A Terrible Beauty is Born: Yeats and the Irish Struggle for Independence

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In the early 19th century the long struggle for Irish independence from Great Britain came to an end when Ireland was split into two parts. Southern Ireland became the Republic of Ireland, an independent nation, while Northern Ireland remained part of the United Kingdom. This spawned a civil war and, later, the Troubles.

Ireland fought for independence for several reasons. They were denied representation; there was a harsh system of landlords and peasant farmers which beggared the country; and there were religious differences between the predominantly Protestant northern Ireland and Great Britain and predominantly Catholic southern Ireland.

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Families were forced to split their land between all heirs, which led to smaller and smaller allotments. Evidence of this practice may be seen today in the stone walls which divide the countryside


Ireland had lacked a national literature (and, to some extent, a national identity) for a long time prior to the 19th century, possibly since the 17th century and the end of the bardic system. This is not to say there were no Irish writers; rather, that they followed the traditions and themes of England and continental Europe rather than developing traditions and themes of their own.

W.B. Yeats, born 1865, wanted a free Ireland and worked to establish a national identity for Ireland through his poetry and plays. He saw an Irish literary tradition as being essential to creating a national consciousness. He helped to establish an Irish national theatre and helped to found it's home, the Abbey Theatre, which opened in 1904. abbeytheatre
The Abbey Theatre



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Top: Maude Gonne as the Old Woman in the first performance of Cathleen ni Houlihan.
Bottom: illustration of the production
Yeats wrote Cathleen Ní Houlihan with Lady Gregory in 1902, and it was first performed the same year in the in St. Teresa's Hall in Dublin. Maude Gonne played the Old Woman, or Cathleen ni Houlihan, a mythic figure who represents a free Ireland. In the play, a family whose son is about to be married is visited by a strange old woman who sings and laments her stolen green fields. She bewilders the young man and tempts him away from his family and betrothed. Her songs glorify the act of dying for one's country and promise immortality to those who follow her.

Stephen Gwynn famously wrote in a 1936 recollection of the play that

The effect of `Cathleen ni Houlihan' on me was that I went home asking myself if such plays should be produced unless one was prepared for people to go out to shoot and be shot. Yeats was not alone responsible; no doubt but that Lady Gregory had helped him to get the peasant speech so perfect; but above all Miss Gonne's impersonation had stirred the audience as I have never seen another audience stirred.



This pronouncement foreshadows Yeats' own realization of the power of the play: In "The Man and the Echo" (1939) he asks

Did that play of mine send out
Certain men the English shot?



Yeats had seen many of his contemporaries killed in the struggle for Irish independence; in one poem, "Easter, 1916," he writes of a woman sentenced to life in prison and three men executed for their parts as leaders of the Easter Rising of 1916. The refrain of the poem, "a terrible beauty is born,"
became an indelible part of Irish consciousness.

The poem is about the Easter Rising, which was staged by Irish republicans during the week of Easter, 1916. The Rising occurred primarily in Dublin, where small groups of people seized key locations and proclaimed Irish independence. It lasted until Saturday April 29, 1916, when Padraig Pearse surrendered unconditionally. They had been surrounded. In the following weeks almost all of the leaders were killed;
Yeats eulogizes them in his poem.

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One of the most famous locations seized was the General Post Office, which now contains a memorial.

easter1916_manuscriptThe manuscript of "Easter, 1916"


The Irish War for Independence began in 1919 and ended with a truce in 1921. The subsequent treaty established the Irish Free State. The Irish Civil War began in 1922. It was fought between two factions of the nationalists, those who supported the treaty and the establishment of a divided Ireland and those who wanted complete freedom from Great Britain and a united Ireland. The Civil War ended a year later, in 1923, and was won by those who supported the treaty. It is thought to have claimed more lives than the War for Independence. The Civil War also left a legacy of violence that continues to this day in Northern Ireland.

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A memorial to those who died in the War for Independence


A Terrible Beauty is Born from Erin Black on Vimeo.


This video combines clips from The Wind that Shakes the Barley, a film about the Irish War for Independence and the beginning of the Irish Civil War, with pertinent literature. Works used include "Man and the Echo," "Easter, 1916," and Cathleen ni Houlihan by Yeats, "Punishment" by Seamus Heaney, and a nationalist version of the song "Oró Sé do Bheatha 'Bhaile" written by Padraig Pearse (one of the leader of the Easter Rising).



For further information please see:
The Yeats exhibit at the National Library of Ireland (http://www.nli.ie/yeats/main.html)
The BBC production of "Yeats and Irish Politics" on Radio 4 (http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/history/inourtime/inourtime_20080417.shtml)

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