Brian Friel

The Tragedy of English Imperialism and Irish Nationalism in Brian Friel’s Translations


Brian Friel’s Translations is one of the greatest plays of the 20th century written in English.  To say that it is written in English is to do more than state its geo-linguistic boundaries, it is also to point up one of its self-reflexive themes: the displacement of the Irish language (Gaelic), and by extension a great deal of Irish culture, by English imperialism.  This is a displacement that began from the time of Elizabeth 1st in the 16th century and which underwent a rapid intensification in the 19th century, the era in which Friel’s play is set.  It is one of the many ironies of the play that although the Irish characters are supposed to be speaking Irish, they actually speak English, and it is perhaps a crueler irony and an emphatic sign of the comprehensive victory of English colonialism that the play’s author must write in English if he is to have any audience, even within Ireland itself.

In this respect, Friel takes his place alongside numerous Irish writers who compose in “a language not their own” and who have adopted (and adapted) the English language to their own purposes: to mention Yeats, Synge, O’Casey, Joyce, Beckett, and Seamus Heaney is to list the more recent and better known.  Three of the latter have garnered the Noble Prize for Literature and it would not at all be surprising if Brian Friel, who went to same school as Heaney and who counts him among his friends, wins the prize himself.  Sometimes called the “Irish Chekhov” Friel sets his plays in rural Ireland but they achieve a universality that makes them “translatable” (in the broadest sense of this term) into many cultures. In this sense, he is similar to his fellow countryman James Joyce whose Dublin and its characters transcend any purely geographical or national limits.

Joyce was omni-conscious of writing in a “foreign” language.  As a very young man he wrote in a letter to an Italian acquaintance to the effect that the Irish, although forced to express themselves in a language not their own, have been able to hallmark it with the stamp of “their own genius.”  He has his ultra-introspective hero and would-be poet Stephen Dedalus, who contemplates the nature of English words throughout A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, remark:


The language in which we are speaking is his [the English Dean of Studies] before it is mine.  How different are the words home, Christ, ale, master, on his lips and on mine!  I cannot speak or write these words without unrest of spirit.  His language, so familiar and so foreign, will always be for me an acquired speech.  I have not made or accepted its words.  My voice holds them at bay.  My soul frets in the shadow of his language.

(A Portrait of the Artist, 205 Original italics)


Unlike his histrionic hero, Joyce refused to “fret in the shadow” of the English language and continually experimented with it until he bent it out of all recognition, most particularly in his encyclopedic work Finnegans Wake.  John Millington Synge, in plays such as The Playboy of the Western World and others invented a kind of poetic English that would best express the nuances of the native Irish tongue.  Samuel Beckett eventually opted to write in French and, when he used it, worked toward an English prose that approaches silence. It is one of the multiple meanings of Friel’s complex drama that it seeks to go to the origins of this appropriation of the language of the nation, of the “words” with which a culture identifies itself.  In this sense, Friel fulfills the advice given to the post-colonial writer  by that eloquent spokesman against colonialism, Frantz Fanon, who suggested that  “the colonized man who writes for his people” should  use the past “with the intention of opening the future” as a potential for action and “a basis for hope.” 

These words are particularly apt for Brian Friel’s play which, although set in the 19th century, was written between 1979-1980. These were very dark days in Northern Ireland where Friel lives, dark tragic days in need of some kind of “action” and a “basis for hope.”  These were the days of Margaret Thatcher, the then Prime Minister of Britain known for good reason as the “Iron Lady,” the days of internment without trial, IRA bombings, sectarian killings, and most crucially the deaths of the ten Nationalist Hunger Strikers, the most famous of them the young Bobby Sands, who, on his death-bed, was elected to the British Parliament. These then were the contemporary “colonial” (the quotation marks because of the complex nature of the political situation in Northern Ireland) conditions under which Friel decided to write his play. The play has other, more particular, historical coordinates as well: this was the formation of the Field Day Theatre Group, the agenda of which (among other things) was to examine the mythic constructions of Ireland's past and how these different constructions are brought about through discursive practice—how language (in all its guises) helps construct historical reality.  Brian Friel's Translations, the play that inaugurated this venture, stands in metonymically for such an agenda, dealing as it does with the processes of colonialism, the formations of cultural identity, and the problematic of cultural Otherness

