Each time has its own specific attitude to the main events and their conditionality. Depending on the level of the development of society and its ability for critical thinking, events might be interpreted coherently or subjectively. In case when representatives of other epochs analyze events of the preceding times, one might expect more objectivity or a placement of a different emphasis on their interpretation. This is particularly relevant in cases of long-termed conflicts or struggles when each epoch is trying to explain conditionality of the conflict and find possible solutions. It may seem that depiction of the epoch’s attitude to a specific issue or event can be followed only through historical documents and serious materials, but epoch’s imprint might be even more vivid in literary works. In this context, there is no more expressive literary genre than a play. It aims at describing reality in the most explicit and memorable way, using symbolism, metaphors, historical and cultural context the described themes.
In the framework of all mentioned above, the best way to see how each epoch interprets specific historic-cultural issue is to analyze the way Irishry was explained by Yeats in his play “Cathleen ni Houlihan” and how it was further revised by Brian Friel in his play “Translations”. The main aim of the paper is to show how interpretation of the same idea of Irishly had evolved in the framework of historical development and transformation of the corresponding Irish reality. In this context, the central thesis of the present paper is that, in Friel’s perception, the main essence of Irishry (as being part of the Irish descendance in cultural and ethnic perspectives) was not about land, fighting and dying for freedom of Ireland but referred to ethno-cultural identity and nation’s ability to preserve it. This statement is proved in the next paragraphs. Appropriate conclusions are given in the end of the paper.
In order to understand what Friel was revising about Yeats’ perception of Ireland and how he made the mentioned above conclusion, it is essential to outline the essence of Irish spirit described in “Cathleen ni Houlihan”. In this play, Yeats followed a traditional way of interpreting Irishry in terms of territorial belonging (Watt 25). It is traditional, because it corresponds to the primeval way of describing people and their commonness through a territorial belonging. In this context, he followed mythological explanations of the nation as children of the mother-land who was giving them all essentials and required instead only protection (Lockett 301). In this context, Yeats described Ireland as an old woman asking her children for help and protection. The land-woman is described as having “too many strangers in the house”, who deprived her of “four beautiful green fields” (Yeats 81). Although the four fields correspond to four Irish provinces, the main symbolical weight of the description is in its historic-mythical context. Yeats’ symbol of poor old woman is calling to the core of his Irishry – family unity.
It is not accidently that the old woman came to a happy family preparing for the wedding. The inconsistency between her poor situation and their happiness are striking. In this case, Yeats’ perception of Irishry was that, irrespective of having mother land in common, Irish people were separated. Living their lives in relative happiness, they did not care about for the reality of their complicated situation. In this context, the only thing which could unite them was desire to defend their land against conquerors (Watt 28). Putting emphasis on the fact that the young groom left his family and bride in order to fight for his land, Yeats proved his idea that the essence of a true Irishman was a primeval instinct of defending his land and sacrificing his life for it (Lockett 296). In this context, just as the image of the land corresponded to an Ancient symbol of Morrigan – Celtic Goddess of War, who was described both old and young and was attracting men to the battle field; Yeats’ ideal Irishman was an embodiment of an Ancient Celtic warrior, who would fight for his land and sacrifice everything for it. This statement can be proved by woman’s words: “If anyone would give me help he must give me himself, he must give me all” (Yeats 84).
Although Yeats was describing the time of 1798, when an unsuccessful Irish rebellion took place, the whole story and its magic metamorphosis of the old woman into a young ruling queen correspond to Ancient legends rather than to the actual description of the Irish reality. Subsequently, in his description, Irishry gains an abstract and legendary image just as the whole story. Overall, Yeats’ notion of Irishry can be summarized as an Ancient (Celtic) code of honor which meant for an Irishman the sacredness of his land, family and warrior’s nobleness. In this context, it was just for Irish to fight the English and sacrifice life for the land. Thus, the main feature of Irishry was rebellious spirit which aimed at destruction of the family rather than protection of the family, which in the end was staying on its own, mourning warrior’s death. In this context, another essential element of Irishry was hereditary trait of respecting sacrifices of forefathers and following their path (Watt 31).
