This weekend, we went to see "Translations" at the Abbey Theatre. I really enjoy seeing plays written by Irish playwrights.
"Translations" was written by Brian Friel, and the first production was in Derry in 1980. It takes place in a small village in Donegal called Baile Beag and really captures the colonial relationship between Ireland and England. Set in 1833, post Act of Union, post failed rebellion, and post growing sense that the English language was the path to modernization.
The story illustrates how, through an land ordinance survey, the Irish names of towns and villages were renamed to reflect a more anglican influence. Even though the new names made sense to no one. The whole play asks the question: "How important is a language to it's people?"
Since moving to Ireland, I have seen that public road signs are in both Irish and English. Not all Irish people speak fluent Irish, but many do. It is a required subject in schools. Some will go to Irish language schools, or summer camps, or have lived with an Irish speaking family in Galway to work on their Irish. I understand that if you take your leaving certificate (the Irish SAT's) in Irish you get extra points. The police have to speak irish, and it seems that most politicians do as well.
Towards the end of the 19th Century and the early 20th, there was a big push to revive the Irish language, Gaelic sports, Irish music and literature in order to reclaim Ireland. These ideas were very unifying and helped fuel the rising in 1916. The IRB and the Irish Volunteers communicated and recruited through these Irish interests. Irish is still the national language of Ireland, though there has been talk of dropping it as a required course, and accepting non Irish-speaking Gardai.
Ireland would be a different place if the Irish language had not been so diluted. The play's characters represent some of the emotions that were present at the time. The teacher who felt that the English had taken enough from the Irish and that they had to hold on to their language, the girl who wanted to be modern and leave the small village and who saw English as a way out. Both are very sympathetic.
The theme was relevant in 1833 and it is relevant today. The Irish tell these stories like no one else could. And I love to hear them.