Hugh, as the teacher at the hedge school and as a prominent social figure within Baile Beag, is a central character in the narrative of the play. He is also the device through which Friel arguably sets out what he believes to be the best course of action in response to the situation in Baile Beag, and is therefore the central protagonist in Translations. He is by no means a traditional hero, in the sense that he not a physically strong and brave man who fights against evil (the English) in order to preserve good (Irish culture).
However, it is possible that by refusing to condone any form of violent action regardless of motive and by being in favour of cultural adaptation, Friel has created his own version of heroism in the character of Hugh. In this way he surpasses the more traditional view of heroism, and achieves his end (preserving existing cultural values) by acknowledging that change is inevitable. By concentrating on the development of Hugh’s response to the situation in Baile Beag, we are able to understand the ways in which he is the central character and hero of Translations.
During Act 1, Hugh, like the Irish people, is struggling to come to terms with the implications of the English presence in Baile Beag, and this results in a muddled and inconsistent reaction to events. Throughout act 1, it is obvious that Hugh’s main concerns lie within the preservation of cultural values, and this is evident through his frequent use of Latin and Greek, ‘Adsum, Doalty Adsum. Perhaps not in sobrietate perfecta… ‘ Even when speaking English, Hugh tends to use words of classical etymology.
While this demonstrates how Hugh holds the past to be important, it also creates an element of pomposity in him to the point where it is hard to take Hugh seriously as a character. However, in spite of his pomposity and heavy drinking, Hugh still manages to command respect amongst his peers. This is evident upon his first entrance when Sarah ‘mimes a warning that the master is coming. ‘ The ‘atmosphere changes’ amongst the characters on stage suggesting that Hugh is, despite the almost ridiculous aspects of his character, a man to be feared.
In contrast to perhaps a more antagonistic or reluctant reaction to the English presence that might be expected of a patriotic hero, Hugh is very welcoming to Lancey and Yolland when they first arrive, ‘you’re very welcome gentlemen. ‘ He even describes the changing of Gaelic place names and creation of a map as ‘a worthy enterprise. ‘ This is hardly what we would expect of a hero whose aim is to maintain his cultural values and those of his fellow countrymen.
Perhaps this is an example of cowardice on the part of Hugh, not wishing to get on the wrong side of the imperial power, or perhaps Hugh is simply unaware of the implications of what the English have set out to do. Either way it hardly epitomises heroism. However, Hugh does manage to insult the English language (a great insult in his eyes no doubt) and reinforce the image of Irish as a poetic language, and English as more suited to ‘commerce. ‘ He explains how English ‘couldn’t really express’ the Irish, and upon learning of Lancey’s lack of Greek and Latin, describes him as ‘suitably humble.
‘ By the end of Act 1, Hugh is beginning to recognise that the Irish people will need to find a way of coping with the changes imposed upon them by the English. By Act 2, Hugh is beginning to develop an opinion considering the situation in Baile Beag, and it is evident that his snobbery and sense of superiority towards the English has become more explicit, especially when he inquires as to whether William Wordsworth ‘[spoke] of him to [Yolland],’ (as if he is a household name in England). However, this could be attributed to drunkenness. He explains how he ‘dabble[s] in verse…
after the style of Ovid,’ and points out that ‘English succeeds in making it sound plebeian. ‘ In doing this, Hugh is exploring the positive aspects of Irish culture, describing how the Irish ‘endure around truths immemorially posited,’ and how Gaelic is ‘full of mythologies of fantasy and hope of self-deception. ‘ However, as Act 2 develops it becomes clear that Hugh is much more tuned in with the situation than his constant drinking would perhaps lead us to assume. He empathises with Yolland, claiming to ‘understand [Yolland’s] sense of exclusion,’ which leads him to remind Yolland ‘that words are signals.
‘ This realisation is further demonstrated when he explains to Yolland that ‘a civilisation can be imprisoned in a linguistic contour which no longer matches the landscape of… fact. ‘ It is obvious that Hugh is referring to Ireland, and that he is beginning to formulate what could be said to be the central message of the play, that in order to preserve their culture, the community of Baile Beag and indeed all of Ireland will need to adapt to these changes, and somehow retain or create their own individuality within the new framework.
By the end of act 3, Hugh seems to have developed his final position fully. This is evident when he says that ‘[Baile Beag] must learn [the] new names,’ and that they must ‘learn where [they] live. ‘ He sees that ‘tradition can only survive through Translation,’ and that by looking for way in which to ‘reconcile the traditional and the modern, emotion and reason,’ they are able to salvage what is left of Gaelic culture through translation and maintain a national and cultural identity.
However, it is possible that Hugh is simply a coward, and that his ‘civilised, classical balance, his serene, speculative, even-handed rejection of anything in particular may, in fact, be a recipe for political inertia and, thus, for passive submission to the oppressor. ‘ Hugh’s stance concerning the Anglicisation of Gaelic place names towards the end of Translations could be interpreted as a symbolic plea from Friel to the paramilitary organisations that were active in the late 1970s while Friel was writing the play. Hugh’s call for the community of Baile Beag to ‘learn where [they] live.
‘ And to make them [the place names] our own,’ in Act 3, demonstrates Friel’s opinions concerning the loss of cultural identity, and what he feels is the most effective way of preserving cultural values. Translations was first shown in Derry in 1980, at what was arguably the height of the troubles in Northern Ireland and perhaps Friel’s intent for the play was to encourage people to adopt and adapt to cultural changes, while preserving traditional Irish values, in place of joining the paramilitaries. He voices this message through Hugh, who seems to represent the compromise.
Contextually, The play reflects the switch from violence to peaceful protest that the IRA made at the time (namely the Hunger strikes of the early 1980s). Throughout Translations, Hugh and his journey of understanding of the situation in Ireland is symbolic of a similar journey that perhaps Friel intends for the Irish people to make. As the character through which this message is voiced, Hugh is the central protagonist, and his heroism is evident in his realisation that passive submission is the only way forward for the Irish people, and that ‘tradition can only survive through translation. ‘