we can see a man who cannot resist passion and cheats on his wife-to-be, on the other we see a husband who cares about the values of hearth and home as a matter of fact that with Afe is not the only cheating on Emer, but despite his numerous infidelities, he always returns to her.21 Once again we have the validation of his deeply human nature. The greatness of C Chulainns skills and qualities is highlighted in two situations that follow his youthful experiences. The first one is described in the tale Fledd Bricrenn (Bricrius Feast), in which, during a feast in Ulster, the heroes Loeghaire Buadhach and Conall Cernach contend with C Chulainn for the title of champion of all Ireland. After Loeghaire and Conall do not accept the verdict of the kings of Connacht and Munster, who had judged C Chulainn to be the best warrior, the decision is taken by a giant who irrupts into the feast. He challenges the three heroes to cut off his head with an axe and to allow him to do the same with them on the following day. Incidentally, the same challenge is narrated in the late fourteenth century English romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. After seeing that the giant comes back although he was beheaded the day before, both Loeghaire and Conall run away for fear; on the contrary, C Chulainn respects the agreement and prepares himself to be killed, but the giant rewards his courage and honesty sparing his life and proclaiming him champion of all Ireland. Similar characteristics emerge in the battle fought between Ulster and Connacht. C Chulainn defends alone the boundaries of Ulster, defeating the enemies one by one and turning out to be
19 Gregory, p.32. 20 MacCana, p. 105. 21 Fitzpatrick, Kate, Celtic Myths in Healing Process: A Journey (with C Chulainn) to the Warrior of Heart, in Padraign Clancy, Celtic Threads: Exploring the Wisdom of Our Heritage, Dublin: Veritas, 1999, p.85. 10

decisive in Ulsters final victory. His importance is not only due to his ability in the duel, but also to his capacity to awake the rest of the men of Ulster from numbness. The men then, inspired by the deeds of their hero, take part in the final battle and force the Connacht army to retreat. Hence C Chulainn is the model of a kingdom, as he will be in the future for a nation. One of the most significant events in the C Chulainn saga is undoubtedly the duel with his son Conall. The child, grown up under the protection of Scathach, the same woman warrior who trained C Chulainn, is sent to Ulster to seek his father. Once he lands in Ulster he does not reveal his name because he made a gessa22 that he would not tell his name to anybody. Because of his insolence, he is challenged by the champion Conall Cernach, whom he easily defeats. Then comes C Chulainn to fight with him and kills him C Chulainn made in fact the gessa to kill whoever would not tell his name. While dying, Conall reveals his identity to C Chulainn, who mourns his son and is struck by grief as never before. The hero then lays down the body of his child in front of the people of Ulster and vents the anger against the sea-waves for three days; after that, Conchobar asks a druid to cast a spell on him in order to appease his rage. In this tale we can notice again different aspects that emphasise C Chulainns moral qualities: on one side the integrity and loyalty that makes him defend his land and respect a promise the gessa that if broken may bring damage to all his people; on the other the deep pain caused by the loss of his son, the same pain any father would feel, once more an expression of his humanity. Even though the episodes mentioned so far are extremely important to shape this character, none of them is more important than that regarding his death. The heroic quality of C Chulainns life is matched by the manner of his death,23 which is not due to the skill of his enemy, but to a deception made by the queen Medhbha, who forces him to break a gessa. The end so can be accomplished:
Overcome by the magic powers of his enemies, he tie[s] himself to a pillar so that he might die honourably while still erect. When his enemies [see] three hooded crows land on C Chulainns shoulders, they 22 A form of bond that, if broken, would lead to dishonour or even death. (Dixon-Kennedy, p. 149). 23 MacCana, p. 106. 11

recogniz[e] the presence of the Mrrghan24 in her three aspects and calmly walk[] up to C Chulainn and cut off his head.25

So till the last moment of his life, C Chulainn shows great dignity and honour, which mark his heroic nature and make him the best known character of the whole Irish mythology. 3. THE CELTIC REVIVAL: BUILDING A NEW IRISH IDENTITY 3.1 The need for Irish Culture In the last decade of the nineteenth century Ireland was still part of the United Kingdom. In 1891 the death of Charles Stewart Parnell, the leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party who in the second part of the nineteenth century had striven for the Home Rule,26 disillusioned some nationalists and made others cynical about politics.27 So Irish nationalists began to drift away from politics and focused on another aspect, they thought that a cultural recovery was more urgent than the political independence of Ireland, which without proper culture and values could never become a nation. Consequently different movements developed, as Donal McCartney writes:
Small coteries turning away in disgust from the vicious political squabbling of the 1890s built for themselves so many separate little dream-worlds in a nationalistic Tr-na-ng28, where poetry meant more than politics, and where ideals counted far more than votes.29

The first relevant movement was the Gaelic League. Founded by the Trinity College graduate Douglas Hyde in 1893, the League aimed at first to keep Irish alive where it was still spoken, and later, to restore Irish as the spoken language of the country.30 It encouraged the study and the production of Gaelic literature, moreover it promoted holidays in Irish-speaking areas, in order to help people to practice the language with native speakers and absorb Irish traditions and customs. The motto Sinn Fin, Sinn Fin amhin (Ourselves, ourselves alone) clearly shows the intent of the association to increase in Irishmen the awareness that Ireland was a nation with its own roots
24 Celtic goddess of battle and fertility. 25 Dixon-Kennedy, p. 94. 26 Project that aimed to the self-government of Ireland and the autonomy from the United Kingdom 27 McCaffrey, Lawrence J., The Irish Question: 1800-1922, Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1968, p. 134. 28 The otherworldly realm known as the Land of the Young or Land of Youth (Dixon-Kennedy, p. 97). 29 McCartney, Donal, From Parnell to Pearse, in T. W. Woody & F. X. Martin, eds., The Course of Irish History, Cork: The Mercier Press, 1967, p. 294. 30 McCartney, pp. 295-296. 12

and its own culture that were something different from those of England. The Gaelic League was not established for political purposes though, in fact [s]elf-government was of secondary importance to cultural independence. Hyde wanted the Gaelic League to unite all Irishmen [...] in the common cause of Irish cultural nationalism.31 Another important society that played an important role in the spread of cultural nationalism was the Gaelic Athletic Association. Founded by the teacher Michael Cusack in 1884, the association invited people to abandon English sports in favour of Irish traditional ones, such as hurling and Gaelic football.32 The aim, as for the Gaelic League, was to generate in people, in particular in the young, a feeling of Irishness, hence about Irish past and culture, and at the same time of rejection and impatience towards anything that was English. In this way the words written by Cusack in The Irishman, an Irish nationalist newspaper, some weeks before founding the Gaelic Athletic Association, are very expressive:
We tell the Irish people to take the management of their games into their own hands, to encourage and promote in every way every form of athletics which is peculiarly Irish, and to remove with one sweep everything foreign and iniquitous in the present system. The vast majority of the best athletes in Ireland are Nationalists. These gentlemen should take the matter in hands at once, and draft laws for the guidance of the promoters of meetings in Ireland next year. The people pay the expenses of the meetings, and the representatives of the people should have the controlling power. It is only by such an arrangement that pure Irish athletics will be revived, and that the incomparable strength and physique of our race will be preserved.33

Very important in the process of sensitization of public awareness about the importance of Irish culture was the Irish literary Renaissance that developed in the late nineteenth century. Also known as Celtic revival, it attempted to restore the values of the ancient culture by recalling its virtues to the youth of [its] time.34 In other words, the artists that belonged to this movement used literature to make the people of Ireland conscious of its identity, reviving the legends, the myths, the folkloristic aspects, and the history owned by the Irish cultural heritage. A more thorough description of this literary movement will be undertaken in the next paragraph.

31 McCaffrey, p.137. 32 Irish traditional sport, similar to rugby and soccer. 33 Cusack, Michael, A Word about Irish Athletics, in The Irishman, 11 October 1884, available at http://multitext.ucc.ie/d/Origins_of_the_Gaelic_Athletic_Association_1884, (accessed July 2011). 34 McCaffrey, p.139. 13

3.2 The Celtic Revival The literary revival had, like the Gaelic League and the G.A.A, the aim of redefinition of the idea of Ireland and of the Irish community and its history.35 The peculiarity of this artistic movement was the attempt to reach such a redefinition through literature, which was considered the only means that allowed the preservation of a sentiment of nationality. The leader of this movement was William Butler Yeats, who could count on the assistance of many other artists, amongst them the most important were Lady Gregory and John Millington Synge. The production of Yeats and of the other exponents of the Celtic revival was characterised mainly by the use of folk traditions and mythological legends as the best sources for building a new concept of Irishness. In Celtic mythology in particular, Yeats found the examples that could impress Irish people and drive them to be willing to recover their Irish identity. A primary role was held by C Chulainn, the great hero that with his valiant deeds could inspire the Irishmen to fight for his land and defend it from the English influence, as C Chulainn himself did when he protected Ulster from the Connacht army. In this regard, Donal McCartney writes:
[t]he literary revivalists pictured Ireland as a poor old woman who would become a queen once more only when men became as chivalrous as Cuchulainn and thought her worth dying for.36

However, in the production of the revivalists it is necessary to underline the importance of folkloric tradition, which is something different from the mythological narrations of C Chulainn and the other heroes. It comprises in fact ancient traditional fairy tales and stories about the supernatural, [...] banshees37 and fairies, demons and curses, village ghosts and mystic poets,38 which have been collected, for example, in books such as The Celtic Twilight by Yeats (1893, 2nd edition in 1902) and Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland by Lady Gregory (1920). The importance of the role played by these traditions emerges in the words of Marie C.E. Burns:

35 Deane, Seamus, A Short History of Irish Literature, Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1986, p.142. 36 McCartney, p. 295. 37 A fairy being in Irish folklore whose wailing lament is supposed to warn of an impending death (Dixon-Kennedy, p. 36). 38 Wenzell, Tim, Yeats and the Celtic Twilight: Between the Worlds, Yeats Eliot Review, 24 (2007), p. 21. 14

