“Faustian Bargain” in W.B. Yeats’s The Countess Cathleen: Construction and Critique of Irish Nationalism

Mir Ahammad Ali, Independent Researcher

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From the very basal days of its foundation in 1899 (by W.B. Yeats, Lady Gregory and Edward Martin) the Irish Literary Theatre serves as the first formal cornerstone of the Irish Dramatic Movement. With its debut production of Yeats’ The Countess Cathleen, the theatre strives to bring together Irish national, religious and socio-political issues and helps to the embodiment and construction of ‘Irish national identity’ but there lies at the same time a sharp appraisal and a nebulous critique of these issues. Set ahistorically in the legendary Celtic world Yeats’ The Countess Cathleen presents the sempiternal wrangle between good and evil and the eventual exultation of the good at the cost of self-sacrificial dissolution. In a Pre-Elizabethan English Morality fashion, this verse drama conveys a ‘Faustian bargain’ of bartering the soul of the eponymous Countess for the wellbeing of others. The playwright himself admits that the play was primarily written for Maud Gonne in order to “please her” in his own words and it was subsequently dedicated to her. This paper aims to focus on the dual concerns: how this particular play serves as a tool for the ideological construction of ‘Irish Nationalism’, Irish ‘Hero/Heroine Worship’ and the eventual contour of ‘Irish National Identity’; and on the other hand, it manifests how the implicit and nebulous critique of these principles and beliefs helps to the deconstruction or demythologization of this ‘Irish National Consciousness’.


Yeats’ most influential Fenian mentor, John O’ Leary once taught him that:

“there is no fine nationality without literature, and…the converse also, there is no fine literature without nationality”1 (Howes & Kelly 19).

Yeats’ all encompassing oeuvre bears testimony to this above mentioned dictum. After establishing himself as a jubilant poet, Yeats undertook his expedition to venture on the terrain of Irish drama. To establish a national theatre where the Irish national, religious, and socio-political issues can be presented, debated and analyzed, was Yeats’ prolonged urge. Conceived, discussed and jointly ventured with Lady Augusta Gregory and Edward Martyn around 1897, Irish Literary Theatre opened up for the first time on May 8, 1899 with Yeats’ groundbreaking play The Countess Cathleen. With its debut production, the Irish Literary Theatre brings together the then issues about the nation and nationalism, politics, religion, socio-economy etc. and helps the construction of, what came to be known as ‘Irish National Identity’. But it is also true that at the same time a sharp appraisal and a nebulous critique of these issues coexist side by side.

“National Identity” according to D. George Boyce, as suggested in his introductory chapter “Introduction: Nationalism and Ireland” in his outstanding book Nationalism in Ireland is:

This is felt by members of a group who define their culture as the national one, and their group as the true legitimate inheritors of the national territory, of the homeland (Boyce18).

Thinking in terms of this above mentioned rationale, Yeats’ play The Countess Cathleen can be viewed as an epitome of the embodiment and construction of ‘Irish Nationalism’. At the very backbone of the play there lies Yeats’ faith in Christian mysticism blended with the long traditional pagan beliefs of Irish folklore and legends. Set ahistorically in the legendary Celtic world Yeats’ The Countess Cathleen presents the sempiternal wrangle between good and evil and the eventual exultation of the good at the cost of self-sacrificial dissolution. In a Pre-Elizabethan English Morality fashion, this verse drama conveys a ‘Faustian bargain’ of bartering the soul of the eponymous Countess for the well being of other peasants in a time of famine. This theme is originally based on John Augustus O’Shea’s story that Yeats reprinted in his Fairy and Folk Tales of Irish Peasantry (1888) about a year ago. Yeats’ keen interest in Irish folklore, long pagan ritualistic observances and traditional Irish fairytale helped him in this endeavour.