The play is loosely based on historical fact.  It is set in the fictional west of Ireland village of Ballybeg (in Irish Gaelic, “Baile Beag”) and it re-enacts an actual British Ordnance Survey (the mapping and Anglicization of Irish place-names) carried out by the British Army in the 1830s.  Most of the action takes place in and around what was known as a “Hedge School,” an unofficial place of learning in which the local villagers could pay for lessons.  In this instance, Friel accentuates language learning, especially that of Latin and Greek, and some of the locals are fairly fluent in these languages.  That they converse in these languages at times, rather than their own native Irish, is not an invention by Friel but based on historical fact.  Indeed, some of the soldiers (who have no Gaelic) at times mistake their Latin speech for Irish. Theirs is a simple and harsh life, but it is rich in cultural and imaginative history. As the schoolmaster Hugh explains to Lt. Yolland—a young officer who has fallen under the spell of Ireland and the language—the myths and stories are a kind of compensation for the deprivation they must endure.  Yolland has commented on the richness of the Irish language.  Hugh replies:


Indeed, Lieutenant. A rich language.  A rich literature.  You’ll find sir, that certain cultures expend on their vocabularies and syntax acquisitive energies and ostentations entirely lacking in their material lives.  I suppose you could call us a spiritual people.

*  *   *   *

Yes, it is a rich language, Lieutenant, full of the mythologies of fantasy and hope and self-deception—a syntax opulent with tomorrows.  It is our response to mud cabins and a diet of potatoes; our only method of replying to. . .inevitabilities.

(Translations, 350)

Friel is doing at least two things here. He is critiquing both the Irish penchant for “dreaming” (in all senses of that term) as a displacement for “realities,” as well commenting upon how colonial powers are ill-equipped to comprehend the complexity of the culture they engage and inevitably change.

Hugh’s son Owen (mistakenly called Roland by his English colleagues—another English mis-translation!) has returned to the village to help the English with their process of Anglicization, while his brother Manus has remained at home to help his father run the school. Manus wants to marry Maire, a spirited young woman who attends the school, but mainly for economic reasons this seems an impossibility, and, besides, Maire wants to learn English (!!) and go to America. When the play opens, Manus is trying to persuade the apparently dumb young girl Sarah how to pronounce her name.  Sarah, who does not speak, but who can read signs ( yet another example of signifying practice in a play over-determined by signs) will play a crucial role in the eventual tragic outcome, as will two other non-communicative characters, the Donnelly Twins.

 As for the English contingent, unlike his superior Captain Lancey who is a super-efficient tool of Empire, who “always gets the job done,” Lieutenant Yolland is an unwilling participant fast becoming romantically involved with Ireland and with one of its residents.  He dreams of staying on after the Survey and learning Irish.  As if to deconstruct the notion of a “pure” (essential) “Irishness” and an unambiguous “Englishness,” Friel reverses the stereotypes and presents us with Owen the level-headed Irishman and Yolland the English romantic dreamer. In one scene, they debate the necessity of changing what appear to Yolland as beautiful-sounding place-names into a prosaic English.  Speaking of his role he remarks:  “I’m not sure but I’m concerned about my part in it.  It’s an eviction of sorts.”  Owen replies: “We’re making a six-inch map of the country.  Is there something sinister in that?”  Yolland:  “Not in . . .” Owen: “And we’re taking place-names that are riddled with confusion and. . .” Yolland:  “Who’s confused?  Are the people confused?” (Translations, 351).  The Anglophile Owen knows that there is something “sinister” in the mapping and re-naming because he has purposefully mistranslated to his own people what Captain Lancey  had made clear:  Lancey:  “This enormous task has been embarked on so that the military authorities will be equipped with up-to-date and accurate information on every part of the Empire[. . .] And also so that the entire basis of land evaluation  can be reassessed for purposes of more equitable taxation” (340).   There will be resistance of course and Hugh, the wise, though often drunk, schoolmaster alludes to it and the general lack of mutual understanding (and not only in linguistic terms) when he says the following:


[. . .] I encountered Captain Lancey of the Royal Engineers who is engaged in the ordnance survey of this area. He tells me that in the past few days two of his horses have strayed and some of his equipment seems to be mislaid.  I expressed my regret and suggested he address you himself on these matters.  He then explained that he does not speak Irish.  Latin? I asked.  None.  Greek?  Not a syllable.  He speaks—on his own admission—only English[. . .]he expressed some surprise that we did not speak his language.  I explained that a few of us did on occasion—outside the parish of course—and then only for the purposes of commerce, a use to which his tongue seemed particularly suited [. . .] English, I suggested, couldn’t really express us.”



The missing horses are a “sign,” a gesture, a form of communication, that the Donnelly Twins are at work and, as we will discover, their work is not finished.

Within this theme of linguistic and cultural colonialism (and the inevitable resistance it engenders), Friel has woven a more intimate “story.”  The Romeo-and-Juliet-like story of George Yolland the English officer and Maire Chatach the Irish colleen, caught as they are within the conflicting parties, is in miniature a version of the larger tragedy involving Irish nationalism and English imperialism. Brian Friel entered some remarks in his  journal while writing the play that are relevant here. On July 6th, 1979, he noted his concern about the "public" nature of his theme—“the eradication of the Irish language and the substitution of English”—and how this theme might eclipse what he felt was the more important element of the play, “the exploration of the dark and private places of individual souls."  The broader political elements, and the “private places of individual souls” that Friel mentions here need not necessarily be mutually exclusive, and indeed they are deftly interwoven in the drama.  Although there are many, a few examples will suffice to show how Friel, consciously or not, weaves the two together. 

