Both Maire and Yolland are in a similar ‘half-way’ stage to Jimmy Jack. Irish Maire has dreams of learning English and moving to England, whilst British Yolland describes is feelings for Ireland as ‘a sense of recognition, of confirmation of something I half new instinctively’ showing his sense of belonging to this foreign country. Another parallel between the two relationships is the existence of a ‘barrier’ between the people in it. In Jimmy Jack’s case it is the obvious fact that Athene does not actually exist in the physical world. His communication with her may be effective but it isn’t real eye to eye, conventional conversation. Maire and Yolland’s barrier is that of language. They too communicate effectively but are unable to use conventional methods as they do not speak the same language. Like Jimmy and Athene they are from different worlds.
Barriers in Translations exist not only in relationships between people but also those between countries. These themes are also developed through the classical content. Friel’s choice of Athene as the main mythological character in Translations is especially significant in both this and the exploration of Jimmy Jack as a character. Athene is the patron of war and wisdom, which seems fitting in a play which is based on conflict. She is also the Goddess associated with heroic endeavours 1, which is equally fitting given the struggles against the British colonialists described by Hugh and Jimmy Jack Cassie, such as their involvement in the 1798 uprising against British rule and their defiance of the soldiers who come to Baile Beag after Manus’s disappearance. Their portrayal as heroes is made both my implication and directly by dialogue ‘we got homesick for Athens, just like Ulysses’. This shows the audience where Brian Friel’s sympathies lie. We are made to feel for the Irish and admire their courage.
Critics of the play, such as Seamus Hearney, argue that by doing this the play ‘shores up a dangerous myth – that of cultural dispossession by the British’. Meaning that the story told in Translations, i.e. that the Irish language and culture was forcibly taken from them isn’t true, and gives us a skewed view of the process of colonisation. However it could be that this isn’t Friel’s whole intention. Although Hugh and Jimmy’s attempts are shown as heroic we hardly given the impression that they were actions to be taken seriously. Their contribution to the uprising in 1798 can be seen as satire. ‘Two young gallants with pikes across their shoulders and the Aeneid in their pockets’ going of to war and getting sidetracked and homesick in a pub can is easily interpreted as comedy, rather than propaganda, as can their comparison with mythic heroes. Friel’s inclusion of characters such as Maire also provides the audience which viewpoints which are supportive of the colonisation thus providing a more balanced picture.
Colonisation is explored through references to classical history as well as those to mythology. Jimmy Jack once again provides us with the link a Bridget tells Doalty that Jimmy had cried ‘Thermopylae! Thermopylae!’ during the advance of the soldiers through Baile Beag. Jimmy’s reading of classical texts lets him draw a romantic parallel between the events in Baile Beag and the historic battle of Thermopylae, a battle between the Persian colonialists and the Greeks in 480BC1. The battle was lost but it is an often used example of fighting heroically against the odds. The connotation that the Irish resistance is heroic reinforces some of the mythological content. However the loss of the battle of Thermopylae brings with it prophesies of doom which set the tone for rest of the play.
One of the strongest parallels between Ancient Greek and Roman culture with the traditional Irish culture shown in Translations is our knowledge of the fall of their civilisations. One of the most poignant parts of the play is Hugh’s last speech. He translates a passage of Virgil’s ‘Aeneid’:
‘HUGH: Urbs antiqua fuit – there was an ancient city which, ‘tis said, Juno loved above all the lands… Yet in truth she discovered that a race was springing from Trojan blood to overthrow some day these Tyrian towers… kings of broad realms and proud in war who would come forth for Lybia’s downfall – such was – such was the course – such was the course ordained- ordained by fate…’
Multiple meanings can be construed from Friel’s use of this passage. On first glance it is easy to see the similarities between the fall of Carthage and the ‘fall’ of pre-colonial Ireland. The descendants of Aeneas conquered Carthage and colonised it, making it part of the Roman Empire during the Punic wars2. It also carries with it the idea that all civilisations are one day fated to end. This interpretation matches Ireland with Carthage and Rome with the English colonists. Astrid Van Wayenberg3expands this idea with making a connection between Ireland and a second race that ‘sprung from Trojan blood, the English descendants of Aeneas's grandson Brutus’, this race seems now to be fated to destroy the Irish culture. A second idea, put forward by Alan Peacock is that when Hugh stumbles at the end of the passage it is because he is imagining that ‘just as Rome traced its ascendancy from the ashes of Troy, so will Ireland at some time renew herself’. This interpretation however seems unlikely when put into context with the rest of Hugh’s comments. Realising that mythology is often very different from the real world Hugh sums up one of the most important conclusions in the book, as he seems to resign himself to the fate of his culture. ‘We must learn where we live. We must learn to make them [the new place names in the name book] our own. We must make them our new home.’
1. The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell
3. The Achievements of Brian Friel, Edited by Alan Peacock
4. Astrid Van Weyenberg, www.americanstudies.wayne.edu
Here's what a teacher thought of this essay
A very articulate, perceptive commentary, which shows excellent knowledge of text, critical response and classical as well as Irish contexts. *****