Issues Of Communication In Irish Writing English Literature Essay

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Brian Friel, Seamus Heaney and John McGahern are three of Ireland's greatest writers. Whereas Friel and Heaney who deal with suppression of the Irish by the English in their own inimitable way whether personally or generally, McGahern is more insular in his depiction of Irish rural life. They write individually through the medium of fables, theatre and poetry about the conflict inherent within Irish cultural. They communicate in a fashion representing the people they knew best and the intrinsic pride of the Irish.

Friel's 'Translations was described as his 'theatrical masterpiece'. It was the first production by Field Day which was a cultural arts group founded by Friel and later associated with Heaney, the agenda of which was to examine the imaginary creation of Ireland's past and how through discursive practice different constructions are brought about and how language helps create historical reality.  Both Heaney's 'Open Ground' and Friel's 'Translations' were written during the carnage of the 'Troubles' in Ireland at its height during the 1970s and 1980s, a period when Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister, there was internment without trial, sectarian killings and IRA bombings. Their work is seen as a 'vehicle for representing methods central to the colonial discourse of Imperialist aspirations.' [2] 'Translations', a story set in the 19th century, deals with the displacement of the Irish language and a great deal of Irish culture by the English during this time. Friel relates how English imperialism put its stamp on the land of the Irish. Friel uses a group of English soldiers to show how the troops travelled through parts of Ireland renaming cities, towns and landmarks. Captain Lancey's convoluted method of explaining the British intentions is often succinctly and erroneously paraphrased by Owen to the extent that there is bound to be something lost in translation. This is demonstrated when Captain Lancey says, 'This enormous task has been embarked on so that the military authorities will be equipped with up-to-date and accurate information on every corner of this part of the Empire.' Owen translates this simply as 'The job is being done by soldiers because they are skilled in this work.' This has been translated speciously by Owen and so the Irish interpret this to mean that the renaming and anglicizing of Ireland is to create a more just system of land ownership and taxation for them. This episode to some extent ends up like a game of 'Chinese whispers'. Lancey thinks he has clearly communicated to the Irish whereas in actual fact he hasn't. Owens lackadaisical attitude in forming a more detailed and comprehensive translation leads to an illusion that the Irish fully understand what Lancey is conveying to them.

Whereas the underlying trend to the conversations in 'Translations' is one of apparent confusion and misinterpretation between the protagonists, which is clear to see ,Heaney demonstrates a discourse in his poetry that has more of a personal, political, historical and religious backdrop and shows that there is fundamental deviousness in the dialogue between strangers in present day Ireland. This is amply conveyed in Heaney's poem 'Whatever You Say, Say Nothing' where the personalities involved are discerned by covert conversations in order to establish each other's religion. 'Religions never mentioned here,' of course. / you know them by their eyes, and hold your tongue'. Heaney is indicating that although religion is the main cause of sectarian conflict, people feel unable to mention it for fear of reprisal. The religion of a person is judged by their appearance or name. Communication in these circumstances becomes a coded exchange with a false impression of friendship between the Catholics and Protestants. There tends to be a hidden agenda in the conversations between the two religions. Outwardly both parties appear to put on a façade of friendliness but underneath the verbiage there lies a division of an historical nature with a lot of baggage in tow due to the polarization of religion in Irish society. As Heaney portrays 'Norman, Ken and Sidney signalled Prod/And Seamus (call me Sean) was sure-fire Pape. / O land of password, handgrip, wink and nod, / Of open minds as open as a trap.' Heaney uses the last sentence as a simile representing that all was not as it appeared to be. There is the appearance of open communication and affability when in fact there is a Machiavellian undertone. Andrew Finlay states that 'When strangers in Northern Ireland meet, they draw upon a variety of cues in an attempt to ascertain each other's religio-political-identity and depending on the outcome, enter into what Burton (1978) terms 'systematically distorted' or 'pseudo-communication.' [3] Heaney further highlights the falseness of the situation by using the repetition of 'civil' in the line 'Expertly civil-tongued with civil neighbours'. Just as the neighbours are not feeling civil towards the 'I' in the poem, the 'civil' words are being used to disguise true feelings. In this sense the communication is 'fake' and the 'retorts' are 'elaborate' rather than honest. Heaney is well aware of the hypocrisy in this moment of illusionary communication.