In the very formal statement affirming the purpose of establishing Irish Literary Theatre, Yeats and Lady Gregory posited that:

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 us2 (Schuchard 227). [Emphasis mine]

The representation of Ireland as the “home of ancient idealism” pervades all through the play. There is famine in the very opening scene of the play and Yeats very craftily blends the Irish occult beliefs and Christian mysticism in a single thread. Teigue, a boy of fourteen predicts uncanny omen from his cottage in “old times” as he has observed two owls with human faces. On the other hand, Mary, the mother of Teigue and the wife of Shemus utters that “Mother of God, defend us!” (The Countess Cathleen Scene-I), to that statement Teigue repudiates repeating his father’s words “God and Mother of God have dropped asleep”. (The Countess Cathleen, Scene-I).

Three different reactions to a single particular event in the same house symbolically uphold the different opinions and responses divided among different strata of Irish people, which eventually, constructs ‘Irish national identity’ in disparate plane. All inclusive values coexist side by side that constructs the imaginative and ideological ‘nation formation’ whether the paganish beliefs of Teigue or the traditional values of the imaginative poet Aleel, or the Christian deistic beliefs of Mary, or the irreligious and a bit atheistic belief of Shemus.


And then a counter-truth filled out its play,

The Countess Cathleen was the name I gave it;

She, pity-crazed, had given her soul away,

But masterful Heaven had intervened to save it.

I thought my dear must her own soul destroy,

So did fanaticism and hate enslave it,

And this brought forth a dream and soon enough

This dream itself had all my thought and love.3 [Emphases mine]

Yeats’ 1939 poem “The Circus Animals’ Desertion” very elaborately illustrates Yeats’ own reflections and comments on his previous works. And of course mentioning his The Countess Cathleen, in this poem, Yeats very pathetically broods on upon his life-long desire, aspiration, numerous rejections, grievances and ultimate resentment in his relationship with Maud Gonne. The playwright himself in his own Memoirs4, Collected Letters5 and Autobiographies admits that the play was primarily written for Maud Gonne, in order to “please her” (Memoirs 41) in his own words and it was subsequently dedicated to her. The “pity-crazed” Countess “who had given her soul away” is none but solely based on the real life character of Gonne. The Countess’ act of saving the lives of poor peasants of Ireland from the rapacious merchants first by giving her wealth and possessions and then finally by bartering her own soul makes her undoubtedly a ‘heroic figure’. Her undertaken self-sacrifice for the wellbeing of others at the time of great crisis of Irish famine makes her ‘legendary heroine’, a stock character and a ‘sacrificial scapegoat’ found in Irish myth and Irish legend, Irish history and folklore.

It is undoubtedly true that the play The Countess Cathleen is written for and subsequently dedicated to Maud Gonne. Gonne’s audacious deeds in the Anti-British movements, revolutions throughout the 1890s and her profound exertion to resist the cultural distinctiveness of the Irish soil made her truly ‘heroic’ in the then national and political scenario. The gradual emergence of Gonne as a ‘truly’ Irish nationalist who dare to face any obstacle for the Irish National cause, has fixity among the Irish minds and this extraordinary zeal and fervor can be seen in the figure of the Countess in the course of the play. The Countess Cathleen’s frantic and anxious wandering in her survey of the damage that the famine has done to the Irish people and her act of distributing money among the poor and her initial words established her as a sympathetic, benevolent leader figure:

Cathleen: I gave for all and that was all I had. Look, my purse is empty. I have passed By starving men and women all this day, And they have had the rest; but take the purse, The silver clasps on’t may be worth a trifle. But if you’ll come to-morrow to my house You shall have twice the sum. (Yeats Scene 1)

Cathleen’s generosity in distributing the money and her daring endeavour to sacrifice her soul for the well-being of Irish famine-stricken peasants biographically connote Maud Gonne’s aid to the West Ireland’s famine stricken peasants. This relation between the Countess and Gonne and the corollary construction of ‘Irish Nationalism’ are very acutely observed by Joseph M. Hassett in his famous book W.B. Yeats and The Muse:

