Caitríona McLaughlin’s version of Brian Friel’s seminal play Translations is coming to Ireland’s national theatre, the Abbey, this summer. Her striking adaption shows how Friel’s masterpiece is as relevant today as it was when it was first performed in 1980.
Translations takes place in a hedge school in Baile Beag (Irish for small town), a fictionalised village in County Donegal, in 1833. Hedge schools – named after their ad-hoc, informal locations – sprung up in the early 18th century in response to the penal laws which banned Catholic schools. Here, Hugh and his son Manus teach a variety of subjects, including Latin and Greek classics, to their Irish-speaking students.
The British Royal Engineers have arrived to complete the first Ordnance Survey of Ireland and are accompanied by Hugh’s other son, Owen, who acts as their translator. They are somewhat misleadingly referred to as “English soldiers” throughout the play, but the majority of those working on the survey were not soldiers but civilians.
The Ordnance Survey of Ireland involved making a map of local place names and, in the process, often replacing these Irish names with English language ones. This anglicisation usually involved a flattening of dinnseanchas – the lore or stories behind these Irish place names.
In the play, for example, Bun na hAbhann, or mouth of the river, from the Irish for bottom (bun) and river (Abha) is simply translated to “Burnfoot”. It was an erasure of history and an attack on indigenous Irish culture.
Crucially, and in a genius act of theatrical imagination, Friel’s play is written and performed in English. There is an astonishing power to this theatrical device. Listening in English, the audience becomes actively complicit in this act of linguistic violence.
Debates about the Irish language are as topical now as they were in the 1830s. In Northern Ireland, nationalists have long campaigned for official recognition of the Irish language in a legal act – Acht Gaeilge. Despite the flourishing popularity of the language with Protestants and Catholics alike, this Act has faced strong opposition from some unionists. Finally, in 2022, a bill is working its way through parliament to become enshrined in law.
Field Day Theatre Co
Translations premiered in 1980 at the Guildhall in Derry during the height of the Northern Ireland conflict known as “the Troubles”. The decision to stage a play about English soldiers and Ireland was undoubtedly political even if the drama was set 150 years previously.
Friel’s widow, Anne Morrison, recalls helicopters circling over the Guildhall and audience members being searched. The play premiered to a packed audience of politicians, writers and activists.
The play was the first production of the Derry-based Field Day Theatre Company, founded by Friel and the actor Stephen Rea, who played Owen in this first production. Field Day’s founding mission was to be a “cultural and intellectual response to the political crisis in Northern Ireland”, seeking to create art that would transcend division.
Friel and Rea would later be joined by the Irish writers and academics Seamus Heaney, Seamus Deane, David Hammond and Tom Paulin. Field Day would go on to publish pamphlets and anthologies, not always without controversy.
Friel’s play also contains one of the best love scenes in modern theatre. Irish-speaking Máire and English-speaking George find themselves impossibly drawn to one another, even though Máire is already involved with another man and George is an English soldier.
Unable to comprehend the other’s language, the lovers converse in place names and gestures, unknowingly repeating what the other is saying.
It is a funny, tender, romantic scene, undercut by the danger that both will face if they are caught. One of the characters in the play will later ask:
“Do you know the Greek word endogamein? It means to marry within the tribe. And the word exogamein means to marry outside the tribe. And you do not cross those borders casually – both sides get very angry.”
Audiences of the original production would have been acutely aware of the risks involved in exogamous relationships in Northern Ireland at the time. My own research looks at such relationships and “mixed marriages” between Catholics and Protestants in Ireland. People who entered into such romances could face extremely hostile and, on occasion, violent reactions. Some women were tarred and feathered for having relationships with soldiers, according to reports from the 1970s.
Translations recently enjoyed a major production at another national theatre. In 2018 and 2019, Ian Rickson directed an all-star cast at the National Theatre in London. This version ended with a stage set involving a rifle-wielding soldier in a contemporary uniform, surrounded by barbed wire. In echoing any number of famous images of the Northern Ireland conflict, it was a heavy-handed reminder of the violent legacy of the British in Ireland.
The promise of an Irish Language Act has been a long time coming. In 2006, the British and Irish governments, and the major political parties in Northern Ireland negotiated the St Andrews Agreement which promised to introduce an Irish Language Act, Acht Gaeilge. This would protect the status of the language and ensure continued investment in its future.
When Translations opened at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast in April – 16 years after this agreement – the promised act had still not been delivered. Though finally introduced the following month in May, the bill still has a long way to go before it is put into practice.
Friel was famously sceptical of directors but, having seen the play in Belfast, I can attest that McLaughlin’s version – physical, playful and very funny – is a wonderful theatrical treat.
I love Hugh’s explanation of how important it is that we connect with culture and history through words and stories. Hugh reminds us “it is not the literal past, the facts of history, that shape us, but images of the past embodied in language”.
Friel’s elegy for a lost world is a truly resonant “image of the past” but it is his peerless use of language that makes Translations sing. And this language – spoken English ghosted by silenced Irish – will haunt you long after you leave the theatre.
Alison Garden is a UKRI Future Leaders Fellow, School of Arts, English and Languages at the Queen’s University Belfast.
This article first appeared on The Conversation.