Brian Friel, “Translations”

For the sake of having some content here until I have time to make in-depth posts again, here is a paper I wrote for my Irish literature class this semester on Brian Friel’s play Translations. Friel is a Northern Irish nationalist, mostly known as a playwright, whose work here takes on the loss of the Irish language and the resulting challenge to express a real Irish identity in the language of the conqueror. Though it is set in an Irish-speaking community in County Donegal (known by some as the “federally administered tribal areas” today) in the early 19th century, the play except for place names is entirely in English.

“Well, if it comes to that, Irish is not my language,” says Gabriel Conroy, the protagonist of James Joyce’s story The Dead, to a young nationalist asking him why he chooses to study the languages of continental Europe over his own, Irish Gaelic. This brief episode of the story, delivered in a deadpan manner, is fraught with political tension. Who, really, are the Irish? According to the Gaelic Leagues of the early 20th century, one could not really be Irish without speaking Irish. And yet, the independence of Ireland instead of bringing a revival in Irish saw its continued decline into the isolation of a handful of rural Gaeltachts and the urban enclaves of cultural nationalists, while the most famous writers of Ireland, from Joyce to Sean O’Casey and Seamus Heaney, have written their works in English. Brian Friel’s play Translations, set at the time when English was becoming the dominant language of Ireland, takes up all these issues. Using historical metaphor, Friel at once writes an elegant epitaph for Irish as a cultural medium and reflects on of what it means to be Irish while speaking English.

Translations takes place in 1833. This context is appropriate because it marks the beginning of more active intervention into Ireland by Britain. The early decades of the 19th century saw the tide turn against Irish language in Ireland. Already English was spoken in major cities such as Dublin, and the potato blight and mass emigration would combine to reduce the proportion of Irish speakers to about a quarter of Ireland’s population by the end of the century. The decline of Irish was spurred on further by economic modernization under English domination and the national educational system, whose origins are hinted at in the play. As for why the Irish chose to accept a language which was being forced on them by the colonizer instead of preserving their own, the character Maire expresses succinctly the reasons for learning English in Act One: “I don’t want Greek. I don’t want Latin. I want English… I want to be able to speak English because I’m going to America as soon as the harvest’s all saved” (25). It is hard to argue with the desire of the 19th century Irish peasant to learn English, as it was the only way for basic economic advancement, and in many cases, survival. At the same time, Friel’s choice to set the play in County Donegal brings to mind a more recent past – the ongoing occupation of Northern Ireland by Great Britain, in which the Catholic population continues to suffer economic, political and cultural colonization by the Protestant majority and British government. The threatened eviction of the inhabitants of Baile Beag that happens at the end of the play, therefore, might seem very real to the Catholics who live there still. The tension between the need to learn the language of the colonizer and the desire to preserve one’s heritage is the central dilemma of Translations.

The play is, appropriately enough, set at a school. While some historians have accused Friel of mythologizing the Irish hedge school, his use of it in the play allows him to embrace the full range of Irish education of the early 19th century, giving the audience a limited idea of what it meant to be Irish then. The hedge school is the place where all education is conducted, from the simplest things, such as Manus teaching the dumb Sarah Johnny Sally to say her name, to Jimmy Jack’s constant poring over Homer in the original Greek. In the town of Baile Beag, students learn in Irish, and they learn the languages and cultures of classical antiquity. Those who do know English only use it, to quote Hugh, the master of the school, “outside the parish… and then usually for the purposes of commerce, a use to which [English] is particularly suited” (23). What is the significance of the Irish language and literature to the inhabitants of Baile Beag? Hugh expresses it to the British surveyor, Lieutenant Yolland, in this half-joking way:

A rich language. A rich literature… full of the mythologies of fantasy and hope and self-deception – a syntax opulent with tomorrows. It is our response to mud cabins and a diet of potatoes; our only method of replying to… inevitabilities. (50-51)

Thus, the colonial encounter between the English and Irish takes on large proportions in the cultural realm. From the point of view of the English surveyors, the cultural space of the Irish seems to be inaccessible. Yolland tells his Irish assistant, Owen, for instance, “Even if I did speak Irish I’d always be an outsider here… I may learn the password but the language of the tribe will always elude me” (48). Similarly, the inhabitants of Baile Beag, the English seem strange and distant. Hugh reflects that English succeeds in making Latin verse sound “plebian,” and remarks that the Irish are not familiar with English literature, feeling “closer to the warm Mediterranean” (50). Maire, for all her love of things English, also reflects that even the English place-names Yolland tells her “don’t make no sense to me at all” (78).