[Yeats] knew that many of the Irish people had not had the benefit of education and consequently were not fully conversant with their Celtic literature and its heroes, so he incorporated the intellectual Gaelic mythology and the more popular, more accessible folklore in his works.39

Hence through folklore Yeats, as well as his friends, aimed to reach especially the humblest classes of the Irish people, the peasant in particular, to whom he acknowledged the ability to catch the imaginativeness of the traditional stories and tales. In fact, Yeats found in the folkloric traditions the power of imagination that could oppose the materialism and rationalism that had been characterising the two centuries up to the twentieth.40 Thus he involved them in the process of redefinition of the idea of Ireland and, what is more, let them play a fundamental part in this process:
The interest for Yeats in the Irish poor [became] twofold: their reliance on imagination and the unconscious in their everyday lives, and the importance of sharing their imagined histories. Dreams, spread over the ground like a blanket, [became] a necessary part of the community and an unconscious pool from which to draw imagined narratives. The cloth of dreams [became] a figurative one to be revered and shared, strength to the community, the culture.41

The same reason is behind the choice of using English as the language of the revival. Irish, whose use was fostered by the Gaelic League, was not known enough to be a valid vehicle to reach as many Irishmen as possible; through English, instead, it was easier to involve more people and from any part of Ireland. The use of English, though, did not preclude the genuineness of Irish literature as the members of the Gaelic League argued because the revivalists wrote in an English that was not that of England, but, on the contrary, was the English spoken in Ireland, with typical Irish style and expressions. For this reason, the Celtic revival is also known as Anglo-Irish revival. It is important to note also that all the leaders of the Irish Renaissance were Protestants. Despite this, they never referred to any religious matter, because it may have thwarted the process of redefinition of Irish culture. Since [h]istorically, Irish Catholics and Protestants [] represent two

39 Burns, Mary C. E., The Celtic Revival: The Late Nineteenth Century Debate Concerning the Revival of Celtic Culture, http://www.literature-study-online.com/essays/celtic-revival.html, December 2008, (accessed July 2011). 40 Burns, online edition. 41 Wenzell, p. 21. 15

different cultures rather than two different religions,42 including religion in the literary production would have brought nothing but an accentuation of the differences between these two cultures and a possible consequent worsening of the relationships between them. The choice to tell about a common past preceding the Christianization of Ireland could instead encourage the birth of a nation based on people with a shared cultural heritage. In the characteristics described so far it is possible to see how the exponents of the literary revival followed the beliefs of the Young Irelanders. Young Ireland was a political, social and cultural movement that took place in the middle of the nineteenth century. Similarly to the Irish Renaissance, it had nationalistic purposes and aimed at the autonomy and independence of Ireland which, besides being cultural, was supposed to be political. Associated to the nationalistic newspaper The Nation, the movement was led by the three young Irish writers Thomas Osborne Davis, John Blake Dillon and Charles Gavan Duffy. In the path towards the autonomy of Ireland, they promoted first of all the exaltation of the past, anticipating the cultural revival. To do so, they emphasized the spiritual qualities of agrarian Ireland and its peasants people and ridiculed the materialism of urban and industrial Britain, moreover the Young Irelanders attempted to divorce Irish nationalism from its close identity with Catholicism. They pleaded for harmony between Catholics, Protestants and Nonconformists and stressed the common nationality of all Irishmen.43 We can therefore see how revivalists were inspired by the exponents of Young Ireland in their ideals. However it is necessary to distinguish two different, although similar, purposes: while the latter clearly aimed at an independence that was especially political, the former focused on a cultural one, rising from a period of political disappointment. 3.3 The theatre In the whole literary production of the Irish renaissance the theatre was of great importance and played a fundamental part in the whole movement.
42 Burns, online edition. 43 McCaffrey, pp. 41-42. 16

The Irish dramatic movement had its origin in 1897 when the playwright Edward Martyn, Yeats and Lady Gregory met in her house at Coole Park in county Galway. In that meeting they discussed the lack of an Irish theatre where to perform the plays, typically Irish, they had written. They then decided to collect some money in order to have the possibility to take a Dublin theatre and give a performance of Mr. Martyns Heater Field and of Mr. Yeatss own plays, The Countess Cathleen.44 The beginning of the letter that Yeats and Lady Gregory sent out to all the potential financial backers contains a description of all the main characteristics they wanted for an Irish theatre and can be considered the manifesto of Irish Literary Theatre, the dramatic movement they founded in 1897:
We propose to have performed in Dublin, in the spring of every year certain Celtic and Irish plays, which whatever be their degree of excellence will be written with a high ambition, and so to build up a Celtic and Irish school of dramatic literature. We hope to find in Ireland an uncorrupted and imaginative audience trained to listen by its passion for oratory, and believe that our desire to bring upon the stage the deeper thoughts and emotions of Ireland will ensure for us a tolerant welcome, and that freedom to experiment which is not found in theatres of England, and without which no new movement in art or literature can succeed. We will show that Ireland is not the home of buffoonery and of easy sentiment, as it has been represented, but the home of an ancient idealism. We are confident of the support of all Irish people, who are weary of misrepresentation, in carrying out a work that is outside all the political questions that divide us.45

Despite the initial scepticism of some artist friends and the difficulty to get an affordable theatre, Yeats, Lady Gregory and Martyn finally managed to have their first performance at the Ancient Concert Rooms on 8 May 1899. The performed plays were the same they had chosen two years before, when they had taken the decision to institute the Irish Literary Theatre, Martyns Heater Field and Yeatss The Countess Cathleen. The second play in particular, which tells the story of Countess Cathleen who sells her soul to the devil to save her people from famine, had an important impact on society: it offended the Dublin public that considered it irreligious and anti-national. Anyway, the media dispute that followed that performance was nothing but a demonstration of how readily the theatre could become a focus for national debate in Ireland.46 As a matter of fact the reports about the plays were good and the enthusiasm for them grew rapidly, as Lady Gregorys words highlight:
44 Gregory, Isabella Augusta, Our Irish Theatre in John. P. Harrington, ed., Modern and Contemporary Irish Drama: Backgrounds and Criticism, New York: W.W. Norton, 2009, p. 401. 45 Gregory, Our Irish Theatre, p. 402. 46 Deane, p. 147. 17

We have put on Countess Cathleen a good many times of late with no one speaking against it at all. And some of those young men who hissed it then are our good supporters now.47

In 1903 Yeats, Lady Gregory and Martyn, together with the dramatist John Millington Synge established the Irish National Theatre Society. For three years the Irish Literary Theatre had performed importing professional actors from England; so Yeats turned his attention in 1902 to a politically motivated Irish company of amateur actors under the direction of Frank and William Fay,48 which he considered more suitable for a theatre that aimed to express the thoughts and the feelings of Ireland. He wrote some plays for them and called them to be part of the new Irish National Theatre Society. Very important in that year were the performances of Yeatss and Lady Gregorys play Cathleen ni Houlihan, which had as protagonist the famous actress and revolutionary Maud Gonne. Set in 1798 when the French Revolutionary Army arrives in Ireland to support the rebels, the play tells the story of the young Michael that is persuaded by an old woman to renounce his marriage to fight for his country. When he leaves the house, the old woman transforms into a young queen, revealing her identity as the spirit of Ireland rejuvenated by heroic sacrifice.49 The play enjoyed great success, especially in the working-class audience, and helped to spread the nationalistic ideal of the need to fight for a revival of the country amongst the Irish people; in fact, it made more rebels in Ireland than a thousand political speeches or a hundred reasoned books.50 The decisive step in the development of the Irish theatre happened in 1904, when, thanks to the benefit provided by the English patron of the arts Annie Horniman, the Irish National Theatre Society bought and restored a small theatre, the Mechanics Hall in Abbey Street, Dublin. On 27 December 1904 the new theatre raised the curtain for the first time with the performance of the plays Cathleen ni Houlihan, On Bailes Strand by Yeats and Spreading the News by Lady Gregory: it was the birth of the Abbey Theatre, managed under Yeatss direction.
47 Gregory, Our Irish Theatre, p. 409. 48 Flannery, James W., W. B. Yeats and the Abbey Theatre Company, Educational Theatre Journal, 27 (1975), p. 179. 49 Deane, p. 147. 50 Robinson, Lennox cited in Tibn, Colm, The Collaboration of Yeats and Lady Gregory, in John. P. Harrington, ed., Modern and Contemporary Irish Drama: Backgrounds and Criticism, New York: W.W. Norton, 2009, p. 419. 18

