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 up to the standards of Hugh, Jimmy Jack and Manus, yet we get the impression that those less-capable members of the hedge-school are still willing to learn. Both Bridget and Doalty, two characters who provide the play with many of its comedic moments, are portrayed as less intelligent, yet we see that they are enthusiastic. Near the start of the play, Doalty is described in the stage directions as a “slightly thick young man”, and when asked by Hugh the product of seven and nine, he pauses before replying “What’s wrong with me: sure seven nines are fifty-three, Master”. At one point, Hugh even says that Doalty was appropriately named – an implication that Doalty is, as his name suggests, a dolt. However, despite their intellectual incapabilities, Doalty and Bridget do make the effort. They attend the hedge-school, and are so enthusiastic about their education that Bridget is willing to pay Hugh “the one-and-eight I owe you for last quarter’s arithmetic” and “my one-and-six for this quarter’s writing”. Therefore, while some of the inhabitants of Baile Beag are less intelligent than others, they still show commitment and enthusiasm towards their learning.
However, some of the inhabitants of Baile Beag are both unintelligent and unwilling to learn. Throughout Act 1 we hear of people such as Nora Dan who, according to Hugh, believes her education is complete because she is capable of writing her name, and Sean Beag who is “at the salmon” – i.e. contributing to the pastoral side of the community instead of making the effort to advance his own knowledge. The inclusion of people such as this gives the reader the impression that Baile Beag is home to, not only intellectuals such as Hugh and Jimmy Jack, but also to uneducated people who would rather work in the fields or use their name-writing skills to sign contractual agreements pertaining to the exchange of corn.
Unfortunately, those who attend the hedge-school may be studying Latin and Greek, but these are dead languages. Similarly, even though no-one in Baile Beag knows it, the Irish language is soon to be destroyed, what with the arrival of the English imperial forces at the end of the first act. Furthermore, while Hugh, Jimmy Jack and Manus are intellectual, as people they are flawed. To begin with, Hugh is a drunk. The stage directions describe his initial entrance – “And immediately Hugh enters. A large man, with residual dignity”. From this we can gather that Hugh had once been respected, yet is now a drunk (although he has retained some dignity). He is also highly pompous and pretentious – his sentences are wordy and convoluted, and he speaks so much that he consistently fails to get to the point. Upon entering, his first words are: “Adsum, Doalty, adsum. Perhaps not in sobrietate perfecta but adequately sobrius to overhear your quip. Vesperal salutations to you all”. Furthermore, he treats Manus, his son, as a servant – the stage directions describe how, after entering for the first time, Hugh “removes his hat and coat and hands them and his stick to Manus, as if to a footman”. In fact, this is similar to how Manus treats Sarah, one of his pupils. Yes, Manus is committed to his work and treats it almost like a vocation, yet he uses her, at one point asking her to “set out the stools”. Jimmy, on the other hand, is entirely good-natured, yet he is a tramp. The stage direction describe how “he never washes” and how “his clothes…are filthy and he lives in them summer and winter, day and night”. Near the start of the play, Jimmy begins to lecture Doalty on the type of soil needed for corn, to which Doalty replies: “Too lazy be Jasus to wash himself and he’s lecturing me on agriculture!”. Therefore, it is clear that there are flaws within Baile Beag – those who live there are trapped in time, speaking dead languages, while those considered to be intellectual are far from perfect in other respects. In this way, Baile Beag may be a relatively intellectual community, but it is not entirely idyllic.
As I have already mentioned, Baile Beag is a community trapped in time. The people who live there speak dead languages, while the stage directions at the start of the play portray Baile Beag as a place in a state of neglect and decay. The hedge school is said to be “held in a disused barn or hay-shed or byre”, which houses “broken and forgotten instruments” and has seen “no trace of a woman’s hand”. This description creates the idea that Baile Beag is a society in decay, while the “wooden stairway without a banister” highlights through symbolism the way in which the residents of Baile Beag live on the edge; constantly in danger of their surroundings crumbling and leaving them with nothing.
On the contrary, Baile Beag is a community rich in culture and togetherness. In Act 2, Yolland describes how he hears music and laughter coming from house in the village, and in Act 1 we read about a “gathering” in which a very disparate yet paradoxically close selection of people come together with the intention of learning. They know eachother very well – even Owen (brother of Manus, son of Hugh), who arrives during a lesson in the hedge-school after having spent a considerable amount of time in England, is able to talk to everyone on a personal level. One could argue that this emphasises the idea of Baile Beag being unable to move forward and progress, yet it also conveys a strong sense of community and closeness.
Friel may be presenting the reader with a closely-knit community, but it is also a society living on a knife-edge. In one conversation, Maire mentions a conversation she had with someone who had noticed a “sweet smell”. Instantly, panic takes hold of the room. Doalty is convinced that the smell is “rotting stalks”, and while Maire refutes his claim by asking the question “did the potatoes ever fail in Baile Beag?”, Doalty’s panic is not unjustified. Maire may believe that the community is “always sniffing about for it…looking for disaster”, yet she goes on to expound upon the potential problems which have Baile Beag in a constant grip of fear – the rent increasing; the loss of the harvest; the herring leaving for good; evictions. Therefore, while Baile Beag is (at the start of the play, at least) relatively tranquil, it rests on something of a knife-edge.
Furthermore, there is a real and distinct danger that the Irish language and culture will be destroyed. We hear of the soon-to-be-built English national school, which allows everyone a free education at the expense of the loss of the Irish language. Not only that, but the remapping of Ireland to be carried out by English imperial forces is itself a form of cultural erosion. In his critique of ‘Translations’, Alan J Peacock says that “What has been renamed and mapped is a mutilation of what was. Everything essential has been lost in the translation”. Therefore, the remapping of Ireland threatens to erode not only the Irish language but also its history and culture. Furthermore, the mere presence of The English creates a sense of unease, and the reactions of the people of Baile Beag – from Doalty’s infantile pranks to Yolland’s tale of the little girl who spat at him – heighten the tension between the community and the outside threat.
In my opinion, Baile Beag is an intellectual Irish Arcadia, but only to a certain extent. Yes, Friel presents us with character such as Hugh and Jimmy Jack who are fluent in Latin and Greek, yet Baile Beag is also home to the less intelligent (Doalty and Bridget) and the less willing to learn. Certainly, the intellectual capacity of characters in the play cause the reader to look beyond his/her stereotypes of the nature of Ireland and its people at that time, yet Baile Beag is not what one would describe as a predominantly intellectual community. Furthermore, while Baile Beag is a place rich in community and in culture, a sense of threat and danger undercuts this. For, you see, Friel presents us with a society that teeters on a knife-edge; a people that live in constant fear of rural collapse and the horrendous poverty which would inevitably follow. Exacerbating the relentless grip which this fear has on people’s lives is the prospect of the collapse of the Irish language at the hands of the national school, and the potential cultural and linguistic erosion as the result of the remapping of Ireland by imperial forces (although it is unlikely that the people of Baile Beag were aware of this erosion until it occurred). Therefore, while Baile Beag may be a relatively intellectual community, it is in no way an idyllic Arcadia.
Darren Anderson. 13PD.