The main Friel’s revision of Yeats’ definition of Irishry is that he is taking entirely opposite historical perspective of addressing the issue. While Yeats paid attention to mystification of the image of Irish fighter in the retrospective of Celtic warriors, Friel concentrated on the integrity of Irish evolution from the point of his time. In this context, Friel was viewing Irishry as integrity of various aspects and not only the land. In his play, being Irish meant not only to protect Ireland as land, but to preserve ethnic inheritance and culture embodied in language and education. Thus, from the evolutionary perspective, Friel was moving forward to the multidimensional identity of Irishman, while Yeats was going backward, returning the essence of Irishry to the connection between land and primeval, male instinct to fight and kill (Lockett 298).
Unlike Yeats’ Irishry, Friel’s Irish people are not blind in their faith in some abstract idea of the Ireland. They are the embodiment of their country and culture. Friel shows the evolution of Irishry from primeval, land-oriented society to ethno-cultural, intelligence-oriented one. The main feature of his Irishman was intelligence that is why in his play people fluently speak Greek and Latin (Watt 23). It was no longer an agricultural Celtic society but a new ethno-cultural Irish civilization. The corner stone of that civilization was language as a carrier of nation’s history and part of identity described by Yeats. From Friel’s perception, without language, sooner or later the civilization will cease its existence. This idea is well outlined in Hugh’s comments on the correlation between English and Irish languages: “English was simply for commerce, but it couldn’t really express us [Irishmen] Gaelic is our only method of replying to inevitabilities” (Friel 37).
The mentioned above phrase is crucial for understanding that Irishman without Irish language was considered by Friel nothing more than Englishman or a foreigner. It should be emphasized that Friel does not contrast territorial, ethnical identity with a cultural one; he combines them into one ethno-cultural identity based on the territorial, ethnical and cultural specifics of Irish people (Watt 22). That is why in his play, the process of mapping the land is described as one of the violations against Irish identity and ownership of the land. In this context, the phrase “a map is a representation on paper” gains additional meaning – since names were changed from Irish to English and land was practically English, existence of Irish civilization was under threat (Friel 13). In other words, Friel argued that it was not only harmful for Irish identity to lose land but it was dangerous to lose its cultural presence on that land. In this context, Irishry was more under a threat of anglicanization rather than the deprivation of land.
Since the emphasis of the Irish identity became more complicated, methods of fighting against English colonization had also changed. Unlike Yeats’ suicide warriors, Friel’s Irishmen are more civilized in their perception of the struggle. Although Hugh and Jimmy participated in the same rebellion of 1798, just as Yeats’ hero did, they returned back alive and managed to live until times the story was narrated (Lockett 307). Just as Yeats’ hero, they were full of warrior courage and firmness: “The road to Sligo. A spring morning. 1798. Going into battle” (Friel 57). In this context, they are the same warriors as their Celtic forefathers. On the other hand, they are also courageous in their ability to live with the defeat of rebellion and even further adoption of the Act of Union (1800), which finally bound Ireland to the British Crown (Watt 27). Thus, Friel argues that another aspect of Irishry evolution is an ability to keep dignity under any circumstances. In this context, he revised Yeats unconditional perception of honor and patriotism. In Friel’s interpretation, courage is not in dying in the battlefield and committing suicide in order not to serve colonizers. The honor of an Irishman is ability to live and to preserve his ethno-cultural identity and family prosperity (Lockett 297).
