“In using what I considered traditional symbols,” W. B. Yeats observed ruefully toward the end of his life, “I forgot that in Ireland they are not symbols but realities.”1 Culture in these circumstances cannot be reduced to an esthetic pursuit at one remove from reality; it is a material force in its own right, as its role in turn-of-the-century Irish nationalism attests. Indeed the later Yeats was tormented by the thought that some of his plays might have contributed to the violence of the Irish War of Independence, of 1916–22. He may have had in mind not just his incendiary Cathleen ni Houlihan, of 1902, but his less-known The King’s Threshold, staged a year later, which introduced hunger-striking into Irish politics as a form of symbolic resistance.2

Drawing on Irish legend, The King’s Threshold describes a struggle between Guaire, a seventh-century king of Connacht renowned for his

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