What was it that made Gonne so overwhelmingly attractive to Yeats? A clue lies in the fact that his first autobiographical reference to her mentions that she was ‘a beautiful girl who had left the society of the Viceregal Court for Dublin nationalism.’ (Memoirs 40) This conjunction of a beautiful woman, the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy that governed Ireland, and a penchant for Irish nationalism meshed perfectly with Yeats’s goal of creating a national literature that would define a new Irish consciousness. (Hassett 69) [Emphases mine]

So, again Yeats’ endeavour to create “a nation literature that would define a new Irish consciousness” the symbolic figure of the Countess Cathleen is very much important, desired and finally served his purpose.

The relationship and encounter between Cathleen and the lover-poet Aleel somehow are biographically connected with Maud Gonne and Yeats himself. In the course of the play we find the love-sicken Aleel accompanies the Countess all the way and in Scene III, we find Aleel proposes her love for Cathleen. But Cathleen’s effete refusal and decline for some greater nationalistic cause again has an autobiographical alliance. To quote Mr. Ross:

“Cathleen’s tender dismissal of the lovesick poet Aleel thus assumes an obvious autobiographical dimension.” (Ross 318)

In the very same way Gonne also refused to accept Yeats’s proposal many times for some vague reasons but in her final rejection of Yeats’s marriage proposal (before marrying John MacBride) she gave reasons that Yeats was insufficiently deficient in his radical nationalism for Irish cause and for his unwillingness to convert or revert to Catholicism, the predominant religion for the majoritarian Irish public.

So, once again it can be observed that the figures such as Cathleen (in real life Maud Gonne) partake in the construction of ‘Irish Nationalism’ through the crest of Irish Hero/Heroine worship. That’s why in spite of being tempted by the idyllic vision of Allel’s company as a temporal isolated respite, Cathleen can never ever forgo her duty and vows that she will stay and pray until her heart has “grown to Heaven like a tree, and there Rustled its leaves, till Heaven has saved my people.” (Yeats Scene III) This makes her truly ‘heroic’ and capable of being ‘worshiped’ by the Irish peasants.


There is rarely any famous text in the world literature which does not have its scanty criticism or slight denigration. The same is evident regarding this play because the construction of ‘Irish National Identity’ and at the same time sharp appraisal and a nebulous critique of these constructions coexist side by side. When it opened up for the first performance on May 8, 1899 there were famous persons or personalities like William Archer, Lady Gregory, the novelist George Moore, Saturday Review reporters like- Max Beerbohm and Arthur Symons and last but not the least young James Joyce among its audiences who all witnessed–

“a loud interruption came from a group of middle-class Catholic students from Royal University, described by Joseph Holloway, Dublin’s inveterate theatregoer and journal keeper, as “an organised claque of about twenty brainless, beardless, idiotic-looking youths” who “did all they knew to interfere with the progress of the play by their meaningless automatic hissing & senseless comments, & succeeded (happily) in showing what poor things mortals can become when the seat of reason is knocked awry by animus, spite & bigotry.”6 (Schuchard 62)

What was this clamour for? In what sense had it effected the Irish sentiment chiefly Catholic? These are fundamental questions that need to be emphasized and answered. Even a cardinal had given a verdict that no Catholic should see such play.

