University of Leeds, UK | Published: 15 March, 2008
ISSUE 3 | Pages: 72-83 | PDF | DOAJ | https://doi.org/10.24162/EI2008-2991
In the 1980s, Brian Friel, one of Ireland’s most successful twentieth century dramatists, authored two plays – Translations and Making History – which were concerned with major events in colonial history. Given the context in which the plays were written – Northern Ireland was in a state of war at the time – the playwright’s choice of topics (the introduction of the National Schools and the Ordnance Survey in the nineteenth century and the failed Gaelic revolt against English rule and the Flight of the Earls in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries) was both pointed and politically contentious. Yet, the argument of this essay is that rather than presenting versions of the past which conform to the ideological imperatives of a particular political stance, Friel’s plays are much more interesting and significant in that they provoke a whole series of questions around the issue of historical representation. One of the most important of those questions is the applicability of the criteria truth and falsity in historical and other modes of interpretation. The essay concludes with a consideration of the politics of memory and forgetting in contemporary Northern Ireland.
En la década de los ochenta Brian Friel, uno de los dramaturgos con más éxito del siglo XX, escribió dos obras – Translations y Making History – en torno a acontecimientos determinantes en la historia colonial. Dado el momento en que se escribieron las obras – Irlanda del Norte estaba sumida en estado de guerra – la elección de los temas (introducción de las Escuelas Nacionales y el Servicio Oficial de Cartografía en el siglo XIX y la fallida revuelta gaélica contra el yugo inglés y la Huída de los Condes en los siglos XVI y XVII) fue significativa y políticamente contenciosa. No obstante, el argumento de este ensayo es que más que ofrecer versiones del pasado dictadas por una determinada posición ideológica y política, las obras de Friel resultan mucho interesantes y significativas en tanto que generan una serie de preguntas en torno al tema de la representación. Una de las cuestiones clave es la aplicabilidad de los criterios de verdad y falsedad en la interpretación, histórica o de otro tipo. El ensayo concluye con una consideración de la política de la memoria y el olvido en la Irlanda del Norte contemporánea.
Memoria; Olvido; Historia; Violencia; Representación
In the 1980s, Brian Friel, one of Ireland’s most successful twentieth century dramatists, authored two plays which were concerned with major events in colonial history. Given the context in which the plays were written – Northern Ireland was in a state of war at the time – the playwright’s choice of topics was both pointed and politically contentious. Translations deals with the impact of the introduction of the National Schools – an English language based education system – and the Ordnance Survey – a scheme to map and name the places of the British Empire carried out by the Royal Corps of Engineers – upon an Irish-speaking community in a remote part of rural Ireland in 1833.1 Making History, set in the period encompassing the Nine Years War (1592-1601) and the Flight of the Earls (1607), concerns an important revolt against colonial rule, a significant defeat for the Irish forces, and a turning point in the fortunes of the native Gaelic culture.2
The late 1970s and the 1980s were particularly bloody and bitter years in the war between the forces of Irish Republicanism and the British State and its supporters; during this time the Irish Republican Army came extremely close to killing the British Prime Minister and her Cabinet and the first evidence began to appear – since validated – of collusion between the State and illegal paramilitary forces in political murder. The violence of the period in which both plays were written and performed provided a context in which issues of memory and forgetting were urgent and insistent. Indeed in one sense it is clear that the propensity to engage in violence on all sides was predicated precisely on an appeal to the importance of history. The one thing which seemed to unite all the parties was the need to remember the past; despite their different interpretations of history, the forces of Irish nationalism, pro-British Unionism and even the British cited the past as source, authority, and justification.
Given Friel’s decision to take key moments in Ireland’s colonial past as the subject of these two dramas, it might be thought that Translations and Making History would conform to the ideological imperatives of one version of history and offer, say, an exploration of the confrontation between the native Irish and the colonial powers wielded by the British Empire (in the nineteenth century) and the English State (in the early seventeenth century). Yet although it is possible to read the plays in this way – one of the charges levelled against them is indeed that they are instances of nationalist drama – such a reading does not do justice to the complexity of Friel’s stagecraft, nor, more importantly, to the significance of the political and cultural issues which he invokes.3 The concern of this paper therefore will be to look at the questions which Friel’s work raises with regard to the matter of memory and forgetting in a period of violence and, towards the end of the essay, to the problem of what should be remembered and what should be forgotten once hostilities cease and, to use the ironic phrase, ‘peace breaks out’. Such issues are of course not restricted to Northern Ireland and comparable debates are and have been taking place in many post-conflict societies; South Africa and Argentina are two striking examples where, despite the specific differences, there are notable similarities with Northern Ireland. In each of these contexts there is a shared concern to ‘deal with the past’, yet that phrase itself reveals some of the problems which are involved in any such project in a situation in which bitterness, division and violence were the social norms. ‘To deal with’ can mean ‘to handle effectively’, but it also has the sense ‘to dispose of’.4 Can the past be ‘dealt with’ by disposing of it? What would it mean to handle it ‘effectively’?