The new Abbey Theatre had a huge success of public. The big attendance of Irish people watching Irish plays was a sign that [t]he Abbey had become a national focus, not just another commercial theatre.51 This was confirmed also by the famous Playboy riots: during a performance of Synges The Playboy of the Western World in 1907 some disorders were caused by a nationalistic part of the audience that protested and wanted the play to be withdrawn because they believed it was not politicised enough. [T]hey fought for causes worthy in themselves, wrote Yeats later, with the unworthy instruments of tyranny and violence.52 After the riots, though, the situation got worse, the Fay brothers left the company in 1908, and Annie Horniman withdrew her subsidy two years later. The Abbey Theatre encountered difficult years: beside the financial problems due to the loss of Hornimans benefit, the audience began to lose interest in going to the theatre. So Yeats and Lady Gregory finally decided to offer the Abbey to the new Free State of Ireland as a gift. Having briefly seen the history of Irish theatre within the Celtic Revival, let us analyse now its main characteristics and purposes. The birth of a national drama movement sprang from the necessity of some Irish authors to have a theatre of their own that could be the expression of Irish feelings and life; hence they aimed to create a link with the audience, they wanted to give Irish people the possibility to reflect themselves on the stage. A man [...] cannot write a good play if there are not audiences to listen to it,53 but at the same time audiences do not listen to plays that are not good, or that they do not find interesting. For this reason the choice of the subject of the plays was fundamental for Celtic Revival playwrights, what was represented on the stage had to be a world the Irish people felt they belonged to. We have already seen how the Irish renaissance literary production was mainly characterised by ancient myths, legends and folkloristic traditions. This went of course also for theatre, suffice it to
51 Deane, p.150. 52 Yeats, William Butler, The Controversy over The Playboy of the Western World, in John. P. Harrington, ed., Modern and Contemporary Irish drama: Backgrounds and Criticism, New York: W.W. Norton, 2009, p. 462. 53 Yeats, William Butler, An Irish National Theatre in John. P. Harrington, ed., Modern and Contemporary Irish Drama: Backgrounds and Criticism, New York: W.W. Norton, 2009, p. 413. 19

remember Cathleen ni Houlihan, where the old woman magically transforms into a young queen, or Yeatss C Chulainn cycle, which we are going to discuss more thoroughly in the next chapters. However an important part of the theatrical production, above all Synges, dealt with everyday life: contemporary Ireland, with its negative and positive characteristics, was described. What is more Irish dramatic literature [...] [saw] life through Irish eyes.54 Hence, the language had not to be just English, but Irish English, with the accent, the inflection and the phrases typical of Ireland. The actors, then, were mainly amateurs, therefore they had to be fond of what they were doing and in this way they could be the expression of life in Ireland, which was nothing but the life they lived every day.55 Obviously, also the nationalistic factor was of great importance, since the theatre was part of a wider literary movement that aimed to achieve cultural independence for Ireland. It is important, though, to underline that the nationalistic and patriotic themes contained in the different plays were not something imposed by the surrounding political climate characterising Irish society, but rather arose spontaneously from the inner selves of the artists living in such a context. Yeatss words, in reference to the writing of Cathleen ni Houlihan, clarify this concept:
If some external necessity had forced me to write nothing but drama with an obviously patriotic intention, instead of letting my work shape itself under the casual impulses of dreams and daily thoughts, I would have lost, in a short time, the power to write movingly upon any theme.56

To conclude, we have seen how theatre in the Irish Renaissance became a national focus, it was to be the expression of a nation that was about to be born; a nation made by people that needed to mirror themselves on the stage. This was the only way to fulfil the realisation of a national drama, because it must spring from a native interest in life and its problems and a strong capacity for life among the people.57

54 Fay, Frank J., An Irish National Theatre in John. P. Harrington, ed., Modern and Contemporary Irish Drama: Backgrounds and Criticism, New York: W.W. Norton, 2009, p. 415. 55 Fay, p. 416. 56 Yeats, p. 413. 57 Eglinton, John, What Should Be the Subject of National Drama?, in John. P. Harrington, ed., Modern and Contemporary Irish Drama: Backgrounds and Criticism, New York: W.W. Norton, 2009, p. 412. 20

3.4 Why C Chulainn as the model for a cultural revival? As I have noted above and as we will see further on when the works of Lady Gregory and Yeats will be analysed in detail C Chulainn was chosen as the most important model for the cultural revival. So, it is interesting to understand the reason why this mythological figure was adopted to lead a people through the ticklish way towards cultural independence. The first, almost obvious, ground is the fact that the deeds of the hero were already known by a very wide part of the audience. The C Chulainn saga was first of all an oral tradition, his story had been handed down from generation to generation and seldom was it totally unknown to people. In this way revivalists could play on a knowledge shared by nearly the whole population and this was a good basis for a movement that aimed to bind a people culturally. A second reason, directly connected to the first one, might be the extremely human nature of the character, which I have highlighted several times during the description in the first chapter. C Chulainns fame derives undoubtedly from his courage, from his valour and from the legendary deeds he accomplished, but all these qualities would not have any importance without the humanity that characterises the hero. Humanity is what kept C Chulainn close to common people, who took him as a high source of inspiration and at the same time saw him as one of them, a human being like them. If C Chulainn could demonstrate his bravery and managed to defend his land from enemies in spite of all his human weaknesses, then also the people of Ireland could strive for their land in order to achieve cultural independence from the threats from outside. This was the thought the revivalists played on to propel people in the national process towards cultural autonomy. It is also important to consider the warrior nature of the hero. The Celtic myths, as well as almost all the traditional myths (e.g. Greek and Germanic) are largely characterised by war, and C Chulainn, champion of all Ireland, is considered the archetypal warrior of Irish mythology. In general, [t]he archetype of the warrior is connected to the archetype of war. This constellation is

21

activated when stability is threatened by an outside force that is invasive or destructive.58 In this case we can consider England as the invasive outside force that threatened the Irish island with his cultural and political influence, a war for defending the boundaries from the invader became, thus, unavoidable and the leader could be nobody but the best warrior, C Chulainn. Moreover we can similarly interpret the story of the Tan B Cuailng, which tells of a battle, fought between the old regime in the rest of Ireland and the new order in Ulster.59 Here the old regime would represent England, which had invaded Ireland for more than seven hundred years and had included it under the British kingdom with the Act of Union in 1800.60 On the other hand the new order would symbolise the independence the revivalist were striving for. Therefore C Chulainn, as he did when he defended Ulster from the Connacht army in the Tan, should counter England in order to obtain cultural autonomy for Ireland. Beside all the reasons mentioned so far, there are also political connotations in the choice of C Chulainn. Suffice it to think, for instance, that in the Dublin General Post Office, one of the most relevant places in the revolution of 1916, it is displayed, as a memorial to the men who fought for their country during that revolution, a statue representing C Chulainn bound to a pillar stone while dying, with the goddess Mrrghan in the guise of a hawk61 on his shoulder. Moreover, it must be considered that in the last decade of the nineteenth century Ireland had to face the disillusion derived from Parnells death. Parnell was the classic tragic hero brought down at the height of his power, [...] the Irish messiah crucified by the people he came to liberate.62 So Ireland needed to find a new source of inspiration that could fill the void left by Parnells death, and C Chulainn was the obvious substitute for the dead leader. Like Parnell he fought for his country and for his people, and died at his acme showing dignity and pride until the very last moment of his life. Hence, C
58 Fitzpatrick, pp. 82-83. 59 Fitzpatrick, p. 85. 60 An agreement that ratified the union between the Kingdom of Britain and the Kingdom of Ireland under the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. 61 Rafroidi, Patrick, Imagination and Revolution: The Cuchulain Myth, in O. MacDonagh, W. F. Mandle, P. Travers, eds., Irish Culture and Nationalism, 1750-1950, London: Macmillan, 1983, p. 137. 62 McCaffrey, p. 139. 22

Chulainn functioned as the new point of reference for Irish people in a moment of political and social confusion. Even the poet and activist Pdraic Pearse, member of the IRB63 and leader of the Easter rising,64 played on the inspirational power of C Chulainn for political purposes. He used the brave deeds of the hero as examples for the young men, who had to follow him to become servants of their home country. Regarding this, his words in the article The Murder Machine do not need any further explanation:
I said to my boys: We must re-create and perpetuate in Ireland the knightly tradition of Cuchulainn, better is short life with honour than long life with dishonour; I care not though I were to live but one day and one night, if only my fame and my deeds live after me.65

To sum up, we have seen which reasons drove the exponents of the Celtic revival to adopt C Chulainn as the figure of reference; we have also understood how this choice, and more in general the whole movement, could not be totally unbound from the social political events of those years, as a matter of fact [t]he cultural revolution made possible the political revolution by creating a new ideal of Ireland.66 4. C CHULAINN IN THE CELTIC REVIVALS LITERARY PRODUCTION: FROM LADY GREGORY TO YEATS 4.1 Lady Gregorys Cuchulain of Muirthemne As often noted above, the two authors that made the largest use of the figure of C Chulainn within the movement of the Celtic Revival were Lady Gregory and Yeats. In this section, in particular, Lady Gregorys writings on this mythological hero will be presented. Cuchulain of Muirthemne, written in 1902, is Lady Gregorys work about the mythological character of C Chulainn. It is not, in fact, an original work, but, instead, it is her version of the Tan B Cuailng, obtained assembling the translation of some experts and sometimes translating
63 Irish Republican Brotherhood: a secret military society [] dedicated to the overthrow of British rule in Ireland and the establishment of an Irish republic (McCaffrey, p. 82). 64 Insurrection against the British Army made by Irish republicans during the Easter week in 1916 in order to establish the Irish Republic. 65 Pearse, Pdraic, The Murder Machine, in Pdraic Pearse, Collected Works of Pdraic H. Pearse: Political Writings and Speeches, Dublin: The Phoenix Publishing, 1916, pp. 38-39. 66 Rafroidi, p.143. 23

by herself the original texts.67 However, the book, unlike the Tan B Cuailng, focuses almost totally on C Chulainns life: it begins with the chapter Birth of Cuchulainn and ends with Death of Cuchulainn; the others eighteen chapters narrate the deeds accomplished by the hero. The aim of Lady Gregorys work of translation and reworking a myth was popularisation.68 In step with the movement she belonged to, she wanted to make that myth well known amongst people, and in this way to spread all the values C Chulainn was an example of, such as braveness, strength, humanity and love for his land. She tried to do so by providing a written version of C Chulainns feats that was for the first time accessible to the average Irish people of her time, since the translations made before were not easily understandable. In the dedication to the people of Kiltartan69 she wrote at the beginning of Cuchulain of Muirthemne we can find a demonstration of this idea:
When I went looking for the stories in the old writings, I found that the Irish in them is too hard for any person to read that has not made a long study of it. []I have tried to do, to take the best of the stories, or whatever parts of each will fit best to one another, and in that way to give a fair account of Cuchulain's life and death. []I have told the whole story in plain and simple words, in the same way my old nurse Mary Sheridan used to be telling stories from the Irish long ago, and I a child at Roxborough. []I am sure you will like to have the history of the heroes of Ireland told in the language of Ireland.70