It is true that the play overtly presents the Irish peasants who gave acquiesce to let their souls be sold out in the face of pandemic famine for some gold as the last viable way of self-survival. And of course their souls are being auctioned and sold out by the covetous merchants at different prices because each individual soul has its own different prices. But “that said soul” as has been discerned by Adrian Frazer:

“came at different prices, and that illustrated as features of Irish life some peasants who stole, some who committed sacrilege, and one woman hell-bent on fornication.” (Frazier 2) [Emphases mine]

This representation of Irish peasants and common folk by Yeats is the core kernel of discord, controversy, discontentment and eventual rumpus of the Catholic believers. Of course the play is fundamentally a significant document “in the coming to consciousness of the Irish nation” (Frazier 3)   but at the same time a nebulous critique of the construction of these ‘consciousness’ exist beside. Yeats’ implicit irony and satire (as has been later espied in Synge and Joyce) in this play help to deconstruct the Irish national myth that claimed that –

their men were brave, their women pure, and their people pious. Scholars have usually followed the writers in mocking these claims, saying that the nationalists were puritans, chauvinists, and philistines. (Frazier 6-7)

Obviously, the Countess first agrees to give all the material possession she had and finally agrees to barter her soul for the well-being of other peasants at the crucial time of famine but one can question the root cause of famine. Frazier’s insightful observation of the historical trace can be relevant at this juncture:

The Famine came in a fashion that seemed to many a punishment for having too many children, and, with the help of Jansenist theology and Victorian morality, it brought about a truly virginal nation. By the end of the nineteenth century the purity of Ireland’s women had become a plank in the nationalist program: every province is bound to be thought of as a slut? Ireland alone, though poor, was pure. Critics may mock the status of chastity as a virtue, but one cannot deny its importance both to Irish nationalist thought and in Irish behavior. (Frazier 7)

The prime contention and the apple of discord of the Catholic members lies in the question that can the soul be bartered in such a way? In the play we find that the highest price any Irish peasant’s soul brings that of the old ugly woman is two hundred crowns compared with the soul of the beautiful Countess, for whose soul the merchants are ready to pay five hundred thousand crowns. Again, the Countess, the epitome of ‘Irish heroine’ is not free from sharp criticism. In the very opening scene the Countess enters the cottage of the old man accompanied by a lutanist and other musicians even at the time of plague famine and this causes the “bad peasant” Shemus to growl- “Who’s passing there? And mocking us with music?” or “What music! Music!” (Yeats Scene I). If we consider this expression of Shemus as ironic, then one can question the Countess’ foolery of entering the cottage with musical accompaniment which is absurd in such a situation like that. Again, the Countess Cathleen’ haphazard and erratic wandering and her ‘empty purse’ hardly make any sense.

Although Yeats had denied several times the association between the setting of the play and the actual historical Irish Famine, but one cannot deny the fact that “In the play famine is the premise from start to finish”. (Frazier 12)

What is the nature of the famine? Is it natural or artificially created? In Scene III of the play when the gardener informs Cathleen that the hungry peasants are stealing the apples from her garden and from the herdsman they have rustled her sheep, the Countess resolutely gives her consent to her gardener to let the peasants take away what they want from her garden. On the one hand this generosity of her craves ‘Irish hero/heroine worship’ but on the other hand it is problematic as well. Fraizer’s insightful observation at this point is worth noting:

“This recognition that her wealth can save them is only a short step from another perception for the peasants: the countess creates the Famine – her immense wealth causes their poverty. But before this perception can break upon the mind, Yeats turns the tale so that the countess is not the villain, but the supernatural donor, and then, more than the donor, the tale’s one true hero. The shape of the play’s plot makes a compelling depiction of the masses as helplessly dependent.” (Frazier 13)


So, in a postmodern fashion, the play diligently serves as a tool for the construction of ‘Irish Nationalism’ but at the same time a non-national and anti-religious approach towards the Irish historiography and established religious help to demythologize the bigotry of ‘Irish Nationalism’. Cathleen’s benevolent self-sacrificial concern for the wellbeing of others and her foolery or melodramatic ‘national consciousness’, these two stances coexist side by side. In the real life character of Maud Gonne as well as has been observed by David Holderman, Yeats saw –

“A fiery advocate of physical-force nationalism, Gonne made speeches, organized protests, and, generally speaking, did everything she could to hasten the overthrow of British rule. This combination of qualities encouraged Yeats to see her as an heroic symbol of an idealized Ireland.” (Holderman 13) [Emphasis mine]

But at the same time Maud Gonne’s excessive patriotic zeal was questionable and susceptive to Yeats to certain extent.


