Mythology in Irish Drama and its impact on Cultural Identity

Mythology is a collection of beliefs and ideologies wrapped into stories which are passed down and studied from one generation to another and help to shape our morals and identity on both an individual and cultural level. In Irish performance pieces we find the influence of mythology which offer us a glimpse into the Irish cultural identity. Throughout the history of Ireland, performance pieces have been influenced by many different kinds of mythology from the traditional Celtic gods to Christianity to mythical figures such as Cathleen ni Houlihan. None of these are portrayed in quite the same way, nor do they have the same influence on Irish cultural identity.

By viewing which mythologies are portrayed in Irish performance pieces and how they are shown we can learn just how they relate to Irish cultural identity. Mythology which is more visible in a piece would seem to have a larger impact on cultural identity and be more important to Ireland, while those that are hidden may have simply become tales which are passed down. This change in values and pride towards mythologies can help shed light into the evolution of the Irish cultural identity. It also offers a glimpse into how tales can go from important and part of everyday society to a tradition of passing down a story.

We care about the impact of mythology on Irish cultural identity, because mythology is a set of beliefs and ideologies. They are tales and songs which explain how the world came to be, why things are the way they are, how we should live and act, and about the glorious adventures of past heroes. Nations are described and viewed by the heroes that they worship and the tales they tell. As time passes mythologies change, new stories enter the mix and old ones leave. This shows us how the identity of a culture can evolve and change. One of the most important things about identity is the past and mythologies are a past which people use to guide their actions and beliefs.

Through performance pieces written by woman and those that look at female characters we can learn about the worldview woman take in relation to the Irish cultural identity. This is an important facet of the discussion because when analyzing the views of a society we must understand the bias that comes with that view. In this case the bias is produced by the perspective of the female author or character, this doesn’t make anything wrong but rather further enriches the glimpse we get into how cultural identity is influenced by mythology. Everyone takes different things from mythology based upon the culture they grow up in and how they are taught, so we can learn about Irish cultural identity not only through the way mythology is shown but also through how the woman experience and portray the mythology.

I will be looking at different performance pieces such as Cathleen ni Houlihan, Shan Van Vocht, Eclipsed, Stones in his Pockets, Dancing in Lughnasa, Juno and the Peacock, and the film Micheal Collins. Each of these pieces offers a different view into mythology and the cultural identity of the Irish. Cathleen ni Houlihan and Shan Van Vocht are both about the mythological figure that is the representation of Ireland; however, they both portray her in very different ways. This says a lot about the cultural identity of the time periods in which the pieces were written and further more is reflective of how woman were viewed and treated in Ireland. In the pieces Stones in his Pockets and Micheal Collins there are some hidden bits of mythology that we can find within conversations, poetry, and songs presented through the works. Both allow us to see the cultural pride of Irish in there desire to keep tradition alive. For plays like Dancing in Lughnasa and Juno and the Peacock the most important piece is the title. Each title holds the significance of some mythology and the goal is to find the hidden influences of it through the story and how it impacts both the characters and Irish culture. And through Eclipsed we can challenge the view of prominent religious mythologies that were used as justification for changing the culture Ireland from time to time.

Each of these performance pieces were written by woman or portray female characters that we can investigate. We can learn how they are influenced and interact with the different mythologies present in each of the pieces. And when we have pulled some ideas about Irish cultural identity from these works we can look to see not only how this identity might have evolved through the ages but what they all have in common. It is not good enough to look at a small part of the Irish identity or a snapshot of it, we need to see if we can fit together a more wholistic view. Though in this case that view might be effected by the female lens we are using to discover the Irish cultural identity.

Through these different performance pieces, the mythology they show, and the perspective of the female authors and characters we can build a picture of the cultural identity of the Irish, the ideologies they believe in, and the worldview that Irish woman share. The form this project would take is a 30 page paper as this is set to be an analysis and direction of other performance pieces. This would be the proper method of production as writing a performance piece would be used to practice and show the use of the techniques but this project is meant to discover and find the techniques not put them into practice.

5 thoughts on “Mythology in Irish Drama and its impact on Cultural Identity

  1. Carolyn Harnois

    In my Class, Gods Ghosts and Ancestors, we learned about the cultural identity of people who live in China. Specifically, we talked about some of the minority groups of which are technically still Chinese people but have descents from other Asian or European countries. Dance performances seem like a very significant part of Irish history and possibly is what defines a part of their culture. I see that as being similar to religion in Chinese culture. It is an integral part and has long-standing traditions that are ever changing. Religion of these minority groups is what differs some of these minority groups and from your abstract, it seems like different dances define some of the culture aspects of Ireland. I know the Chinese have some sort of dancing but I wonder if that could also tie into their religion and culture too?

  2. Marlena Hanne

    I completely see your point that written mythology, in plays but also in short stories or movies, can be used to look at the values of the corresponding culture. You’ve illustrated that very well, and I’ve also seen it displayed myself when looking at Tales from a Chinese Studio, traditional ghost stories which highlight cultural values such as the hierarchy of family.

    However, I also think it is fascinating to look at it the other way around, and see how culture can impact and explain the mythology of a culture. For instance, most of the gods in both Daoist and Folk religion in China exist in a hierarchy, where the gods are clearly connected in a bureaucracy. One of the things we discussed in class was that this is due to the cultural value of Confucianism in China. I wonder where this same phenomenon can be seen in the plays you’ve looked at.

  3. Brian Zhang

    Passing down the beliefs and ideology is important for every cultural group around the world. It servers as a memorial to the past and preserves the culture. I took a look at Shamans within ethnic minority groups in China and argued that one of their roles is to continue passing down the traditions of old or else they may be forgotten. One group I looked at, held a festival every year in remembrance of the old legends, could be considered myths to some, from their tribe. There would be performances of historical events or battles and even dances that contain symbols and references to those events. That festival is an easy way to spread information about their culture to a wide number of audiences. Just like how these Irish plays can tell a lot about the Irish identity.

  4. Maggie Bean

    Wow, this seems like an awesome and ambitious project (30 pages!). This connects to what I studied, women and Confucianism, in that both of our projects focused on meaning making systems, in my case a religion, in yours mythology, and the role of women in shaping these narratives. When you said that these myths exist to explain “…how the world came to be, why things are the way they are, how we should live and act” that rung true in also how Confucianism in China is utilized. I also think it’s important to study how gender influences these meaning making systems, and how a woman’s interpretation may differ from the traditional (mans) view. As women are able to take more of an active role in telling their own stories, I wonder how these systems will be influenced.

  5. Emily Coffin

    I really enjoyed reading this piece as I felt it connected to my own research. It is amazing the sort of impact that stories can hold on a culture and how influential they can be. I researched ancient ghost stories passed down for generations, beginning in ancient China. These stories hold meaning and traditions, and are passed down to teach values to the coming generations. The tales I researched have an interesting influence on the women of the story, which can be reflected in cultural practices. I find something interesting to examine is that the culture changes and develops different stories, and the stories come to influence the culture itself. There becomes a difference between our two cultures telling stories, in that women are writing and influencing your research. Men are usually highly more benefiting from situations in ancient Chinese stories.


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