There is another notion connected to that of popularisation: the attempt to bring dignity to Ireland. To do so, Lady Gregory eliminated or modified the sexual and violent elements present in the original texts that she believed not suitable for the Irish people; moreover she emphasised the heroic and ideal elements of the story, trying to reach a readership that was as popular as possible.71 In this attempt to reach a popular readership, language played a fundamental role, and can be considered the element that made Cuchulain of Muirthemne so successful: Lady Gregory managed to tell the story of C Chulainn through a language that expresses the Irishness of what was told. As Yeats wrote in the preface of the book, she put a great mass of stories, in which the ancient heart of
67 Welch, Robert and Stewart Bruce, The Oxford Companion to Irish Literature, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996, p.127. 68 Coxhead, Elizabeth, Lady Gregory: A Literary Portrait, London: Secker & Warburg, 1961, p. 58. 69 A barony in county Galway where Lady Gregory lived. 70 Gregory, Cuchulain of Muirthemne, pp. v-vi. 71 Pethica, James L., Gregory, (Isabella) Augusta, Lady Gregory (18521932), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edition available at http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/33554, October 2006, (accessed August 2011). 24

Ireland still lives, into a shape at once harmonious and characteristic and, above all, she discovered a fitting dialect to tell them.72 Yeatss preface, among other things, contributed generously to the success of Cuchulain of Muirthemne, it played a very important role helping to arouse interest in the book.73 He defined it as the best [book] that has come out of Ireland in [his] time. Perhaps [] the best book that has ever come out of Ireland.74 In particular, Yeats recognised Lady Gregorys capacity to express a great amount of legend and imagination in a suitable shape, giving the perfect structure to the story of the hero, as no one had been able to do in the past. The book enjoyed great success to the point that it was printed in four different editions by the beginning of the First World War. It allowed Irish people to read the story of their most important hero, in fact before that moment people were not able to have access to texts written in old Irish and the only knowledge about C Chulainn was due to the oral tradition handed down from generation to generation. The success of Cuchulain of Muirthemne broadened even outside Ireland, for example, the president of USA Theodore Roosevelt, fascinated with Celtic Mythology, declared Lady Gregorys text his favourite bedside book.75 In conclusion, Cuchulain of Muirthemne can be considered the first mythological piece of literature in the Irish Renaissance, and the text that, between the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century, open[ed] the eyes of thousands for the first time to the splendour of their own literary heritage.76 What is more, this text was also the main source for Yeats who, in particular in his C Chulainn cycle, took inspiration from what his friend and colleague had collected and reworked. I will now present and analyse the different Yeatss work about C Chulainn. The choice to give just a presentation of Lady Gregorys Cuchulain of Muirthemne has been made because the importance of this text does not lie in its contents, but
72 Yeats, William Butler, Preface, in Gregory, Cuchulain of Muirthemne, p. viii. 73 Coxhead, p. 58. 74 Yeats, William Butler, Preface, in Gregory, Cuchulain of Muirthemne, p. vii. 75 Coxhead, p. 58. 76 Coxhead, p. 58. 25

rather in the fact that it has made the knowledge of the myth of C Chulainn more accessible to the people of Ireland. 4.2 Yeatss C Chulainn: poetry and drama William Butler Yeats can be undoubtedly considered the Celtic Revival author than more than any other centred his literary production around the mythological figure of C Chulainn. For almost half a century, from 1892 to 1939, the years of publication of the two poems Cuchulains Fight with Sea and Cuchulain Comforted, he analysed in depth the heroism of C Chulainn and the tragicalness of such a heroism.77 Although I already mentioned the general reasons that led the revivalist movement to choose C Chulainn as the model for the cultural rebirth of Ireland, it is necessary to highlight why Yeats used him so often in his writing. As we know, at the beginning of the twentieth century Ireland was going through a period of important socio-political changes that would bring to the independence of the country; therefore Yeats, who had a great interest in the folkloric and mythological tradition of Ireland, saw in the most important figure of this tradition a metaphor of what Ireland was living. C Chulainn was the embodiment of a changing nation, the tragic emblem of Irelands political strife and her dream of cultural unity.78 So Yeats, making of C Chulainn the protagonist of his production, not only attempted to make Irish people rediscover their cultural roots and gave them a model to follow, but also analysed the situation Ireland was passing through. What is more, through the voice of the hero, Yeats even expressed his thoughts in connection with the situation he was living. As I have written above, Yeatss production regarding C Chulainn was opened and closed by two poems. Between them, he wrote five plays that compose the Cuchulain cycle, probably his most relevant pieces of literature about the hero. In the analysis I am about to undertake, I am not going
77 Cataldi, Melita, introduction to Yeats, William Butler, Il ciclo di Cuchulain: cinque drammi celtici, introduction, translation and notes by Melita Cataldi, Milano: Garzanti, 1990, p. XXXIII. 78 Deane, p. 157. 26

to respect the chronological order in which Yeats wrote all the different works, rather, I am going to take into consideration first the theatrical production and then the poetic one. 4.2.1 The C Chulainn cycle: five different C Chulainns on the stage The C Chulainn cycle is a collection of five plays published within thirty-seven years: On Bailes Strand (1903), The Green Helmet (1910), At the Hawks Well (1917), The Only Jealousy of Emer (1919) and The Death of Cuchulain (1939). Just observing the different dates of publication it is easy to notice how the five plays can be divided into three different groups: the first two plays written in the first decade of the century; the second two following the Easter Rising and the rebellion against England; and the last one, written twenty years after the fourth, just a few months before Yeatss death and published posthumously. Amongst the different groups of plays there are in fact some differences, regarding the form, the style and even the way to approach the myth. However, it seems excessive to deny, as some critics do, the unity of the five plays, because all these dramatic pieces are about five fundamental episodes of C Chulainns life, and sometimes it is even possible to find elements of connections amongst different plays.79 To interpret the significance of the cycle, I borrow the thought of Melita Cataldi, expert and professor of Irish literature. She shows three different interpretations of the cycle: the first one sees C Chulainn as the embodiment of the authors points of view and the five plays as manifestations of five moments of crisis in Yeatss inner life; the second interpretation finds in the elements of the plays symbols that are expression of Yeatss poetics and theoretical system; the last one instead sees each play as a contraposition between two opposite concepts. However, Cataldi believes that the cycle has to be approached in its entirety: it is a heroic biography of C Chulainn, in which each play corresponds to an episode that has made the hero an example to be inspired by.80 The different episodes described are taken from the original tradition about C Chulainn, in particular Yeats relied on Lady Gregorys narration made in Cuchulain of Muirthemne. However, it
79 Cataldi, p. XXXIII. 80 Cataldi, pp. XXXIII-XXXIV. 27

is necessary to state that Yeats did not respect the original development of the events, on the contrary he reworked them, sometimes distorting them. In this way he could focus the attention of the audience on some aspects of the characters he was particularly interested in, at the same time he did not risk to confuse the members of the audience because they already knew the story of C Chulainn, since this mythological figure was very popular and Lady Gregorys narration was being very successful. Moreover, the choice of narrating only one specific episode in each play contributed to this goal: to let emerge every time a different characteristic of the protagonist. Regarding the form it is important to say that for the five dramas Yeats used mainly the blank verse. However, there is another relevant aspect that marked the plays, in particular At the Hawks Well and The Only Jealousy of Emer, the influence of the Japanese N theatre. This is a theatrical form characterised by symbolism and expression of feelings that let the audience interpret the play freely. This is obtained through a combination of different elements, such as music, dance, simple and unrealistic sceneries, costumes and masks as means of expression of the characters, and a symbolic way of acting. The importance of the influence of Japanese N drama in Yeatss play is clearly expressed by Chiara Gamboz:
By adopting the Noh theatre as his model Yeats had found multifarious ways to bring back both poetry and imagination to contemporary theatre, especially through the description and poems of the chorus, through the dances and the unrealistic scenery and stage props. He was thus free to move the attention from the sub-plot characters which had been useful in making the audience reach the emotion of multitude, now attainable by new means to the main characters.81

Before analysing the different plays individually, it is necessary to define an organic order for them because the chronological order in which Yeats wrote the plays (On Bailes Strand, The Green Helmet, At the Hawks Well, The Only Jealousy of Emer and The Death of Cuchulain) does not make any logical sense. As the author did in his Collected Plays in 1934 with the four plays written until that moment,82 it is more coherent to place at the beginning of the cycle At the Hawks Well and The Green Helmet, which narrate episodes of initiation into heroism; then follow On Bailes Strand and The Only Jealousy of Emer, in which the killing of his son by C Chulainn and the
81 Gamboz, Chiara, Yeats and His Use of Masks for Cuchulain, Prospero: Rivista di Culture Anglo-Germaniche, (9), 2002, p. 61. 82 Cataldi, p. XXXIII. 28

following attempt to elaborate the mourning are approached. The closure of the cycle is obviously left to The Death of Cuchulain, a description of the end of the hero. This is the order I will follow in the analysis of the whole cycle, which will allow us to observe the evolution of the character of C Chulainn and to focus every time on a different aspect of the hero. At the Hawks Well At the Hawks Well is considered the opening play of the cycle, and represents the initiation into heroism of C Chulainn, who realises that life, even for heroes, is ephemeral and cannot be everlasting. The play does not describe an episode present in the Tan B Cuailng, the event presented is instead a creation by Yeats, who anyway makes reference to two important moments of the heros life. The first one is when C Chulainn takes the arms from Conchobar marking the short duration of his life; the second one is when in Alban, he defeats the woman warrior Afe and takes her as his mistress begetting a son upon her. The play is set in a desert and desolated environment, which is the Sidhe, the Celtic other world, a fairy mould inhabited by supernatural creatures (holy shades83). The young C Chulainn has come from his land crossing the sea to drink the water of immortality, but what he finds is just an old man sitting next to a dry well and a hawk resembling a woman who guards the well. The old man, who for fifty years has waited in vain the water of immortality to spring from the well, exhorts C Chulainn to leave the place claiming the ownership of the well. The young warrior, however, insists to stay declaring that he will manage to drink the water. While the two men are arguing, the guardian, in a state of trance, gives a hawks cry: she has been possessed by a spirit (It was her mouth, and yet not she, that cried./ It was that shadow cried behind that mouth84). C Chulainn is bewitched by the guardian and follows her away from the well, at the same time the water begins to rise, but neither him nor the old man, which has been deluded by the shades, manage to drink it. The plays ends with C Chulainn who, hearing that the hawk-guardian has awaken Afe and the
83 Yeats, William Butler, At the Hawks Well, in Il ciclo di Cuchulain: cinque drammi celtici, introduction, translation and notes by Melita Cataldi, Milano: Garzanti, 1990, p. 14. 84 Yeats, At the Hawks Well, p. 20. 29