By dint of the burden placed on history in Northern Ireland, such questions have been and remain significant. Now that the violence has ended, how is the past to be dealt with? Is there an obligation to remember? Is there a duty to commemorate? Does peace depend on forgetting? Can democratic politics function only by misremembering? In one sense such questions have already been decided at the level of the street. One of the remarkable things about the Troubles in Northern Ireland is the way in which events, issues and people were and are recorded in the everyday spaces of people’s lives. The Conflict Archive on the Internet, together with the Claremont Colleges Digital Library, hold collections of thousands of images of plaques, murals and memorials (Gardens of Remembrance, statues, monuments) which have appeared throughout the past forty years or so.5 Such records were often erected or painted by political or paramilitary organisations, sometimes by local communities, in order to memorialise deaths, to laud heroes, to intimidate and warn, to encourage and rally, to send political messages to the other side and so on. They were, almost universally, designed from a specific perspective, in a hostile and conflictual environment, for particular purposes; many proved ephemeral, some have endured. But if these are local and politically partial representations of history, memory on the street, what happens if the questions posed earlier are taken to a level which encompasses the whole of the divided society? What is it that post-conflict Northern Ireland has to remember, commemorate, forget or mis-remember in order function as an inclusive democratic society? Though such questions are never addressed directly in Friel’s Translations and Making History – Friel is too sophisticated a playwright to engage in didactics – it is clear that these plays do at least implicitly present these issues for our attention. They do so not by presenting specific details of Irish history which must be recalled, but by considering how and why things are remembered and forgotten and by drawing attention to the criteria which apply to representations of the past. In that sense these are not so much history plays as meta-history plays; they are not concerned with presenting a particular view of an historical event – the introduction of the National Schools, the Ordnance Survey, the Nine Years War – as with an examination of the nature of historical representation itself.
Translations centres upon an issue which involves memory and forgetting in colonial and post-colonial Ireland: the loss of the native language. Though this process (including the Anglicising of place-names) took place over centuries, its pace increased markedly in the nineteenth century. In the 1830s, out of a total population of some eight million, about two million spoke only Irish and understood no English, while another two million were bilingual; thus about half of the population spoke Gaelic and a quarter of the total spoke little or no English. Just eighty years later, in 1911, immediately before independence from British rule, just 13.3% of the population were recorded as speaking any Gaelic and less than 3% were Irish monoglots. Over the course of less than a century, Ireland became largely Anglicised and the Irish language almost died as a living communal language; Ireland took its place, along with many other colonies under British rule, in the English-speaking world.6
There were many important factors involved in the loss Irish of the language over a long period: the colonial economic and legal systems, industrialisation and urbanisation, the decision by the Catholic Church to use English rather than Irish as its medium, and the extension of the British State into Irelandafter the Act of Union in 1800. But Translations focuses on two cultural factors in this process: the introduction of a State-sponsored, English language-based education system for Irish children by means of the National Schools in 1831, and the ‘standardising’ of Irish place-names through the Ordnance Survey after 1824. The displacement of the Hedge Schools (a remarkably successful native mode of education in the Irish language organised against colonial repression in the eighteenth century) by a State-funded education system is treated with Friel’s favoured technique of irony. For example when one of the locals asserts that the State schools, unlike the Hedge Schools, would be free, open year-round and compulsory for children between the ages of six and twelve, ‘no matter how smart you are or how much you know’, the claim is met with incredulity. The simple but historically ironic retort is: ‘Who told you that yarn?… they’re not going to take on – law or no law’ (Friel, 1981, 22). The play also illustrates the complexity of the nineteenth-century debates surrounding the role, significance and future of the Irish language in Ireland. Not least, of course, the very medium in which the play is written stands as a political comment on the language question in Ireland. For although it seems ‘natural’ that the all of the characters on stage speak English to each other, that ideological belief is ruptured in Brechtian fashion when it becomes clear that the Irish characters are in fact speaking Gaelic: the text demands an act of cultural imagination which reveals how our familiarity with English as a colonial language has led us to forget the history behind that fact. It comes as something of a surprise then, not to learn that the English soldiers do not speak Irish, but that only a few of the Irish characters speak English – ‘on occasion – outside the parish of course and then usually for the purposes of commerce, a use to which
