Drama, — March 18, 2010 9:17 — 0 Comments

Translations: Brian Friel

Newry Drama Festival opens tonight (Friday) with a real classic, Wexford’s interpretation of Brian Friel’s Translations.  Our anticipation is heightened by the realisation that Wexford Drama Group is among the best in Ireland.  Regarded by many as Brian Friel’s theatrical masterpiece, Seamus Deane described Translations as ‘a sequence of events in history which are transformed by his writing into a parable of events in the present day’.

The play was first produced in Derry in 1980. It was the first production by Field Day, a cultural arts group founded by Friel and the actor Stephen Rea, and associated with Deane, Seamus Heaney and Tom Paulin.


As Deane asserts, the play is in many respects an intelligent and enlightening metaphor for the situation in Northern Ireland. The aims of raising cultural awareness and dispelling socio-political apathy in the North were central to the objectives of the Field Day group. However despite Friel’s concerns with contemporary Ireland, the play is also an enchanting fictional account of the Irish experience of British colonialism. Our aim is to firmly place Translations within its historical context, in order to understand the representation of colonialism in the play and to facilitate further post-colonial readings.

Translations may be located both temporally and spatially to a fixed point in Irish history. The characters hail from Baile Beag, renamed with the anglicised title of Ballybeg. The action of the play occurs over a number of days towards the end of August 1833. Before delving into the play it is clear, from these most general of points, that this historical content of Translations is a period of great significance in the colonial relationship between Ireland and England.


The lifetime of Hugh and Jimmy Jack, the sixty years or so running up to 1833, bore witness to many important events in the metamorphosis of Ireland from a rural Gaelic society to a modern colonial nation. To go back another seven decades, in 1704 penal laws were enacted ‘which decreed that a Catholic could not hold any office of state, nor stand for Parliament, vote, join the army or navy, practise at the bar nor….buy land’. Thus, by 1778 a mere five per cent of the land of Ireland was owned by Catholics. The Irish people (most notably Catholics, though Protestants also) such as those portrayed in Translations suffered severe discrimination, poverty and hardship.


The French Revolution of 1789 jolted Irish political thinking into a new framework. Events in France, and later in America, coupled with grievances against British Imperialist powers inspired thoughts of an Irish Republic and a rebellion. This culminated in the Rebellion of 1798, lead by Wolfe Tone and the Society of United Irishmen, in which Hugh and Jimmy participated: ‘The road to Sligo. A spring morning. 1798. Going into battle’ . But, as these characters soon discovered, the rebellion failed resulting in large executions and the passing of the Act of Union in 1800. This piece of legislation, effective from 1 January 1801, brought Ireland under the direct rule of the British Crown.


1823 saw the rise of Daniel O’Connell (the only real person mentioned in the play), a disillusioned veteran of 1798 who founded the Catholic Association. O’Connell campaigned for better civil rights and social conditions for the Irish people, hence Maire reporting that he said, ‘We should all be learning to speak English’ . O’Connell believed that it was necessary to use the English language in order to allow Ireland to progress in a quickly modernising Western world. In 1829, due to his efforts in Parliament, the Catholic Emancipation Act came into force overturning the penal laws.


It was at this juncture, when the play takes place, that Britain began to make deeper inroads into Irish society and culture: an attempt to colonise the mind and the people as opposed to conquering land through brute force. Translations is Friel’s vehicle for representing methods central to the colonial discourse of Imperialist aspirations. In the foreground of the play the audience is presented with the British Ordnance Survey of Ireland, a process of mapping, renaming and anglicising Ireland. Running beneath the surface Friel portrays the clash between languages, and the use of education as a method of resolving the cultural and unequal relationship between colonised and coloniser.


On 21 June 1824 the Spring Rice Report was given to the British Government advocating a general survey of Ireland. J.H. Andrews has provided a detailed historical analysis of this survey in the Winter 1992/93 issue of The Irish Review titled ‘Notes for a Future Edition of Brian Friel’s Translations’. Quoting the report’s intention as ‘though not unimportant in a military point of view, recommends itself more directly as a civil measure’ Andrews wishes to deflate what he sees as Friel’s attempt to portray the Survey as an extreme act of colonialism.


Andrews does acknowledge the fictive imagination of the author, explaining his desire to discourage the ‘credulity shown by serious scholars in swallowing Translations as a record of historical truth or….probability’ . Thus he provides a series of notes to the play answering Friel’s alleged historical faux pas. For example, Andrews cites Lieutenant Yolland’s complaint ‘the maps they’ve completed can’t be printed without these names. So London screams at Lancey….’ (411) as a ‘mistake that makes the Survey seem more foreign than it was’ . Somewhat triumphant, he goes on to document that a six-inch to the mile map would have been printed in Dublin.


The twenty-nine notes in all are generally of a corrective and pedantic nature which certainly aids a close reading of the text. Yet the notes go far beyond the aim of correcting mistaken or gullible scholars. Andrews over-historicises the play blind to Friel’s metaphorical impulse for incorporating the Survey. The playwright’s concern with the imposition of a colonial framework is the issue at hand, clearly set out by Lancey’s explanation ‘a map is a representation on paper’ . No less, a representation imposed from outside and from above, from the coloniser to the colonised.


A second framework imposed from above was the National Education system and the use of the English language. In 1831 Chief Secretary Stanley introduced a system of National Education in Ireland where English was the sole medium of instruction. This was an institutional construction severely at odds to the hedge school of the opening scene.  The notion of such a place, where the pupils are required to attend by law, and shall be forced to speak in English, bewilders Jimmy, Bridget and Doalty:


And every child from every house has to go all day every day, summer or winter. That’s the law, and from the very first day you go, you’ll not hear one word of Irish spoken.  You’ll be taught to speak English and every subject will be taught through English


Maire’s desire, at the opening of the play, to speak English shall soon be enforced by law throughout the National Schools in Ireland. Where Dan O’Connell and Maire both assumed the use of English would allow progress towards their respective national and personal dreams, Hugh believes that English was simply for ‘commerce’ but that it ‘couldn’t really express us (the Irish)‘.  He realised that the use of Gaelic, of remaining true to Irish traditions was a method of resisting colonialism, ‘our only method of replying to …. inevitabilities’.

Perhaps the most ironic passage in the play appears during a conversation between Yolland and Hugh.  Hugh indulges himself the smiling position of condescending to the young soldier, dismissing William Wordsworth (and by implication English Literature):

Wordsworth?…. No I’m afraid we’re not familiar with your literature, Lieutenant. …. We tend to overlook your island. 


Poignantly, within a relatively short period of time the poetry of Wordsworth, and of the English canon, would be read and recited by the majority of children in Ireland.

Similarly (in a doubtlessly minor and unsatisfactory manner) this site bemoans the enforced misinterpretation of our local history by current bureaucratic authorities  through  the ludicrously-skewed prism of the English adventurer Bagenal.  Lip-service only is paid to the ancient language and the Cistercians and the preceding millennium of Gaelic Order.  We trust our readership can discern a parallel metaphor!



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