other women warrior to kill him, decides to leave the well, and so the possibility to become immortal, to fight them. The main theme of the play is undoubtedly the acceptance of the destiny of the hero. A destiny that cannot be immortal, because immortality is reserved only to deities and supernatural beings. C Chulainn has reached the Sidhe because he wants to change his destiny, he knows that taking arms he would have a short life, but, despite this, he aims to get immortality. However, as soon as he understands that the holy shades do not allow human beings to gain access to the water of immortality, he becomes aware of his role. He is a hero, a mighty warrior, but above all he is a man, and thus destined to die. With the words He comes! Cuchulain, son of Sualtim, comes!85 C Chulainn seems to leave definitively any aspiration of immortality, and at the same time to accept his doom of warrior that will die early on the battlefield.86 An important role for the understanding of the drama is played by the chorus: three musicians that open and conclude the play. At the beginning they lead the audience inside the events, explaining what is happening and giving an aid to understand the situation. At the end of the play instead, their function seems to be quite different. They in fact express the thought of C Chulainn, which has recognised the uselessness of the quest for immortality and has accepted his nature and destiny of mortal human being:
Being but a mouthful of air, I am content to perish; I am but a mouthful of sweet air. [...] The man that I praise. Cries out the leafless tree, Has married and stays By an old hearth, and he On naught has set store But children and dogs on the floor.87

In particular these last six lines, which belong to the very last stanza of the play, communicate perfectly the extremely human nature of the hero. C Chulainn has renounced to everlasting life in favour of emotional and familiar bonds. In this way Yeats expresses melancholically the ambivalent
85 Yeats, At the Hawks Well, p. 26. 86 Cataldi, p. XXXIX. 87 Yeats, At the Hawks Well, p. 28. 30

and tragic nature of the hero, characterised not only by glory and fame, but also by pain, defeat and death.88 However, despite the disillusion expressed by the author, the audience could find a positive message too: if a hero has to deal with such painful situations like common people do, then it might mean that even common people can be considered somehow heroes. In the play there is also a clear contraposition between two opposites: old age and youth. The old man has a negative connotation: he is described through negative adjectives and he seems to be in symbiosis with the place he lives in. The environment is deserted, barren and desolate, likewise the old man is consumed by the waiting for the water of immortality, which never comes. In Yeatss words this strong, almost vital relationship old man-environment is brilliantly expressed in some passages:
He is all doubled up with age; The old thorn trees are doubled so89 YOUNG MAN [speaking to the old man] You should be native here, for that rough tongue Matches the barbarous spot.90 OLD MAN [speaking to the young man] [...] And leave the well to me, for it belongs To all thats old and withered.91

C Chulainn, on the contrary, can resist the eagerness of immortality. His weakness is just temporary, as soon as he realises that he is unable to have access to the water he chooses to accomplish his destiny and gives importance to other values, those of hearth and home. In this choice can be hidden a secret hope by Yeats: the birth of a new cultural Irish identity must be entrusted to young people. As I have said above, At the Hawks Well is the first play marked by the influence of Japanese N theatre. As a matter of fact, we can find several elements belonging to this theatrical form. First of all a large use of symbols. The well for instance, is obviously a symbol of youth and immortality; then there is the hazel, a tree that grows next to the well, that for Celtic mythology has the meaning
88 Cataldi, p. XXXIX. 89 Yeats, At the Hawks Well, p. 8. 90 Yeats, At the Hawks Well, p. 14. 91 Yeats, At the Hawks Well, p. 16. 31

of a source of inspiration and knowledge, and it gives in fact to C Chulainn the knowledge that leads him to make the right choice. Even the hawk can be considered a symbol, it is a totemic animal and the fight with him is for C Chulainn the accomplishment of his initiation into heroism.92 Beside symbolism there are some other theatrical devices proper of the Japanese N tradition. One of them is the large use of music: the three musicians accompany the movements of the characters with musical instruments and they sing their lines. Moreover the guardian of the well expresses her state of trance through a dance that imitates the moves of a hawk. One last important element is finally the use of masks by the two protagonists (C Chulainn and the old man) that in this play are used by Yeats to express how the main characters are opposed and what they have in common with each other [...] as well as the opposition present in his time.93 The Green Helmet The Green Helmet was written as the prologue of On Bailes Strand, but can also be considered the natural sequel of At the Hawks Well. As in the play that opens the cycle, C Chulainns initiation into heroism is narrated, but in this case this initiation is public, it happens in front of the people of Ulster and is publicly recognised, thus it would be more appropriate to speak about the investiture of C Chulainn as a hero. The play was initially written in prose with the title of The Golden Helmet and published in 1908, it was then readapted in verse and published in 1910 with the title we know. The play refers to the tale Fledd Bricrenn, narrated by Lady Gregory in the chapters Bricrius Feast, and the War of Words of the Women of Ulster and The Championship of Ulster of Cuchulain of Muirthemne. The episode described is that of the challenge made by a giant to the three heroes Loeghaire, Conall and C Chulainn to cut off his head with an axe and to allow him to do the same with them on the following day. In the play the story is slightly different from the original. C Chulainn has just come back from the sea (here is the link with At the Hawks Well) and meets the two heroes Loeghaire and Conall,
92 Cataldi, p. 210. 93 Gamboz, p. 63. 32

who tell him that two years earlier a Red Man had proposed them a game: he let them cut his head but he would come back to do the same one year later. Since after twelve months the two heroes refused to let their head be cut off, the Red Man is now back again to make them respect the pact. Loeghaire and Conall are scared, while C Chulainn attacks the enemy with cheeky words. The Red Man decides then to give the three champions a helmet that should be worn by the best warrior. Loeghaire and Conall assert the right to wear the helmet, while C Chulainn fills it with ale, trying to transform it into a cup where all three of them can drink happily. In the meantime though, the Red Man has gone to the supporters and the wives of the three champions to sow dissension amongst them, so they reach the three champions and begin to quarrel about who should take possession of the helmet. Since C Chulainn does not succeed in bringing peace, he throws the helmet the bone of contention into the sea. The Red Man accompanied by other black men they are in fact all spirits comes back once more asking for the debt to be paid off, otherwise all shall go to wrack.94 C Chulainn thus decides to sacrifice himself for his people kneeling in front of the Red Man waiting to be decapitated, but the Red Man, instead of killing him, places the helm on his head proclaiming him the best champion. As already written, in this play C Chulainn is publicly invested with the role of hero of Ireland after in At the Hawks Well he understood that heroism would be his destiny. In particular, in this drama we can notice an extremely positive description of this hero. He is aware of the duties ensuing from the role he has to play, and accepts them responsibly. He tries immediately to avoid any conflict with the other two champions, and then, when the dispute is provoked by the other people of Ulster, he attempts to reconcile them knowing that any kind of clash is damaging for his people. However, his most significant gesture is that of kneeling in front of the Red Man showing willingness to sacrifice himself for his community.95 Hence, love for his land and for his people emerges from the behaviour of the protagonist, and it is exactly this characteristic that Yeats hopes
94 Yeats, William Butler, The Green Helmet, in Il ciclo di Cuchulain: cinque drammi celtici, introduction, translation and notes by Melita Cataldi, Milano: Garzanti, 1990, p. 70. 95 McCombe, John P., Empowering the Celtic Chieftain: W.B. Yeats, Cuchulain, and Shakespeare's 1 Henry IV, Yeats Eliot Review, (18) 2002, pp. 30. 33

to convey presenting C Chulainn as an alternative model to follow. Moreover Yeats hopes that Ireland can achieve unity through the same harmony (amongst people) that C Chulainn is promoter of. This play highlights the heroism of C Chulainn, but to grasp it completely it is necessary to compare it to that of the other two champions, Loeghaire and Conall. The difference is quite simple: while the first is a real hero the other two just pretend to be. C Chulainns heroism is genuine and sincere, his behaviour is motivated by the pursuit of common good, he demonstrated braveness and does not fear to put the interests of the community before his, even though such interests can jeopardise his life. In addition, he demonstrates a sense of humour in all situations, even in the most extreme. Old herring96 he says the first time he meets the Red Man, and then Quick to your work, old Radish97 just before being executed. This humour is appreciated and rewarded by the Red Man, who, when he has to designate the champion, says to he will choose the laughing lip/ that shall not turn from laughing, whatever rise or fall.98 On the contrary Loeghaire and Conall present a heroism that is just superficial. They just want to be acknowledged as heroes because they are interested only in glory. In fact, they show fear and egoism that are exactly the opposite of the qualities of their rival. In this contraposition we can find a metaphor of the contraposition between the heroic age of C Chulainn and the present time, characterised by false heroes who proclaim themselves saviours but who in fact have other personal interests. So, the disillusion towards politics that led up the Celtic Revival seems to emerge from the episode, and the final coronation of C Chulainn as the champion of Ireland marks the victory of heroism over politics.99 Beside C Chulainn, also his wife Emer acquires the features of the heroine, anticipating the role she will play in The Only Jealousy of Emer. If at the beginning she is similar to Loeghaire and Conalls wives claiming that his man is the best and the strongest, her moral qualities become

