Kathleen Ni Houlihan, Ireland Personified and Irish Nationalism

Kathleen Ni Houlihan (Caitlín Ní Uallacháin, literally, “Kathleen, daughter of Houlihan”) is a mythical symbol and emblem of Irish nationalism found in literature and art, sometimes representing Ireland as a personified woman. The figure of Kathleen Ni Houlihan has also been invoked in nationalist Irish politics. Kathleen Ni Houlihan is sometimes spelled as Cathleen Ni Houlihan, and the figure is also sometimes referred to as the Sean-Bhean Bhocht, the Poor Old Woman, and similar appellations. Kathleen Ni Houlihan is generally depicted as an old woman who needs the help of young Irish men willing to fight and die to free Ireland from colonial rule, usually resulting in the young men becoming martyrs for this cause. In the days before the Anglo-Irish War, the “colonial” power was the United Kingdom. After the Anglo-Irish War, Kathleen Ni Houlihan was a figure more associated with the Irish Republican Army in Northern Ireland, especially during the Troubles.

As a literary figure, Kathleen Ni Houlihan was perhaps most famously used by William Butler Yeats and Lady Augusta Gregory in their play Cathleen Ní Houlihan. Other authors that have used Kathleen Ni Houlihan in some way include Seán O’Casey (especially in The Shadow of the Gunman) and James Joyce who introduces characters named Kathleen and Mr Holohan in his story “A Mother” (in Dubliners) to illustrate the ideological shallowness of an Irish revival festival.

Image: Declan Kerr – Irish Art

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