In conclusion I would like to point out Holderman’s observation of how the play effects the Irish people be it Maud Gonne, Yeats or the other common folk. Though the slight appraisal or a nebulous critique and criticism exist, one cannot deny the fact that the play serves as a tool for the embodiment of the ‘Irish National Consciousness’ and with its very first performance in the Irish Literary Theatre, it had to go for a long run. Holderman very minutely points out that:

The resulting play [The Countess Cathleen] offers her [Maud Gonne] – and Ireland – both tribute and instruction. To Ireland, it presents an anti-materialist, nationalist fable celebrating the native spiritual traditions that Yeats portrays as the nation’s best defense against demons appearing in the guise of mercenary foreigners. At the same time, by stressing Cathleen’s dual allegiance to her Christian servant, Oona, and the pagan poet, Aleel, it imagines Irish spirituality as including both orthodox and unorthodox elements, an implication that provoked controversy when it reached the stage in 1899. To Gonne, it offers the flattery of its unstated comparison between her own selfless efforts and those of the noble Cathleen. (Holderman 13)


  1. See the Letters to the New Island. Ed. George Bornstein and Hugh Witemeyer. London and New York: Macmillan, 1989.
  2. Written at Coole in the summer of 1897, the signatories, in Lady Gregory’s hand, were Yeats, Standish O’Grady, Edward Martyn, George Moore, and William Sharp (for whose sake the word “Celtic” was added, though his plays were never acted by the Irish theatre).
  3. See the poem “The Circus Animals’ Desertion” (1939) Lines 17-24 in his Last Poems, The Collected Poems by W.B. Yeats
  4. Yeats, W. B. Memoirs. Edited by Denis Donoghue. New York: Macmillan Company, 1973. P. 41
  5. Yeats, W. B. The Collected Letters of W. B. Yeats. Vol. 1. Ed. John Kelly and Eric Domville. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986. P. 142
  6. Joseph Holloway, unpublished journal, “Impressions of a Dublin Playgoer,” this entry included but mistranscribed in Joseph Holloway’s Abbey Theatre: A Selection from his Unpublished Journal, ed. Robert Hogan and Michael J. O’Neill. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1967. P.6

Works Cited:

Boyce, D. George. Nationalism in Ireland. 1st Pub 1982, 3rd Ed. 1995, London and New York: Routledge, 2004. Print

Frazier, Adrian. The Making of Meaning: Yeats and “The Countess Cathleen”. The Sewanee Review Vol. 95, No. 3 (Summer, 1987): pp. 451-469. The Johns Hopkins University Press, JSTOR Web accessed on 09-07-2015 09:00

Hassett, Joseph M. W.B. Yeats and The Muses. Oxford: OUP, 2012. Print

Holderman, David. The Cambridge Introduction to W. B. Yeats. Cambridge: CUP, 2006. Print

Howes, Marjorie and John Kelly, eds. The Cambridge Companion to W.B. Yeats. Cambridge: CUP, 2006. Print

Ross, David A. Critical Companion To William Butler Yeats: A Literary Reference to His Life and Work. New York: Facts on File, 1st Ed. 2009. Web e-book

Schuchard, Ronald. The Last Minstrels: Yeats and the Revival of the Bardic Arts. Oxford: OUP, 2008. Print

Yeats, William Bulter. The Countess Cathleen. [EBook 5167]. Project Gutenberg : Release Date: March 26, 2009 of original 7th ed. revised of 1912. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/5167/5167-h/5167-h.htm. Web

Mir Ahammad Ali is an independent researcher, formerly Research Assistant in a UGC Major Research Project at the Vidyasagar University, Department of English and also the Copy editor of Rupkatha Journal on Interdisciplinary Studies in Humanities.

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