- Brian Friel, Translations, London: Faber, 1981. All page references in the essay are to this edition. [↩]
- Brian Friel, Making History, London: Faber, 1989. All page references in the essay are to this edition. [↩]
- For an examination of this charge against Friel’s work, see Marilynn Richtarik, Acting Between the Lines: The Field Day Theatre Company and Irish Cultural Politics 1980–1984, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994. [↩]
- The OED gives: ‘to deal with: to act in regard to, administer, handle, dispose in any way of (a thing); b. to handle effectively; to grapple with; to take successful action in regard to’. It is interesting to note that the verb ‘deal’ itself has a number of senses based on the concepts of division and sharing, including one which refers to violence – ‘to deal someone a blow’. [↩]
- The Conflict Archive on the Internet (CAIN) site (http://cain.ulst.ac.uk/) is concerned with Conflict and Politics in Northern Ireland 1968 to the Present. My own collection of some 600 images of murals spanning the period 1979-2004 can be found at the Claremont Colleges Digital Library (http://ccdl.libraries.claremont.edu/col/mni/). [↩]
- For an account of the politics of language in Ireland in this period, see chapters five and six, ‘Culture, politics and the language question, 1789-1876’ and ‘Language and revolution, 1876-1922’, in Tony Crowley, Wars of Words: The Politics of Language in Ireland 1537-1922, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. [↩]
- Hugh’s comment here is not implausible historically. Christopher Anderson noted in his Brief Sketch of Various Attempts which Have Been Made to Diffuse a Knowledge of the Holy Scriptures through the Medium of the Irish Language (1818), that for the Gaelic speaker English is ‘the language of barter, or worldly occupations; taken up solely at the market, laid aside when he returns home, a very confined vocabulary’. [↩]
- O’Connell was a native Gaelic speaker. He nonetheless argued that English was the language of political progress: ‘although the Irish language is connected with many recollections that twine around the hearts of Irishmen, yet the superior utility of the English tongue, as the medium of modern communication, is so great, that I can witness without a sigh the gradual disuse of the Irish’ (Crowley, Wars of Words, p.102). O’Connell’s stance contrasted fundamentally with that of the leaders of Irish cultural nationalism; the split persisted throughout the nineteenth century and up until the achievement of Independence in 1921. [↩]
- Yolland’s function, like that of the other soldiers, is to engage in map-making; his specific task combines the roles of toponymer and orthographer. [↩]
- Saussure uses the idea of the ‘motivation’ of a sign in a technical and different sense to the way in which I am using it here. For Saussure, although ‘the basic condition of the linguistic sign’ is its absolute arbitrariness, he also holds that ‘the sign may be motivated to a certain extent’ (italics in original). What he means by this is that although the French term ‘vingt’ (twenty) for example is absolutely arbitrary, ‘dix-neuf’ (‘nineteen’) is ‘motivated’ and thus only relatively arbitrary because it is formed by combination of the terms ‘dix’ and ‘neuf’. For Saussure’s discussion of ‘absolute arbitrariness and relative arbitrariness’, see Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics, trans. and annotated by Roy Harris, London: Duckworth, 130-132. [↩]
- The Bible. Authorized King James Version, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997. All references are to this edition. [↩]
- Saussure’s own account is of course anti-nominalist and his work in part grows out of a methodological rejection of the interest in the origin of language within the nineteenth century science of language. [↩]
- Jameson uses the phrase in ‘Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism’, New Left Review, I/146, 1984, 92. [↩]
- Each June Irish Republicans gather at Bodenstown cemetery at the grave of Theobald Wolfe Tone, a leader of the 1798 Rebellion of the United Irishmen against British rule in Ireland. The practice of gathering at Bodenstown for this commemoration was started in the late nineteenth century. [↩]