John McGahern, although a contemporary of both Friel and Heaney is classed as a pragmatist and in his novel 'Amongst Women' is concerned with the representation of the rural life of Ireland concentrating on 'a fable about the society created after independence,' [4] featuring an ageing guerilla army veteran who concentrates on the past and focuses on the future. He is as Sampson describes, 'emotionally frozen in time and unable to adapt with any grace to the changes that threaten his vulnerable and authoritarian position'. In this fable, Moran uses a considerable amount of army metaphors in communication with his family and friends. For example, rather than telling his family to 'change their attitude' he says, 'change their tune'. The metaphor usage is a rapid way for McGahern to express his characters' thoughts in daily communication. The use of the military metaphors is symptomatic of seeing things from a different perspective based on previous experience. Moran's family, however, does not understand or relate to his experiences. The issue surrounding McGahern's figurative expressions are not received in the same way that he expects. Moran from the very beginning of the novel is psychologically ill-suited to open communication. When teased about his attraction to women in his youth ''That was all talk' Moran said, angry as ever at any baring of the inviolate secrecy he instinctively kept around himself'. Moran is a disillusioned hero believing in a tight knit family unit and an ideal home which he tentatively holds together through fear. His power and control are characterised by his frequent references to the army and military life, 'it'd be easier if we met the troops for the first time at the concert' or 'That's what I always used to say to the troops 'referring to the family as a unit akin to the IRA unit he commanded during the struggle for Irish independence. Linguistic expressions such as these that are carried over from a tangible foundation to a more abstract one create expressions whose metaphorical base is unrecognized because they become tokens of communication and create a problem when those in conversation are unable to glean a meaningful interpretation. As Lakoff and Johnson observed the 'search for appropriate personal metaphors that make sense of our lives' is an important element of self-understanding [5] . Communication is a way of understanding each other but in fact Moran's communication to his children pushes them away instead of drawing them closer.

This failure of communication is seen to be the focal point of 'Amongst Women' and is depicted no better than with the relationship between Moran and Luke his eldest son. Moran's inability to communicate with Luke is seen when he writes a letter to him as an olive branch of peace, 'Moran spent a long time composing the letter.' Luke's response is a telegram which says no more than 'Delighted to meet Maggie stop love stop Luke'. There is also a metaphor described in this passage which amply depicts the relationship between father and son which suggests that it is dead. 'The small green envelope with the harp usually came with news of sudden death.' The failure of communication between Moran and Luke is again later seen when they meet at Sheila's wedding. The discourse here shows Moran's refusal to reconcile when in response to Luke's statement 'I want to thank you', Moran aggressively replies 'for what?', thus shutting down any attempt and any chance of a rapprochement. This is conclusively seen when Luke refuses to return for the last ditch Monaghan Day, 'I'd be no use.'

On another level, 'Amongst Women' portrays a former colonial society which was obliged, for historical reasons, to adopt the English language. The use of old expressions are entrenched in the cultural terminology of the English eg 'be a laughing stock', 'to have someone in leg-irons'. According to Benedict Anderson the rural people of Ireland underwent a type of exile when they were made to learn a standardized vernacular in schools: 'The revival of the native language … was an inevitable protest against such homogenization, recognition that to be anglicized was not at all the same thing as to be English'. [6] 

In this 'fable about society created after Independence', liberation was not accompanied by a revival of the native Gaelic language. Whilst not necessarily, true Corkery asserts that 'Ireland has not learned to express itself through the medium of the English language'. [7] Nonetheless, the use of fossilized expressions in 'Amongst Women' goes a long way in endorsing Kiberds insight into consequences of colonisation: 'the effects of cultural dependency remained palpable long after the formal withdrawal of the British Military: it was less easy to decolonize the mind than the territory'. [8] 

Friel also shows evidence of the conflict between language and culture as the English undercut Gaelic history, as the local hedge school Headmaster Hugh O'Donnell says "it can happen that a civilization can be imprisoned in a linguistic contour that no longer matches the landscape of fact". Friel argues that many of the Irish had previously discarded the Gaelic. He shows an Irish culture that was indifferent as it was lost after the English came through the region. He said the Irish had discarded Gaelic in favor of Greek or Latin. [9] 

Friel, therefore, sees communication almost synonymous with culture and history. But he does not see the Irish losing when it comes to the issue of language. He celebrates the Gaelic but offers an approach of consolidation, or an opportunity for the Irish to make their own words. Friel's idea of communication is different from that of Seamus Heaney, the Irish poet. Friel says regarding communication, "It is not the literal past, the facts of history, that shape us, but images of the past embodied in language". [10] This is in contrast with Heaney's poetry which is particularly influenced by the factual history of Ireland with a strong theme of politics flowing through the majority of his works. The degree to which this theme is exploited varies from the explicitly political poems such as 'The Ministry of Fear' to the implicit 'Digging'.