96 Yeats, The Green Helmet, p. 48. 97 Yeats, The Green Helmet, p. 72. 98 Yeats, The Green Helmet, p. 72. 99 Cataldi, p. XLIII. 34

visible when C Chulainn decides to sacrifice his life. It is you, not your fame that I love100 she says to her beloved, demonstrating a disinterested love, far from that of the other two wives who care more for the prominence their men can reach than for the men themselves. Thus, the difference between C Chulainn and the other two champions seems to be perfectly reflected in that between Emer and the other wives, recognising for the couple C Chulainn-Emer a moral depth that cannot be found in the rest of the people. Finally, in this play it is interesting to notice the very last verses, pronounced by the Red Man, right after having crowned C Chulainn with the helmet:
And these things I make prosper, till a day come that I know, When heart and mind shall darken that the weak may end the strong, And the long-remembering harpers have matter for their song.101

This is an anticipation of what is about to happen in the next play. If so far the strong has won over the weak and the brave has overcome the fearful, in On Bailes Strand this relation is going to be inverted. On Bailes Strand On Bailes Strand is chronologically the first play of the five about C Chulainn, and it can be asserted that it is the central one, around which the whole cycle has been built. This drama refers to one of the best known episodes of the life of the hero: the killing of his son Conall and the following unleashing of rage against the waves of the sea, after a druid has cast a spell on him to appease his fury. Also in this case, Yeats takes inspiration from Lady Gregorys Cuchulain of Muirthemne, changing some elements. The central theme of the play is not the relationship between C Chulainn and his son, but that between the hero and his king, Conchobar, who asks him to submit to his will and that of his sons for the good of the community. C Chulainn is initially reluctant, because it would limit his freedom and his nature of warrior and hero. However, after the insistence of the other kings and because of some deception by Conchobar, he swears an oath that binds him to the will of the king.
100 Yeats, The Green Helmet, p. 70. 101 Yeats, The Green Helmet, p. 72. 35

After the oath a young kid comes to fight with C Chulainn, who accepts the challenge. After recognising in the young boy something familiar, the hero proposes him to become friends. Seeing that the young is accepting the proposal, Conchobar deceives C Chulainn once more and persuades him to kill the boy. The hero then finds out that the young boy was his son; he thus goes mad with rage and, under the effect of magic, fights with the waves of the sea believing he is hitting Conchobar. He is finally won by the waves. The plot interweaves with the dialogue between a blind and a fool who argue about how to cook and eat a fowl. They open and close the play clearly mirroring the relationship between C Chulainn and Conchobar. If in The Green Helmet Yeats depicted C Chulainn as the symbol of a pure and authentic heroism that won politics, in On Bailes Strand the situation is completely overturned: to suit the political needs and guarantee the stability of a country it is necessary to bridle heroism and individual freedom. If earlier the heroism of C Chulainn was oriented to the achievement of common good, now common good is something that must be reached through unity of purpose and not through the action of a single man. Once more C Chulainn proves morally exemplary, demonstrating to be capable of a diplomatic compromise. He renounces his heroic nature and accepts to submit to the king in favour of unity, and the encounter with the young boy is a sign that he is a warrior more likely to resolve a conflict through dialogue than with his sword.102 Conchobar instead shows himself the opposite and takes advantage of his position tricking C Chulainn through deception. When C Chulainn, finding in the young boys the characteristics of true heroism, proposes him to become friends and extends even to siding against his king and his people, Conchobar makes him believe he is under a magic effect: Witchcraft has maddened you103 he says to him. The killing of his son is thus the natural consequence of these words of incitement. The fact that he fights with the sea, rather than taking revenge on Conchobar, is then once again an incantation ordered by Conchobar himself to avoid his fury. The eventual fall against
102 McCombe, p. 27. 103 Yeats, William Butler, On Bailes Strand, in Il ciclo di Cuchulain: cinque drammi celtici, introduction, translation and notes by Melita Cataldi, Milano: Garzanti, 1990, p. 122. 36

the sea (The waves have mastered him104) is the definitive confirmation of the victory of politics over heroism. As I anticipated above, in this play there is a parallel story that narrates of a blind and a fool that are cooking a fowl that was stolen by the fool on the blinds advice. The blind makes his fellow believe that they are sharing it, but finally he eats it all by himself, leaving him only the bones and the feathers. This sub-plot, even though it might seem just a device to introduce and close the main plot, acquires great importance. It is in fact a sort of parody of the contrast between Conchobar and C Chulainn. If we try to analyse the two figures of the blind and the fool, we can find a parallelism respectively with the king and the hero. Both the blind and Conchobar show a certain ability to manipulate people in order to achieve a personal aim, making them believe that they are acting for a common good. I need your might of hand and burning heart,/ And you my wisdom105 says Conchobar to persuade C Chulainn to submission; similarly the blind tells the fool What would have happened to you but for me, and you without your wits?106 They both speak as if they were necessary for their interlocutors, but in fact they are using them for personal purposes. The blind man makes use of the eyes of the fool to steal the fowl as Conchobar uses the strength of C Chulainn to kill the young man, who could have threatened the stability of Ulster. So, the fool and C Chulainn demonstrate the same impulsivity and passion that lead them to humour the request of the blind and Conchobar. We can therefore consider this sub-plot as an aid to understand the relationship between the king and the hero. The fact that the play begins with the blind and the fool on the stage is an anticipation of what is about to be narrated in the main story; the conclusion still left to these two parodic figures is a device used by Yeats to highlight the relationship between the two main characters.

104 Yeats, On Bailes Strand, p.142. 105 Yeats, On Bailes Strand, p.102. 106 Yeats, On Bailes Strand, p.128. 37

One last observation needs to be made about the choice of the actor to play C Chulainn, who, as specifically written in the play, is a dark man, something over forty years of age.107 This seems to express a preference by Yeats for this character, as Gamboz writes:
the fact that Yeats made Cuchulain forty years of age as he himself was at that time instead of following the legends on which the main events of the play are based and in which Cuchulain is twenty-seven years old suggest Yeatss own prevalent identification with Cuchulain.108

However, it is necessary to say that this choice is also due to the fact that in Yeatss time it would not have been realistic and plausible to present a twenty-seven-year-old father killing his thirteenyear-old son, since the conception of age at the beginning of the twentieth century was completely different from that of eight centuries before, when the legend was born. The Only Jealousy of Emer The Only Jealousy of Emer is the fourth drama of the cycle and is directly related to the facts described in the previous drama, i.e. the killing of his son and the consequent fight with the sea by C Chulainn. The episode is taken from the homonymous chapter of Lady Gregorys Cuchulain of Muirthemne, who in turn readapted the tale Serglige Conculainn ocus Oent Emire, contained in the Leabhar na hUidhre. In this story, C Chulainn, while is with his mistress Eithne Inguba, is induced in a one year-lasting sickness by the goddesses Fand and L Ban.109 Fand, falling in love with the hero, tries to bring him in the Sidhe, but Emer, C Chulainns wife, full of jealousy, threatens the goddess with a knife. Fand then, decides to give up and leaves C Chulainn returning to the Sidhe. In his play, Yeats slightly changes the plot. C Chulainns sickness is due to the grief for the killing of his son and the consequent fight with the waves of the sea. The hero here is represented through two different characters: his body, lying on a bed, and his spirit, crouched on the floor. Emer, sitting on the bed, has called Eithne Inguba to awake the dying C Chulainn. When Eithne is about to kiss the hero, the body of C Chulainn wakes up, possessed by Bricriu, a spirit sower of dissension; he is the same character that in the mythological tradition causes the contest between C
107 Yeats, On Bailes Strand, p. 92. 108 Gamboz, p. 58. 109 Fand is the goddess of the sea, repudiated wife of the god of the sea Manannn mac Lr; L Ban is Fands sister. 38

Chulainn and the warriors Conall and Loeghaire narrated in The Green Helmet. Bricriu invites Emer to renounce C Chulainns love for ever, as this is in fact the only way to save the hero from death, but Emer refuses to do that. Then she notices the ghost of C Chulainn who is being seduced by a woman of the Sidhe, who is in fact the goddess Fand. Full of jealousy Emer takes a knife to kill the goddess, but Bricriu tells her that Fand is just a spirit come to bring C Chulainn into the Sidhe, and therefore it is impossible to kill her with a knife. Seeing that the ghost of C Chulainn is attracted by Fand, Emer finally decides to renounce her husbands love. C Chulainn retakes therefore possession of his body and declares his love for his mistress Eithne Inguba. I have already said that this play is the sequel of the previous one, C Chulainns sickness is the consequence of his defeat against the sea and can be somehow interpreted as the elaboration of the mourning for the loss of his son. However The Only Jealousy of Emer can also be considered the natural sequel of At the Hawks Well written just two years before, although it is logically considered the first play of the cycle. As a matter of fact in both these plays a reflection about heroism is present; but while before heroism was embodied by C Chulainn, now it is embodied by Emer. In At the Hawks Well C Chulainn was initiated into heroism through the renounciation to immortality, in this case, instead, Emer becomes a heroine accepting to give up the love of her husband in order to save his life: she loves C Chulainn to the point that she prefers to see him with another woman than to let him die. So, in both dramas, the ambiguous and contradictory situation of the hero emerges: C Chulainn is doomed to a short life marked by conflict and pain, Emer is forced to leave her love. However, this is not the only point of contact between the two plays, there are in fact other elements that connect the two plays. First of all the figure of Fand, whom C Chulainn addresses using these words:
I know you now, for long ago I met you on a cloudy hill Beside old thorn-trees and a well. A woman danced and a hawk flew, I held out arms and hands; but you, That now seem friendly, fled away,

