By Ellyn Willis
Ireland had been under English control for
about 400 years when Yeats was writing, and
in that time the British had been importing
their own culture, language, and politics.
British rule was so invasive that the daily lives
of the Irish were effected, not only the general
Loss of Gaelic language
Loss of old traditions, political structures, and myths
Traditionally in Irish culture, the poet was
often believed to be a protector of the
community; as late as 1539, there were pacts
between chieftains with poets acting as
guarantors on the same level of significance as
If one man reneged on his promise, the archbishop
promised to excommunicate him, whereas if the
other reneged, 3 established poets agreed to
publically satirize him.
This information is gathered from Daithi O’ Hogain’s The Hero in
Irish Folk History
By thinking of Ireland as part of the 3rd World,
Yeats becomes part of a body of antiimperialist authors in the 19-20th centuries.
Said suggests that Yeats’ work is literature from an
anti-imperialist resistance, developed out of a desire
to distance the native Irish individual from British
Said’s redefinition of “nationalism”: resistance
against an alien & occupying empire on the part of
peoples possessing a common history, religion, and
In his book Inventing Ireland, Declan Kiberd
suggests that a resistance writer learns from the
occupier that society around him may be no
more than the institutional inferences drawn
from an approved set of texts.
Irish writers were imitating English traditions
to sell books.
Yeats, as a resistance writer, is attempting to
recreate Ireland, but has little authentic
tradition to go on, as Ireland had been
occupied by outside forces for so long.
Presents the idea that the Europeans tried to
make their colonies look like home by
importing everything from building methods
and political systems to plants and animals.
This practice alienates the natives from their
authentic tradition, ways of life, and political
Reaction? Natives begin myth-making
retrospectively, reclaiming the land in a state
that antedates imperialism.
Yeats was driven by a need to recover the
landscape of Ireland, which he must begin through
imagination because of the British presence: he
began by reviving Celtic myth
In his early works, Yeats tries to revive Irish myths in a
“pure” form, pulling strongly on figures from Celtic
mythology in poems such as “The Hosting of the Sidhe”
This recreation is difficult, as Ireland never had a
chance to define itself in modern terms
independent from outside control:
Names of figures and myths have become Anglicized,
even within the myths themselves.
Aengus/Aonghus Og—beautiful love god who fell in
love with Caer Ibormeith, who lived in the shape of a
swan on a lake with 150 other swans until Sowain
He had to identify her correctly before he could claim & free
her, much like the Irish had to identify themselves correctly
before they could claim freedom.
Fergus—King of Ulster; he made a deal with his
brother’s widow, Nessa, that her son, Conchobar,
could rule for one year in exchange for her hand in
marriage. At the end of the term, he found himself
betrayed, and eventually exiled.
Like the Irish, Fergus has lost control of his country. The Irish
had a similar promise from the English, who promised to
reinstate self-rule, but kept postponing when.
Cuchulainn—single-handedly defended home
against invading forcers; was also a tragic
figure, because he is constantly in love with
women (several of whom he loses), is forced to
kill his son as well as his best friend.
Seamus Deane suggests in Celtic Revivals that the
limitless troubles of Cuchulainn are equal to the
endless, meaningless recurrences in the Irish
resurrection that anger Yeats
 In poems such as “Easter, 1916”, “September 1913”, and
“Nineteen Hundred Nineteen” Yeats shows his
frustration with the wasteful acts of his countrymen.
Niamh—marries Conganchas MacDaire, a warrior
whom no one can slay, and then reveals his
weakness to her father so that he may slay him.
She then marries Conchobar Mac Nessa, son of the
woman who betrayed Fergus.
This reference to Niamh shows later in Yeats’ work, after
he has seen Maud Gonne incite so many men to battle
and wasteful death.
Niamh & Oisin—goddess of the Otherworld, who
enticed Oisin into living with her for 300 years
(although he believed only 3 weeks had passed).
Perhaps meant to show Ireland’s situation, stuck for an
infinite amount of time in someone else’s control because
of deciet.
Sidhe—dwelling place of De Danaan after their
defeat by the Milesians. The De Danaan were
ancient gods, driven underground and
minimized in memory to fairies.
The ancient gods of Ireland were minimized in
power, just as Yeats’ Ireland had lost its land to the
The imperialist’s ideology maintained that the
process was a result of “natural” fertility and
infertility, geographical advantages, and climates,
making it second nature to colonize the weaker.
The anti-imperialists believed this made third
nature necessary, one that builds on history and
reinvents the nation’s self, instead of trying to
retrospectively revert back to practices and beliefs
that antedate colonization.
This requires new heroes, myths, and religions, as well as
a resurrection of the native languages.
Yeats evolved from simply trying to revive
Celtic myths to inventing some of his own,
discovering that his previous vision of Ireland
was not meshing with reality.
To this end, Yeats begins introducing characters such
as Hanrahan , who he placed in the center in many
myths of his own creation, such as “The Book of the
Great Dhoul and Hanrahan” and “Red Hanrahan’s
In his later works, Yeats shifts to an
overwhelmingly classical myth base.
Generally the myths he references are moments
of violence that lead to great change, usually
for the worse. Most frequent among these are:
Leda and the Swan
Also shifts his focus to Byzantium, as opposed
to Sligo, his boyhood home.
Yeats’ mythological references within his work
shift chronologically from trying to recreate purely
Irish myth, to creating new myths and pulling on
classical myths to support, to a focus on purely
classical myth.
I believe this process is a result of his
disillusionment following the Irish unwillingness
to revive old tradition, tendency towards violent
uprising, and the Great War. The Ireland of his
imagination simply was not meshing with reality,
causing his shift to a new myth (Byzantium) that
he could not be proven wrong about.
Crosby, Alfred. Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900. New
York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
Deane, Seamus. Celtic Revivals. New York: Wake Forest University Press, 1987.
Ellis, Peter Berresford. Dicionary of Celtic Mythology. Santa Barbara: ABC-Clio, 1992.
Hogain, Daithi O'. The Hero in Irish Fold History. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1985.
Kiberd, Declan. Inventing Ireland. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995.
Said, Edward W. "Yeats and Decolonization." Eagleton, Terry, Fredric Jameson and Edward W.
Said. Nationalism, Colonialism, and Literature. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press,
1990. 69-98.
Smith, Neil. Uneven Development: Nature, Capital, and the Production of Space. Athens: The
University of Georgia Press, 1990.

W.B. Yeats and Celtic Mythology