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A: Brian Friel Pf: 1980, Derry, Northern Ireland Pb: 1981 G: Hist. drama in 3 acts S: Hedge-school in a barn, County Donegal, Ireland, 1833 C: 7m, 3fIn the fictional village of Baile Beag (Ballybeg), Hugh, a 60-year-old who is fond of his drink, runs the ‘hedge-school’ with the help of his lame son Manus. A new ‘National School’ is being built, and Hugh has applied for the post of teacher there. The other innovation in the area is the arrival of British soldiers (‘Redcoats’), who are engaged in an ordnance survey of the country. Manus opens up the school, since his father has not yet staggered back from a local christening. Manus tries to get the seemingly dumb Sarah to speak; teaches Maire, Bridget, and Doalty, all in their twenties; and exchanges Greek and Latin tags with 60-year-old Jimmy Jack Cassie, who is fluent in both languages. Eventually, it becomes clear that they are all speaking Irish, for this is the Gaeltacht, an Irish-speaking community. There is talk of missing Redcoats' horses, of the risk of potato blight, and of the fact that only English will be spoken in the new National School. Hugh eventually arrives, but is soon surprised by the return after six years of a younger son Owen, now the wealthy owner of several shops in Dublin. Owen acts as interpreter for the English soldiers, diplomatically translating Captain Lancey's colonialist undertaking to make it sound as though the map-making will benefit the locals. Owen and Lancey's subordinate Lieutenant Yolland translate Irish place names into Anglicized versions for the map. Yolland develops an affection and respect for the place and its language. Manus is offered the post of teacher on a little offshore island, hoping that this might induce Maire to come with him, but Yolland and Maire, despite difficulties of communication, fall in love with each other. The next day Yolland has gone missing, a probable victim of Irish rebels, and Manus decides to go away, although Owen warns him that this will make him a prime suspect. The army threatens to raze the area and evict everyone, if Yolland is not found. The army camp goes up in flames. Hugh learns that he is not to be made the teacher of the new school, but Maire, now mentally unbalanced, wants him to teach her English.

A: Brian Friel Pf: 1980, Derry, Northern Ireland Pb: 1981 G: Hist. drama in 3 acts S: Hedge-school in a barn, County Donegal, Ireland, 1833 C: 7m, 3f

Friel became Ireland's leading playwright, and this is probably his finest play, in which he discovers a sophisticated metaphor for British colonialism in Ireland, with well-meaning but disastrous ‘translation’ of its subtle language and remarkably sophisticated culture into alien forms – an impoverishment for the rulers as well as for the natives. This was the first production of the Field Day Theatre Company, which set out to give a voice to the local community of Londonderry or Derry (itself a city with two names, each representing one side of the sectarian divide). At a time when languages are dying out, and with it community identity and dignity, at the rate of one every two weeks, Friel's play seems particularly relevant.


Subjects: Literary Studies (Plays and Playwrights).

Reference entries

Brian Friel (b. 1929)