39

Half woman and half bird of prey.110

We can here easily understand the reference to the first play analysed. The set is clearly that of At the Hawks Well and the woman is with no doubt the guardian of the well who bewitched C Chulainn with her dance. One more aspect present in both the plays is then the large use of elements belonging to the Japanese N theatre. As in At the Hawks Well, The Only Jealousy of Emer presents devices typical of this theatrical form, such as a blank and unadorned stage, the use of music, dance and movement, and above all the presence of the masks, which contributes to the archetypal significance of the characters,111 and helps the audience to identify the different representations of the figure of C Chulainn. Finally, also the chorus at the beginning and at the end of the play is a common element in the two dramas. The same three musicians, dressed and made up as in At the Hawks Well, [with] the same musical instruments,112 introduce the audience into the play, accompany the movement of the characters with music and conclude the play with a final comment. It is exactly the chorus that introduces us to other important themes, those of beauty and love. The initial song by the musicians focuses on beauty, which is described through two images: a white/ Frail Bird113 and A fragile, exquisite, pale shell.114 It is clear, then, that the musicians underline the characteristics of fragility and delicacy of beauty, expressing a feeling of negativity. The same negativity can be found at the end of the play. The conclusive song finally, even though ambiguous and difficult to interpret, refers to love as a bitter reward/ Of many tragic tomb!115 Through the words of the musicians therefore, Yeats seems to express the tragicalness of beauty and

110 Yeats, William Butler, The Only Jealousy of Emer, in Il ciclo di Cuchulain: cinque drammi celtici, introduction, translation and notes by Melita Cataldi, Milano: Garzanti, 1990, p. 168. 111 Morrow, Melinda, Ritual Strangeness: Elements of Noh in The Only Jealousy of Emer, South Carolina Review, (32) 1999, p. 174. 112 Yeats, The Only Jealousy of Emer, p. 146. 113 Yeats, The Only Jealousy of Emer, p. 146. 114 Yeats, The Only Jealousy of Emer, p. 148. 115 Yeats, The Only Jealousy of Emer, p. 174. 40

love that directly allude to the tragicalness of the life of the hero, which Emer experiences in this play after C Chulainn has experienced it throughout his whole existence.116 The Death of Cuchulain The Death of Cuchulain is the final play of the cycle, and, as the title clearly suggests, deals with the last moments of the life of the hero. As in all the others dramas of the cycle, also in this case Yeats takes Lady Gregorys work as his source, adding some elements to the original version. C Chulainn is aware to be going towards his death, he in fact knows that the battle against the men of Connacht, who have invaded Ulster, is going to be his last fight. So Eithne Inguba is sent by Emer to persuade C Chulainn not to go to fight, but, on the contrary, she encourages the hero to go on the battlefield, for she is under a spell made by Medhbha (a.k.a. Maeve), queen of Connacht. When the goddess Mrrghan appears in front of her, Eithne understands she has been deceived by Medhbha (Maeve put me in a trance117) and tries to reawaken C Chulainns passions and feelings, in order to keep him away from the battle; but the hero demonstrates he has changed and lost any passion for life: the only thing he wants is his doom to be accomplished. C Chulainn goes on the battlefield and is wounded six times, so he decides to bind himself to a pillar-stone in order to die standing up. While doing this, he meets Afe, woman warrior whom he defeated and mother of his son, who wants to kill him in revenge. While they are remembering the death of their son, a blind man the same of On Bailes Strand comes, he wants to kill C Chulainn too because he has been promised twelve pennies as a reward. C Chulainn is finally decapitated, and Emer honours her husband with a dance of adoration or triumph.118 The play ends with three singers, in an Irish Fair of our day,119 that remember first C Chulainn and other mythological heroes, and then the men who died fighting during the Easter Rising in 1916.

116 Cataldi, p. L. 117 Yeats, William Butler, The Death of Cuchulain, in Il ciclo di Cuchulain: cinque drammi celtici, introduction, translation and notes by Melita Cataldi, Milano: Garzanti, 1990, p. 188. 118 Yeats, The Death of Cuchulain, p. 202. 119 Yeats, The Death of Cuchulain, p. 202. 41

As we can see reading the plot, The Death of Cuchulain presents a threefold structure: the way of the hero towards death passes in fact through three meetings with as many characters, and in each meeting he shows a different attitude. First he meets his mistress Eithne Inguba, and although just in the previous play he chose her passionate love, now he shows coldness and distantness towards her, who tries in vain to reawaken his feelings. His attitude becomes different when he meets Afe, who wants to kill him in revenge. In this situation C Chulainn demonstrates passivity, he acknowledges to Afe the right to kill him and does not seem worried about his life, the only thing that troubles him is the veil Afe is using to bind him at the pillar-stone (do not spoil your veil./ Your veils are beautiful, some with threads of gold120). In the dialogue with the blind man eventually, he gives the impression of raving, what he says does not seem to make any sense (My souls first shape, a soft feathery shape,/ And is not that strange shape for the soul/ Of a great fighting-man?121). So, in these three different attitudes, we can note a sort of evolution that brings him to death: first he realises the departure from any passion and feeling, then he renounces life, and finally he leaves his mental faculties and rationality.122 In this play, therefore, it is interesting to analyse the meaning of death, which seems to be ambivalent. In fact the dance of adoration or triumph made by Emer around his head gives the impression that the death of the hero is glorious and triumphal. However, the way he has been killed, i.e. beheaded by a blind man who is eager to be rewarded with twelve pennies, suggests the contrary. His death is inglorious and dishonourable, and might be interpreted as the end of an epoch and the contemporary beginning of a new one, characterised by opposite values.123 If in On Bailes Strand heroism was subdued by politics, now it is definitively dead, and is nothing more than a dim memory. Like many of the other plays of the cycle, also The Death of Cuchulain is introduced and concluded by a chorus not involved in the main plot. In this case the opening monologue for the
120 Yeats, The Death of Cuchulain, p. 194. 121 Yeats, The Death of Cuchulain, p. 200. 122 Cataldi, p. LIII. 123 Cataldi, p. LIV. 42

first time in prose is performed by an old man, who represents Yeats who justifies the decision to write the final play of the cycle twenty years after the last one. The importance of this prologue is well explained by F. A. C. Wilson:
Yeatss prologue, then, has a double function: to align us emotionally to the tragic scene that is to follow, and to remind us that his play has been written out of period, and that a civilisation in process of lapsing into intellectual barbarism will be incapable of appreciating it.124

The epilogue, as already said, is instead completely different. It is set in the present, and brings back the memory of C Chulainn and the others heroes of the Irish mythological tradition. This memory is followed by that of the rebellion of the Easter Rising that has led to the birth of the Republic of Ireland. The theme of this final part is the possibility to bring the recollection of the heroism of the past into the present, making the heroes, in particular C Chulainn, the models of a country. This possibility seems to have become reality: those who fought for Ireland, although they belong to an epoch that has lost any trace of heroism, had in mind the deeds of their hero (Who thought Cuchulain till it seemed/ He stood where they had stood?125); moreover the fact that a statue of C Chulainn dying has been chosen to represent all the Irishmen dead for their country (A statues there to mark the place126) has an important meaning in this sense. The aim of the Celtic Revival, then, seems to have been achieved: a country has arisen bringing to the present the memory of a mythic past. To conclude we have seen how in this dramatic cycle the process of growth and maturation of C Chulainn is narrated through the description of some important episodes of his life. Firstly he takes the role of the hero accepting the conflicting life that heroism entails, then he experiences the suffering such as the necessity to submit to political power or the loss of his son as a consequence of such a life, and eventually he goes towards his end. It is finally necessary to highlight how the episodes described are not epic deeds, like for instance when he defeats Connacht

124 Wilson, F. A. C., W. B. Yeats and Tradition, London: Methuen, 1968, p. 175. 125 Yeats, The Death of Cuchulain, p. 204. 126 Yeats, The Death of Cuchulain, p. 204. 43

killing all the enemy warriors one by one; this choice is due to the fact that Yeats wanted to exalt the human nature of the hero, rather than narrate his legendary feats:
Yeats was not interested in recounting the legend of Cuchulain for informational motives, but rather he used the legend of Cuchulain as theme to communicate moments of intense feeling where the heros plight resonates with the struggles the Irish faced in their day-to-day lives. Even if Cuchulain is portrayed as a hero and warrior in Yeatss work, the context surrounding the events are not entirely magical: we see Cuchulain as a man who has flaws, makes mistakes, and ultimately dies.127

4.2.2 Yeatss poems about C Chulainn After having analysed the dramatic cycle of C Chulainn, let us now see briefly the two poems Cuchulains Fight with the Sea and Cuchulain Comforted, which respectively opened and concluded Yeatss production. Cuchulains Fight with the Sea was written in 1892, when the Celtic Revival was beginning to develop as a consequence of the political situation that had characterised Ireland in the second half of the nineteenth century. Written in blank verse, the poem refers to the episode of the killing of his son by C Chulainn. As he would do in all the plays of the cycle, Yeats reinterpreted the original story. In the poem C Chulainn has begotten a son upon Emer (unlike the original story where C Chulainn and Emer do not have any child together) before fleeing with a younger woman. When a swineherd informs her about the place in which C Chulainn is, Emer calls her son whom she has trained as a hero and sends him to fight and kill C Chulainn in order to have her revenge (There is a man to die128). The duel between the father and son, however, ends as we know, with C Chulainn that slays his son and, under the effect of magic, vents his sorrow against the invulnerable tide129 of the sea. At first glance what emerges in the poem is the connection between the vindictive jealousy of Emer and the unbearable sorrow of C Chulainn: Emer sends their son to accomplish her revenge leading C Chulainn to kill the kid, and, as consequence, to feel an unbearable sorrow that can be
127 Vasconcelos, Viviane, Yeats and Cuchulain, Phantasmagoria: Special Issue on William Butler Yeats, Fall 2005, online edition available at http://writing.colostate.edu/gallery/phantasmagoria/vasconcelos.htm, (accessed August 2011).
128 129

