Another theme in the play is one of cultural identity. The town of Baile Beag, according to Hugh, makes up for the lack of wealth with “a rich language”. The Irish language gives them an identity separate from the English, one that may seem “hermetic” to some, including Yolland, but which allows them to be unique and uphold tradition through their place names. Perhaps it is also for tradition that Friel has used the conventional three Act structure as a literary framework for the play. Within the extract, some political issues are encountered. It is clear that Hugh has Nationalist views-the English language is referred to as “plebeian”.
This opinion is shared by Manus, Hugh’s son, who purposely speaks Irish in front of Yolland, and rudely responds to Yolland’s translation from Irish to English with “So. ” Though both Hugh and Manus are Nationalists and oppose anglicizing Irish place names, Friel does not directly state this in the two characters’ speech. The approach is subtler, as shown in the quotes above, yet their views are clearly visible to the audience. In the play there is much conflict between the Irish and the British. It is almost as if Manus represents Ireland and Yolland represents Britain, a parallel to the situation in 1833 (the setting of the play).
Owen, on the other hand, has an ambiguous role which is questioned by Manus. Manus suggests that he is a traitor indirectly, within the subtext-“But there are always the Rolands, aren’t there? ” At the time of the setting of the play English was the language of power, commerce and social acceptance. Highlighting this is Friel’s decision for Yolland to speak in Standard English at all times. In comparison, Doalty uses colloquial terms such as “Cripes”, and his regional dialect-“I don’t know a word you’re saying”, creating a more friendly feel to the text.
These strong accents show the difference in status of a young English soldier and an Irishman such as Doalty. A dialect and colloquialism could be said to be characteristic of working class people in 1833, expressing Friel’s political view regarding social class explicitly. Hugh, perhaps the most articulate character, brings up the final point. He understands that change is necessary to every country in order for them to progress. Hugh realises that words are not “immortal”, and uses the metaphor “a civilisation can be imprisoned in a linguistic contour which no longer matches the landscape of fact” to address this.
When it is considered in the context of the time in which the play was written (1981), when America was the dominant country and Ireland’s identity was fading, Hugh’s idea that change is necessary seems very wise. It should also be noted that not only is the play written in English for what Friel himself called a ‘dramatic conceit’, but also because Gaelic had become so rarely used that a large majority of the audience would only understand the play if it was written in English, including, ironically, an Irish audience.