Date of Award


Document Type

Union College Only

Degree Name

Bachelor of Arts






irish, woman, female, aisling, century


I trace the progressive revision of the traditional symbol of “woman” in Irish literature throughout the twentieth century, in which the influence of the patriarchal domination of the Catholic Church exemplifies its crucial role in defining Irish identity. The centuries old aisling figure, or the personification of Ireland through the depiction of “woman,” held a specific purpose for political action in the Irish revival, which began with the twentieth century. W.B. Yeats solidified the traditional technique of aisling in his 1902 play “Cathleen ni Houlihan”; in fact, his portrayal is universally accepted. However, the mid-twentieth century marks a transition in Irish literature when female writers visibly responded to Yeats’ representation to depict a more complete female experience. Kate O’Brien’s 1948 novel The Land of Spices illustrates the exclusively female experience of the convent, which she suggests is imperative for asserting feminine identity. Likewise, contemporary novelist Jennifer Johnston examines the intricacies of three generations of mother-daughter relationships in her 1998 novel Two Moons. Modern poet Eavan Boland writes directly in response to Yeats’ portrayal of aisling in her 1998 collection of poems The Lost Land. Stepping beyond the “idealized icon,” she explores the implications of motherhood, and her connection as a woman to the Irish nation. Employing feminist critiques, I illustrate how the evolution of the role of female writers and the portrayal of woman shapes the identity of Irish women. Within the Irish literary tradition, the idea of woman has transformed from a passive symbol to an active voice.