Yeats, William Butler, Cuchulain's Fight with the Sea, 1892, line 24. Yeats, Cuchulain's Fight with the Sea, line 92. 44

appeased only by the supernatural force of the sea. However, in my opinion, our attention must be focused on the figure of C Chulainn, who for the first time was used in the literary movement of the Irish Renaissance Cuchulain of Muirthemne in fact had not been written yet. Tim Wenzell, commenting the poem, describes C Chulainn as follows:
Cuchulain becomes an ancient hero transformed by a poets vision: Yeatss Cuchulain is formed in a place between the ancient folklore drawn from a Celtic past and his own place in modern literature as a distinct poet with a distinct voice.130

Yeats therefore readapts the figure of C Chulainn to his time using it, as we have already seen, as a means of expression of his thoughts and aspirations and presenting it as a model that could reawaken the pride of Irish people and lead them to the cultural unity. Completely different is the second poem, Cuchulain Comforted, written in 1939, just two weeks before Yeatss death. The poem, characterised by the Dantesque terza rima, can be considered the sequel of the play The Death of Cuchulain. The fatally wounded hero, [v]iolent and famous131, goes down in the afterworld, inhabited by spirits that are [c]onvicted and cowards all.132 One of these spirits orders C Chulainn to make a shroud, as they are all doing. C Chulainn obeys and begins to sew his shroud, the poem ends with the spirits singing together with throats of birds.133 The theme of the poem is the passage from life to death, and Yeats makes large use of symbols to express it. The shroud symbolises the celestial body, which in turn stands for pure life and spiritual integrity; the needles eye (We thread the needles eyes, and all we do/ All must together do134) can be interpreted as the gateway to paradise; and the final song performed by the spirits with throats of birds is symbol of the purified soul.135 It is clear, therefore, that in Cuchulain Comforted we witness a process of transformation and transfiguration of C Chulainn: he acquire[s] the gentleness and spirituality which complement the aggressive and sensual portions of

130 Wenzell, p. 21. 131 Yeats, William Butler, Cuchulain Comforted, 1939, line 2. 132 Yeats, Cuchulain Comforted, line 21. 133 Yeats, Cuchulain Comforted, line 25. 134 Yeats, Cuchulain Comforted, lines 16-17. 135 Wilson, pp. 247-249 45

his nature.136 What is more, the poem seems to mark the final identification of Yeats with the hero he has dealt with throughout his whole life:
Usually these cursed men (the hero and the poet) stand at opposite poles from one another; but in this poem hero and poet, at first contrasted, finally merge and become indistinguishable. No longer excluded through his choice of the heroic life, the hero attains the superhuman. There he shares the poet's life, becomes his song, and so lives eternally.137

136 Pruitt, Virginia D. and Pruitt, Raymond D., W.B. Yeats on Old Age, Death and Immortality, Colby Quarterly, (24) 1988, p. 44. 137 Mitchell, Joan Towey, "Hero and Poet Reconciled." English, (23) 1974, p.31. 46

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Primary Sources Gregory, Isabella Augusta, Cuchulain of Muirthemne: the story of the men of the Red Branch of Ulster / arranged and put into English by Lady Gregory ; with a preface by W.B. Yeats, Gerrard Cross, London: John Murray, 1902, electronic edition consultable at http://www.sacredtexts.com/neu/celt/cuch/index.htm. Yeats, William Butler, Il ciclo di Cuchulain: cinque drammi celtici, introduction, translation and notes by Melita Cataldi, Milano: Garzanti, 1990. Yeats, William Butler, Cuchulain's Fight with the Sea,1892, http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/cuchulain-s-fight-with-the-sea/, 3 January 2003, (Accessed August 2011). Yeats, William Butler, Cuchulain Comforted, 1939, http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/cuchulaincomforted/, 15 May 2001, (Accessed August 2011).

Critical literature Burns, Mary C. E., The Celtic Revival: The Late Nineteenth Century Debate Concerning the Revival of Celtic Culture, http://www.literature-study-online.com/essays/celtic-revival.html, December 2008, (accessed July 2011). Clancy, Thomas Owen, Court, King and Justice in the Ulster Cycle, in Heather Fulton, ed., Medieval Celtic Literature and Society, Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2005, pp. 163-182. Coxhead, Elizabeth, Lady Gregory: A Literary Portrait, London: Secker & Warburg, 1961. Cusack, Michael, A word about Irish athletics, in The Irishman, 11 October 1884, available at http://multitext.ucc.ie/d/Origins_of_the_Gaelic_Athletic_Association_1884, (accessed July 2011). Deane, Seamus, A Short History of Irish Literature, Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1986. Dixon-Kennedy, Mike, Celtic Myth and Legend: an A-Z of People and Places, London: Blandford, 1996. Eglinton, John, What Should Be the Subject of National Drama?, in John P. Harrington, ed., Modern and Contemporary Irish Drama: Backgrounds and Criticism, New York: W.W. Norton, 2009, pp. 410-412. Fay, Frank J., An Irish National Theatre in John. P. Harrington, ed., Modern and Contemporary Irish Drama: Backgrounds and Criticism, New York: W.W. Norton, 2009, pp. 415-417. Fitzpatrick, Kate, Celtic Myths in Healing Process: A Journey (with C Chulainn) to the Warrior of Heart, in Padraign Clancy, ed., Celtic Threads: Exploring the Wisdom of Our Heritage, Dublin: Veritas, 1999, p. 81-92.
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Flannery, James W., W. B. Yeats and the Abbey Theatre Company, Educational Theatre Journal, (27) 1975, pp.179-196. Foster, R. F., At the Hawks Well in John. P. Harrington, ed., Modern and Contemporary Irish Drama: Backgrounds and Criticism, New York: W.W. Norton, 2009, pp. 433-440. Gamboz, Chiara, Yeats and His Use of Masks for Cuchulain, Prospero: Rivista di Culture AngloGermaniche, (9) 2002, pp. 53-70. Greene, David, Early Irish Society, in Myles Dillon, ed., Early Irish Society, Dublin: Published for the Cultural Relations Committee of Ireland by C. O Lochlainn, 1954, pp. 79-92. Gregory, Isabella Augusta, Our Irish Theatre in John. P. Harrington, ed., Modern and Contemporary Irish Drama: Backgrounds and Criticism, New York: W.W. Norton, 2009, pp. 401409. MacBain, Alexander, Celtic Mythology and Religion: with Chapters upon Druids and Celtic Burial, Stirling: MacKay, 1917. MacCana, Proinsias, Celtic Mithology, Feltham: Hamlyn, 1970. MacCulloch, John Arnott, The Religion of the Ancient Celts, Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1911, electronic edition consultable at http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/celt/rac/rac00.htm. McCaffrey, Lawrence J., The Irish Question: 1800-1922, Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1968. McCartney, Donal, From Parnell to Pearse, in T. W. Woody & F. X. Martin, eds., The Course of Irish History, Cork: The Mercier Press, 1967, pp. 294-312. McCombe, John P., Empowering the Celtic Chieftain: W.B. Yeats, Cuchulain, and Shakespeare's 1 Henry IV, Yeats Eliot Review, (18) 2002, pp. 22-36. Mitchell, Joan Towey, "Hero and Poet Reconciled." English, (23) 1974, pp. 29-33. Morrow, Melinda, Ritual Strangeness: Elements of Noh in The Only Jealousy of Emer, South Carolina Review, (32) 1999, pp. 170-179. Pearce, Donald R., Yeats Last Plays: an Interpretation, ELH, 18 (1951), pp. 67-76. Pearse, Pdraic, The Murder Machine, in Pdraic Pearse, Collected Works of Pdraic H. Pearse: Political Writings and Speeches, Dublin: The Phoenix Publishing Co., 1916, pp. 5-50. Pethica, James L., Gregory, (Isabella) Augusta, Lady Gregory (18521932), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edition available at http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/33554, October 2006, (accessed August 2011). Pruitt, Virginia D. and Pruitt, Raymond D., W.B. Yeats on Old Age, Death and Immortality, Colby Quarterly, (24) 1988, pp. 36-49. Rafroidi, Patrick, Imagination and Revolution: The Cuchulain Myth, in O. MacDonagh, W. F.
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Mandle, P. Travers, eds., Irish Culture and Nationalism, 1750-1950, London: Macmillan, 1983, pp. 137-148. Royal Irish Academy website, URL http://www.ria.ie/Library/SpecialCollections/Manuscripts/Book-of-Fermoy.aspx, (accessed July 2011). Tibn, Colm, The Collaboration of Yeats and Lady Gregory, in John. P. Harrington, ed., Modern and Contemporary Irish Drama: Backgrounds and Criticism, New York: W.W. Norton, 2009, pp. 417-423. Vasconcelos, Viviane, Yeats and Cuchulain, Phantasmagoria: Special Issue on William Butler Yeats, Fall 2005, online edition available at http://writing.colostate.edu/gallery/phantasmagoria/vasconcelos.htm, (accessed August 2011). Welch, Robert and Stewart Bruce, The Oxford Companion to Irish literature, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996. Wenzell, Tim, Yeats and the Celtic Twilight: Between the Worlds, Yeats Eliot Review, 24 (2007), pp. 20-23. Wilson, F. A. C., W. B. Yeats and Tradition, London: Methuen, 1968. Wilson, F. A. C., Yeatss Iconography, London: Methuen, 1969. Yeats, William Butler, An Irish National Theatre in John. P. Harrington, ed., Modern and Contemporary Irish Drama: Backgrounds and Criticism, New York: W.W. Norton, 2009, pp. 412414. Yeats, William Butler, The Controversy over The Playboy of the Western World, in John. P. Harrington, ed., Modern and contemporary Irish drama : Backgrounds and Criticism, New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2009, pp. 462-464.

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