The notion of the word translation is most commonly associated with the idea of converting an expression into a different language; an idea certainly prevalent in Friel’s play, through the Anglicisation of Irish place names and the numerous occasions where Owen interprets for the British soldiers. On another level, the word is also representative of the idea of converting something from one ‘form, function or state to another’1, and is synonymous with the idea of change.
Through the context of the British colonisation, we see not only the way in which the national identity of Ireland is altered, but also how personal identities are discerned and affected. The play is set in the summer of 1833, in rural North Western Ireland, a time of great political, social and economical unrest, amidst the arrival of two British soldiers sent to map the land.
Ireland had been an area of British interest since the rule of Henry II in the 12th Century, however it was not until the early 17th Century and the reign of Henry VIII that British rule was consolidated, and only after 1801 that the Act of Union was officially (and somewhat reluctantly) accepted by both countries’ Parliaments.
Following the Spring Rice committee’s report of 1824, a survey covering the country was authorised by the British Parliament, involving the ‘standardisation’ of all place names and detailing “hydrographic and topographic information to a scale of six inches to the English mile” to be carried out by the British military, characterised by the likes of Yolland and Lancey. Furthermore, in 1831 the system of National Education was introduced by Chief Secretary Stanley with English as the sole medium of instruction.
The way in which the geography of the land and the educational system of the country are being translated into a more Anglicised version would suggest the reasoning behind the play’s title. This period was a time of great change as the country became propelled towards British standards. Ireland’s identity was being reshaped in much the same way that Friel’s Ireland of the 1980s (the time of the play’s first performance) was being restructured and redefined after bursts of sectarian violence and an ongoing instability.
Friel’s theatrical company “Field Day”, co-founded with the actor Stephen Rea, was established with the intent of expressing a literary movement which “set out to redefine Irish cultural identity. ” Place names disappeared overnight in favour of unfamiliar ‘standardised’ British replacements; and traditional institutions such as the hedge schools were outlawed in order to make way for the new national schools. The Irish language was vigorously discouraged, described by Catholic politician Daniel O’Connell as “a barrier to modern progress. ” Irish culture was being deracinated by every means, leaving a country detached from its history.