Brian Friel wrote his classic play in 1980, during the period of the troubles in Northern Ireland. Strangely, Friel denied that it was a play about politics, stating that it was about ‘language and only language’. Indeed it is a delightful dramatisation of the illegal hedge schools existing in Ireland throughout the 18th and 19th centuries.
The loquacious old headmaster, Hugh, is a mischievous Socrates. He plies his pupils with quotations from the Ancient Greek dramatists, and peppers his homespun philosophical treatises with Latin and Greek, but never English, the language of the colonisers. Hugh is in a constant state of inebriation, the libation to the god of language being poteen. This character is modelled on the traditional Irish seanachai or storyteller, whose job was to bring news from town to town, embellishing his words to humour, enlighten and inform the listener. In a captivating performance by Neil Buggy, the character of Hugh performs these functions in sublimitate.
In colonial-era Ireland, poetry, music and storytelling were of vital significance. The Gaelic language provided relief from the hardship of existence. Throughout the play, the blight of famine and financial ruin is never far off, nor is the threat of loss of culture. The ironic title of ‘master’ (given to Hugh) is a invert reference to the continued British occupation of Ireland.
The darker political moments emerge in the second half of the play and are less well executed. The first half concerns itself with the possibilities (or impossibilities) of communication between the English and Irish. When Lancey from the Kings company of Royal Engineers arrives in Ballybeg he uses Owen, (the English translator played by Cian Barry) to pompously declare to the citizens of the little town in Donegal that they are privileged to have a ‘six-inch’ ordnance survey map drawn up by the Crown, with their local Gaelic names Anglicised.
Lancey’s orthographer is the shy Lieutenant, George Yolland. In the midst of this naming exercise, a wonderful friendship blossoms between the young Owen and Yolland, aided and abetted by the ubiquitous poteen. This is followed by a romantic liaison between Yolland and Maire, a local girl. This trio is tremendously important to the play. Together they represent the emerging hope of deeper connection between Ireland and England. Far from coldly imperialist, Yolland is captivated by the Gaelic place names, and pained at the destruction of the old language in favour of his own. In light of the hybridisation of Gaelic and English, there is potential for a cultural rebirth, on both sides. With the onset of tragedy however, this dream is stillborn.
One of the highlights of the play is the delightful scene where Yolland and Owen invent the hybrid names, marvelling in the tenuous possibilities of a new lingua franca. This is countered by Manus whose insistence on preserving the old language is manifested through Sarah, the mute girl whose painful and stumbling attempt to say her own name poignantly evokes the loss of the native tongue. Manus’s unofficial fiancé, Maire falls for the tender charms of Yolland, enchanted by his ‘white skin’ and when she says, ‘I love your speech,’ her sentiments are unknowingly reciprocated by the English soldier, who echoes the same words in his own language.
The emerging concept here is the ability of human communication to transcend language itself, or the notion that opposing forces can be reconciled. Standout performances from Beth Cooke (as Maire) and James Northcote (as George) give the play its emotional depth.
A play with hope for the future while also recognising what Friel calls the ‘landscape of fact’.