In Act 1 of 'Translations' Friel presents us with an 'intellectual Irish Arcadia'. How far do you agree?

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In Act 1 of ‘Translations’ Friel presents us with an ‘intellectual Irish Arcadia’. How far do you agree?

‘Translations’, by Brian Friel, presents us with an idyllic rural community turned on its head as the result of the recording and translation of place names into English; an action which is at first sight purely administrative. In Act 1 of the play, Friel brings together the inhabitants of this quaint Irish village in what can only be described as a gathering of minds – minds which study the classics, yet minds which study dead languages. In the same way, while this community is rich in culture and togetherness, it is also trapped in what is later described as a “contour which no longer matches the landscape of…fact”. Thus, in expressing his ambivalence, Friel presents the reader with a question – is Baile Beag an intellectual Irish Arcadia?

There is no denying that Baile Beag is an intellectual community. At the beginning of the play, Jimmy Jack Cassie, one of the central characters, is in the process of reading Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’. He is capable of reading the text fluently and understands it, despite it being in another language (although he later reveals that, while he is fluent in Latin and Greek, he knows only one word of English). He even relates his own life to that of characters in the book, posing the question, “if you had the picking between them [Athene, Artemis & Helen of Troy], which would you take?”. Furthermore, he even goes so far as to associate the smoke described within the pages of the text to the turf smoke which he believes has turned his hair flaxen.

Hugh, the teacher in charge of the running of the hedge-school, is also an intellectual. While one could argue that he displays pomposity (his long, drawn out sentences result in him never remembering to discuss the latter of the points he intends to make), it is obvious that he is of a fine mind. The first time Hugh speaks in the play, he greets his class with the line “Vesperal salutations to you all”, illustrating perfectly the grasp which he has of the Irish language. Furthermore, he is fluent in other languages as well, and has the tendency to say phrases in Latin and Greek before asking members of his class to translate them into Irish. He even has some knowledge of the connotations and etymology of words – at the start of the play, he says (in reference to the derivation of the word ‘baptise’), “Indeed – our friend Pliny Minor speaks of the ‘baptisterium’ – the cold bath”.

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Even Manus, Hugh’s son, is intelligent. Near the start of the play, we hear him describe how “Biddy Hanna sent for me to write a letter to her sister in Nova Scotia”. The fact that Manus is capable of speaking English, despite living in Ireland, displays his knowledge of language. Furthermore, he works in the hedge-school, therefore clearly has the knowledge and ability to teach, while the stage directions at the start of the play describe his attitude towards his work as zealous – he is not only intelligent, but enthusiastic.

Inevitably, not everyone in Baile Beag is ...

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