The drama revolves around contact between the people of Baile Beag and colonizing soldiers, who enter the town to conduct a survey that will “standardize” the place names, meaning, to Anglicize them, either by changing the sounds to approximate those of English – for example, Cnoc Ban to “Knockban,” or by translating them directly – in this case, Cnoc Ban would become “Fair Hill” (38). Although the villagers welcome the soldiers at first, most of the characters soon become aware of the sinister aspects of this task. As Manus, the son of Hugh and his assistant at the hedge school, tells his brother Owen, “it’s a bloody military operation” (36). The task of giving new names to the places of Baile Beag stands in for the full colonization of Irish life, covering over the previously existing Irish cultural map with the signifiers and signified of the English language in order to make “a new England called Ireland,” to use Declan Kiberd’s phrase. Owen, who has been assisting in the colonization of his own country, draws out the implications:

Lis na Muc, the Fort of the Pigs, has now become Swinefort… And to get to Swinefort you pass through Greencastle and Fair Head and Standhill and Gort and Whiteplains. And the new school isn’t at Poll na gCaorach – it’s at Sheepsrock. Will you be able to find your way? (51)

The loss of the Irish language reflected in this play is a huge loss for civilization, and for none more so than the Irish themselves. However, Friel’s play also carries an implicit critique of the modern-day use of Irish. If today the vast majority of Irish do not speak Irish, what significance does the quest to preserve or extend it really have? In Translations different characters engage in this discussion, with many points made on both sides. The most obvious is Jimmy Jack, who while marginal to the action for the most part is important especially in this respect. Called “the infant prodigy” by the hedge school students, Jimmy is anything but – he is in his sixties, does not wash himself, and spends most of his time reading the Greek and Latin classics. His fellow students regard his devotion to the literature of antiquity with bemusement, and he is treated as a buffoon. His infatuation with antiquity, which ends in a literal desire to marry Pallas Athene, serves in the play as a metaphor for a certain kind of cultural nationalist who continues to use Irish long after it has ceased to be relevant to the Irish themselves. By speaking Irish, and reveling in the glories of Ireland that was, they make themselves as irrelevant to modern Irish life as Jimmy Jack with his Greek, whose only response to the English army’s incursion into Baile Beag is to shout “Thermopylae! Thermopylae!” (74). The idea seems to be that trying to preserve Irish as a way to evoke the past before colonization is a futile endeavor, and is inadequate for the need of the Irish for a cultural identity. Besides ,one suspects that in any case, the glories of Celtic civilization might never have existed quite in the form one reads in books, much like life in ancient Greece and Rome could not be judged by reading the Odyssey or the Aeneid.

The final question that the play poses is a simple one. Can Irish civilization and culture survive after colonization, after the loss of Irish as a medium and the enforcement of English norms? Friel seems to believe that it does, and his answer is implied in a remark of Hugh from Act Two:

Remember that words are signals, counters. They are not immortal. And it can happen – to use an image you’ll understand – it can happen that a civilization can be imprisoned in a linguistic contour which no longer matches the landscape of… fact. (52)

One of the many tragedies perpetrated by the English colonization of Ireland is that the words of Irish no longer match “the landscape of fact,” an act which the play shows us happening very literally. However, to use the words of Hugh once again, Friel is arguing precisely against allowing Irish civilization to be imprisoned in the linguistic contour it once had. Hugh, drunk and distraught at the end of the play, sees the necessary step one must take to prevent this: “We must learn these new names… We must learn where we live. We must learn to make them our own. We must make them our new home” (88). For the Irish, to accept the new place names as their home and to “learn to make them their own” is to ask them to carry on their civilization, in a language that was imposed on them by force, it is true – but Friel suggests it is either this, or nothing remains to be called Irish culture.

In conclusion, the contexts and drama of Translations combine in a remarkable, sophisticated discussion of cultural decline and renewal. Brian Friel uses many characters and events that combine into a central argument: the loss of Irish as a cultural medium was a tragedy, enforced both by literal violence and the “soft power” of English cultural hegemony. However, it is equally a mistake to try and recreate the Irish past, this would be to condemn Irish civilization to death and complete the task the colonizer started. His play ends with the proposition that not only can English be used to express a uniquely Irish cultural identity, but that it must be in this manner if it is to happen at all. That Friel wrote his play in English rather than Irish is more than for the sake of convenience or comprehensibility – it is his way of participating in the task he sets out for the Irish in the very same work.

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