Notes from the Dramaturg
“It is not the literal past, the ‘facts’ of history, that shape us, but images of the past embodied in language.” –Translations
There is no “sweet smell” in the air warning of a rotting potato crop. The repeal of the Penal Laws gives some relief from English political pressure. All is as usual for the residents of Baile Beag in August of 1833, aside from a little ordinance survey being conducted by a few Englishman soldiers with the help of a beloved local. Brian Friel set the fictional town of Baile Beag in the very real County Donegal in the northwest of Ireland. In the early 19th century, the residents of the area were not rich. Their diet consisted primarily of potatoes and milk, with an occasional treat of salmon or bacon. They survived on a subsistence level, mostly without traditional jobs, usually farming, hunting, or fishing. Their currency had been the Irish pound, or punt, worth slightly more than the British pound, but the country was forced to switch to British currency in 1826.
Born in 1929, Friel came into the world just years after the Republic of Ireland gained independence from the United Kingdom. The son of a schoolteacher and a postmistress, he grew up in the border town of Derry, the second-largest city in the newly formed state of Northern Ireland. His plays reflect his upbringing, with many plots revolving around questions of language, emigration, and the Irish identity. His spirited, sometimes humorous dialogue distinguish his distinctly Irish writing, as does the tendency of his stories to create huge change through small, seemingly unremarkable events. Some of his characters may at first seem to be caricatures, but ultimately they represent rich pieces of Irish cultural and political life. Hugh initially appears to be the “stage Irishman,” a convention of English theatre portraying an Irish character as an out-of-touch drunk; Hugh however reveals himself to have great insight beyond what the stereotype would suggest. His knowledge of the classics and his ability to make lucid connections between Ireland and fallen empires belie and overshadow his drunkenness.
Despite Friel’s insistence on not being known as a political playwright, his work proves that he could not ignore his origins and the contentious history of Anglo- Irish relations. The conflict is ancient, reaching back as far as five centuries prior to Translations, when Henry VIII decided to name himself King of Ireland, which e English Parliament supported with the Crown of Ireland Act in 1542. From 1695 until the 1730s, the Irish were under the rule of the Penal Codes, a set of laws designed to force them to abandon their cultural identity. Irish Catholics were not allowed to attend school, practice their religion, hold public office; lease, buy, or inherit land; become the guardian of a child, vote, or bear arms for self-protection. In reaction, the Irish set up secret schools known as “hedge schools,” literally located in hedges, caves, or other secluded spaces, in order to maintain their culture. It was here that Irish schoolteachers taught Irish children and adults. This type of education included not only basics like reading, writing, and mathematics but also everything not found in mainstream English education. This included Irish Gaelic language, Irish myths, local laws, cultural wisdom, and sometimes classical texts and languages. As Hugh says, “It can happen that a civilisation can be imprisoned in a linguistic contour which no longer matches the landscape of . . . fact.” These schools were forced to close down when national English schools opened across Ireland.
With the Act of Union in 1800, Ireland was absorbed into the newly created United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. This unification was accompanied by the destruction of the Irish Parliament, effectively disenfranchising the Irish people. At this point, some Irish Catholics came to be known as “Nationalists,” wanting to make Ireland a sovereign state. The mostly Protestant “Unionists” supported a permanent link between England and Ireland. After centuries of oppression resulting in decades of violent conflict that took the lives of thousands of Irish and English citizens, the Republic of Ireland gained sovereignty in 1922. But even today, the six counties known as Northern Ireland remain part of the United Kingdom.