- Peter Lombard, an Irishman, was educated at Westminster School and Oxford University before leaving for Louvain where he became a Doctor of Divinity and was ordained a Catholic priest; he moved to Rome in the 1590s and was created Archbishop of Armagh in 1601. The repression of Catholicism in the period meant that after his early years in Waterford, he did not set foot in Ireland again. In 1600 he composed De Regno Hiberniae Sanctorum Insula Commentarius, first published at the Counter-Reformation centre of Louvain in 1632. [↩]
- Lombard’s De Regno was one of a number of Counter-Reformation texts which attempted to foster a new religious and political consciousness in Ireland through a revisionist approach to the themes and concerns of traditional Irish historiography. See Nicholas Canny, ‘The Formation of the Irish Mind: Religion, Politics and Gaelic Irish Literature 1580-1750’, Past and Present, 95 (1982), 91-116. [↩]
- Hayden White, The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987, 5. For a useful discussion of the impact of modern critical and cultural theory on historiography, see Elizabeth A. Clark, History, Theory, Text: Historians and the Linguistic Turn, Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 2004. [↩]
- The claim here is not that ‘degeneration’ and ‘miscegenation’ are the ‘same’, but they are related concepts which function discursively in similar ways in very different contexts. [↩]
- Edmund Spenser, A View of the State of Ireland (1596), in Sir James Ware, ed., The Historie of Ireland Collected by Three Learned Authors, Dublin, 1633, 48, 44. For a consideration of fears of cultural ‘degeneration’ amongst the colonists in late sixteenth century Ireland, including a discussion of Edmund Spenser’s role in the propagation of such beliefs, see Crowley,Wars of Words: The Politics of Language in Ireland 1537-1922, chapter 2, ‘Reforming the Word and the words of the Irish, 1537-1607’. [↩]
- For an account of such debates in and around Irish historiography, see D.G.Boyce and Alan O’Day, The Making of Modern Irish History: Revisionism and the Revisionist Controversy, London: Routledge, 1996. [↩]
- It would be possible to trace a historical trajectory to the Troubles by ‘reading’ the murals. In general, for example, in the CCDL collection cited above in note 5, it is possible to discern a clear shift from the particularities and generalities of violent struggle in the early Republican murals to a concern with democratic politics and legal and cultural issues in the later paintings. [↩]
- Many of the remaining murals have evidently been designed to deliver an ‘acceptable’ version of history – past and present – to the consumers of such images. It is possible that now, as throughout the period of conflict, graffiti offers an insight into the difficulties, desires, realities and humour of at least one section of the population (graffiti is cheap and difficult to police). One of the most interesting and neglected aspects of the murals during the height of the Troubles was the extent to which certain images were graffitied and those which were not. Not many escaped – a fact which perhaps illustrates the specific though often implicit tensions which existed between political organisations such as Sinn Féin and the local youth population in particular areas. [↩]
Anderson, Christopher. 1818. Brief Sketch of Various Attempts which Have Been Made to Diffuse a Knowledge of the Holy Scriptures through the Medium of the Irish Language. Dublin.
The Bible. Authorized King James Version. 1997. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Boyce, D.G. and Alan O’Day. 1996. The Making of Modern Irish History: Revisionism and the Revisionist Controversy, London: Routledge.
Canny, Nicholas. 1982. ‘The Formation of the Irish Mind: Religion, Politics and Gaelic Irish Literature 1580-1750’, Past and Present, 95, 91-116.
Clark, Elizabeth A. 2004. History, Theory, Text: Historians and the Linguistic Turn, Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press.
Conflict Archive on the Internet (CAIN). n.d. http://cain.ulst.ac.uk/
Crowley, Tony. 2005. Wars of Words: The Politics of Language in Ireland 1537-1922, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
_______. 2007. ‘Murals of Northern Ireland’, Claremont Colleges Digital Library.
De Saussure, Ferdinand. 1981 (1916). Course in General Linguistics, trans. and annotated by Roy Harris, London: Duckworth.
Friel, Brian. 1981. Translations , London: Faber and Faber.
_______. 1989. Making History, London: Faber and Faber.
Jameson, Frederick. 1984. ‘Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism’, New Left Review, I/146, 53-92.
Richtarik, Marilynn. 1994. Acting Between the Lines: The Field Day Theatre Company and Irish Cultural Politics 1980–1984, Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Spenser, Edmund. 1633 (1596). A View of the State of Ireland, in Sir James Ware, ed., The Historie of Ireland Collected by Three Learned Authors, Dublin.
White, Hayden. 1987. The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.