In Friel’s play, the battle for Irish ethnicity and culture had shifted from the actual territorial battlefield to people’s minds and personal overviews of the surrounding environment. In this context, the main fight of Irishry for its survival referred to the issue of education and upbringing of children as an embodiment of Irish future. In this context, Friel is more worried about the substitution of the initially Irish education system (hedge schools) with the National Education System (Watt 29). The difference between two was that, according to the classic, Irish schooling system, any adult or child could attend school at his/hers convenience; thus, the overall level of high intelligence was achieved. Naturally, the language of education was Irish. On the other hand, the new system was strict and imposed legal obligation for all pupils to attend school (Watt 30). This had rather negative implications, since families kept children at home in order to help with housework and could not let them go to school in the exact schooling hours. Of particular importance was that teaching language was English and not Irish (Lockett 310).
Meaning of this change in education is particularly vivid in characters’ reaction to the news: “And from the very first day you go, you’ll not hear one world of Irish spoken. You’ll be taught to speak English and every subject will be taught through English” (Friel 65). Characters’ amazement shows another feature of Irishry – inability to accept supremacy of another culture and civilization irrespective of the circumstances. In this context, Friel’s characters are more mature in their self-perception and comprehension of Irishry. On the other hand, Yeats’ character is driven by an ideal and inborn instinct rather than his cognitive self-estimation and self-perception as an Irishman (Lockett 303). Thus, Friel was emphasizing personal growth of Irish people and development of Irishry irrespective of anglicanisation. In this context, another distinctive feature between Friel and Yeats is that the first one described Irishry in motion and constant development, while the second one showed it as a constant phenomenon which transferred through ages unchanged (Watt 36).
The difference between two perceptions of Irishry is also in its distinctiveness. Yeats was dealing mainly with abstract matters of mythology and symbolical interpretations. Subsequently, his main characters and features of Irishry they symbolized are quite vague and abstract in their nature and logic of behavior. In case of Friel, his characters are more specific and real in their appearance, behavior and motives. Thus, their Irishry is more tangible and realistic. The audience can imagine those people with their problems and specific identity. Therefore, Friel’s Irishry is more real and comprehensible for the contemporary audience, while Yeats was probably more comprehensible for his time. Another reason why Friel’s Irishry is more credible is that he paid more attention to description of the historical conditionality of the main events and people’s behavior. Basically, detailed description of historical events makes the story realistic and development of Irish identity more comprehensible. Except for mentioning of the main battles, legislature influencing Irish identity, Friel had introduced real historical figures like Daniel O’Connell, who led the uprising of the 1823 (Lockett 311). Historicity contributed to accuracy of phenomenon comprehension.
It should be emphasized that, although Yeats’ and Friel approaches to explanation of Irish are quite different, they describe the same phenomenon of being Irish. The main correlation between two notions of Irishry is in evolutional interconnection. While Yeats summarized the essence of Irishry in the time frame of preceding three millennia, Friel completed Yeats’ work according to the reality of his epoch and evolution of Irishry in it. Although historical events might have been better emphasized through Yeats’ perspective, their comprehension by the modern audience was achieved by Friel. In this context is meant that Friel was speaking in a more civilized language of Irishry than Yeats. He was encouraging people to preserve their ethno-cultural identity and pass it to the next generations.
Overall, the present study contributes to rediscovery of historical conditionality of connection between two literary works which described the same phenomenon of Irishry. The new meaning of two works discovered in this research will help the audience to understand that such phenomenon as ethno-cultural identity does not remain on one stage of development. It evolves together with the society and depends greatly on the historical environment of its existence. This research also shows that comparative analysis of works belonging to different times might be useful for a better comprehension of those works and a described topic. On the other hand, this research will not only assist target audience in comprehension of those two literary works and essence of Irishry, it will also help the audience in learning how to analyze historical events in literary framework.
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Watt, S. “The Voice of Nationism: One Hundred Years of Irish Theater”, Humanities, 20.1 (1999): 21-45. Print.
Yeats, W.B. Cathleen ni Houlihan. Toronto, ON: University of Toronto. 2011. Print.