Background to Brian Friel’s ‘Translations’

I have just started work on Book 6 in the A* Way Series of study guides for advanced literary studies. One of my favourite plays is Brian Friel’s ‘Translations‘, and it will be the focus of study guide 6. What follows is some information to flesh out the background to Brian Friel’s ‘Translations’ to set the play’s concerns into context.

BACKGROUND to Brian Friel’s ‘Translations’ Part 1

Translations was first performed in 1980 in Derry, Northern Ireland. It was the first play to be put on by the new Field Day Theatre Company started by Brian Friel (playwright), Stephen Rea (actor), Seamus Heaney (poet), Seamus Deane (writer), Tom Kilroy and Tom Paulin – three Catholics and three Protestants – in an attempt to revive and revitalise an Irish culture almost in danger of being obliterated by the colonial past, the current deadly political situation in Northern Ireland and by the Republic of Ireland’s isolationist and conservative policies under the leadership of Eamon de Valera and his Fienna Fail government (1932 – 1973 – with only one break in power when his party was voted out [1948-1954]). The play’s reception by the largely Irish audience in the Derry Theatre in 1980 was nothing short of jubilant.

The play’s title takes the plural form, Translations, which suggests that Friel intended the play to explore a range of consequences and effects flowing from these acts of ‘translation’. In other words, Friel explores what happened during the process of translating Ireland and its people into a ‘satellite’ of England – its language, culture, religion, and all. In this way, Friel is able to draw attention to the many ‘translations’ that occur when a nation’s language is replaced by the language of a colonial power and its place names, which embody a wealth of local history and experience and form an integral part of an individual and a community’s sense of place and belonging, are replaced by bald translations into the imposed language.These changes affect a people’s identity both as a nation and as individuals; it brings about changes to their culture which is inextricably intertwined with its language, history, mythology and religion.

The play Translations centres on the loss of the Irish language and the ramifications of that loss. In fact, the anglicising of place names took place over centuries, but its pace and thoroughness increased in the 19th century and onwards.

In 1830:

Ireland’s population stood at 8 million:

  •  2 million spoke only Gaelic with no English
  •  2 million were bilingual

Thus half the population spoke Irish.

In 1911, only eighty years later immediately before independence from British direct rule, i.e. at the introduction of Home Rule.

  •   13.3% spoke Irish
  •   3% spoke only Irish

Therefore, over the course of a century, Ireland became largely anglicised and in many areas the Irish language almost died out as a living communal language.

A hedge school for Background to Brian Friel's Translations

Many factors contributed to the loss of Irish over a long period:

  • Colonial economic and legal systems
  • Industrialisation and urbanisation
  • The decision by the Catholic Church to use English as its ecclesiastical language
  • The extension of the British state into Ireland with the Act of Union 1800
  • National schools and their policies of compulsory school attendance and instructing only in English – speaking Irish was prohibited in schools.
  • British Ordnance Survey with its mapping and its policy to ‘standardise’ place names.

Translations focuses on two cultural factors in this process of Anglicisation:

  1. The introduction of state-sponsored, English-language based education system for Irish children by means of the National Schools in 1831 to replace the illegal Hedge School system where Irish was the medium of instruction with the classical languages forming an integral part of the syllabus. The Hedge Schools were the Irish people’s response to Britain’s attempt to keep their children ignorant and uneducated by the banning of Irish schools. Adults also attended these underground (secret) hedge schools.
  2. The ‘standardising’ of Irish place names through the Ordnance Survey starting in 1824.

I will discuss these two factors in more detail in Part 2 of this article (forthcoming).

Follow the link to buy a copy of Friel’s Translations.