Owen, translator for the English, serves also as translator for Yolland and Maire. The following is an example (the reader and/or audience must remember that Maire does not speak English and that Yolland has no Gaelic):


Owen: You know George, don’t you?

Maire:  We wave to each other across the fields.

Yolland:  Sorry—Sorry?

Owen:  She says you wave to each other across the fields.

Yolland:  Yes we do; oh yes, indeed we do.

Maire: What’s he saying?

Owen: He says you wave to each other across the fields

Maire: That’s right.  So we do.

Yolland: What’s she saying?

* * * *

Maire: I hear the Fiddler O’Shea’s about.  There’s some talk of a dance tomorrow night.

Owen: Where will it be?

Maire: Maybe over the road.  Maybe at Tobair Vree.

Yolland:  Tobair Vree!  Tobair Vree!  [Yolland recognizes this place from his recent translation]

Maire:  Does he know what I’m saying?

Owen:  Not a word.



In a play so involved with signification it is of some significance that it is the people who do not communicate (in any conventional sense) who come together in the tragic outcome.  Sarah, the young girl who cannot speak, sees Maire and Yolland kiss (a universal sign) outside the dance hall (dancing is another signifying gesture that Maire and Yolland share as well “waving to each other across the fields") and in her own fashion (we guess) she reports the incident to Manus.  He leaves the dance with a stone in his hand but, as he reports later to his brother, when he comes across Maire and Yolland in one another’s arms he can only make the following “gesture”:

But when I saw him standing there at the side of the road—smiling and her face buried in his shoulder—I couldn’t even go close to them.  I just shouted something stupid—something like, "You're a bastard Yolland."  If I’d even said it in English. . .’cos he kept saying ‘Sorry-sorry?” The wrong gesture in the wrong language.


It is that other non-communicative force, the Donnelly twins, whose very absence punctuates the play who finally enforce their meaning on the private tragedy.  Yolland disappears, presumed murdered, and Maire is left with the memory of his voice and the map he drew for her in the sand—a map that represents a private and personal miniature of the larger political issues implied in the remapping of Ireland.  The Donnelly Twins, representatives of a fierce Irish nationalism and avatars of the modern IRA, also connect the larger political tragedy of colonial oppression and Irish resistance with the personal tragedy of “individual souls.” Their actions (the theft of the horses, the burning of the army’s headquarters and, supposedly, the murder of Lieutenant Yolland, only engenders a powerful colonial reaction. Captain Lancey “promises” to kill all the livestock in the area, embark on a series of evictions, as well as “the levelling of every abode in selected areas[. . . ]and if by then the lieutenant hasn’t been found [he] will proceed until a complete clearance is made of this entire section” (368).  And of course this will only lead to counter terror by the forces that the Donnelly twins represent.

For a short time in this allegory of signification, it seems that the power of “love” might overcome division, that Maire and Yolland find a communicative space outside politics and ideology, beyond the content of language, wherein language becomes a system of signifiers without ideology or referents, a system of sounds ("I love the sound of your speech" each of them reiterates).  Indeed, their communication is a kind of music and it reaches its beautiful climax in what might be called a toponymic duet at the close of Act Two when they come together while reciting Irish place names. Indeed, it seems that for a time at least the language of love might bridge the linguistic, cultural, and political gap, but as usual in these affairs it is the non-combatants, the innocent who suffer most.  If the classical meaning of tragedy, its Aristotelian meaning, is a mistake (“hamartia”) followed by catastrophe, then this play is a tragedy, and by inference all imperialist ventures are tragedies, because they are mistakes and engender a no-win situation. Louis Fischer, the biographer of Mahatma Gandhi—progenitor of a different kind of anti-colonial resistance—speaks to this phenomenon when he remarks upon how “every empire digs its own grave,” how imperialism is a “perpetual insult” because of  its assumptions that the colonizer  has the right to rule the indigenous population, presumably because they are in incapable of ruling themselves.  As Friel’s play demonstrates and Gandhi’s biographer documents, imperialism asserts an “arrogant nationalism and inevitably begets an opposing nationalism,” a sure recipe for tragedy.  






Friel, Brian.  Translations.  In Modern Irish Drama. Edited by John P. Harrington.  New York:  W.W. Norton, 1991: 319-374.


Joyce, James,  A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.  Edited with an Introduction and Notes by Seamus Deane.  New York:  Penguin Books, 1993.