In "Translations," Friel uses what is termed as theatre convention (the rules by which the play is performed). The characters who are Irish speak their own language, which is Gaelic. The characters who are English speak their native tongue. The audience, however, has no problem understanding what is being said. In fact, Friel makes use of irony by writing the play itself in the English language. [11] 

'Translations' tells of the military imposition of cultural imperialism using the colonial assignment of cartography and the ending of the hedge-schools replacing it with national schools that use the English language as the standard mode of instruction.  Friel says "The play has to do with language and only language" [12] The play concerns the subject of names and their relation to identity and culture. [13] The efforts of Maire an agrarian peasant and Lieutenant Yolland the army surveyor to understand each other have been unsuccessful because of the dissimilarity in culture personified in the difference in language. In the love scene between Maire and Yolland, however, it is only when they distance themselves from language, when the Irish names become just a meaningless list lacking any tangible meaning that the two are able to establish any real communication. In this instance the divisions of class, culture and religion are never more apparent as they serve to obstruct communication and when translated further across these boundaries, misinterpretation is guaranteed. However an important metaphor arises from this when Maire, speaks of the 'leap across the ditch'. This symbolises the 'lovers' imaginative leap across the tribal and class boundaries that divide them.' In the dialogue that follows between Maire and Yolland, Friel uses dramatic device to trick the audience into thinking communication has been successful even though neither of them can speak each other's language. Friel does this by appearing to show the lovers echoing the others remarks. This is shown when Maire tells Yolland 'You're trembling.' to which he says 'Yes, I'm trembling because of you.' Maire replies 'I'm trembling, too.' During this conversation they have the exact same thought process but of course this is only achieved because the audience hears the play in English. As Roche comments, 'If you did not know that one character was speaking Irish and the other English, you might think that Maire and Yolland were having a conversation.' [14] Maire, being Irish would have been speaking Gaelic and so Yolland would have no inkling as to what she was saying, meaning this uncanny understanding was pure coincidence set up by Friel.

Heaney also takes delight and pride bordering on superiority in the Gaelic language and the fact that foreigners, especially the English find it difficult to pronounce. This is exemplified in his poem 'Broagh' '….like that last/gh the strangers found/difficult to manage'. This poem also serves to make Heaney think of the past through the images portrayed and conjured up by a simple place name. Heaney's poems are rooted in Irish culture. His goal is to paint a picture through poetry using Ireland as his backdrop. [15] Therefore, Heaney looks at the pen between his thumb and fingers and tells the world that he "will dig with it", Heaney is different from other writers in that he is not just telling a story, Heaney is serving as witness to the events of Ireland. This is shown in 'Summer 1969' where Goya's paintings for example 'Shootings of the Third of May' eloquently speak about the forces in Ireland in the 1970's and 1980's. Goya's paintings which depict chaos across the landscape chime with Ireland's history and present. This is formed through the use of imagery. Heaney describes how Goya's painting encapsulates 'the thrown-up arms/And spasm of the rebel, the helmeted/And knapsacked military'.

Heaney rejects the form and subject matter of the typical Irish ballad, that of telling a story through its narrative and communicating on behalf of the Catholic minority. Instead Heaney seems to reflect the role of a detached archaeologist who discovers as he digs that one era is in contact with another, these types of between periods Heaney calls consonances. The bog poems act as shafts down through time depicting echoes of earlier voices. These consonances can be found in his bog poems and in particular 'Punishment' where the tarry skin of the Windeby Girl speaks to her 'betraying sisters' also 'cauled in tar'. In the 'Bog Queen' Heaney acts as a poet archaeologist who excavates the 'Bog Queen' and gives her a voice 'I lay waiting' and by doing this he can then communicate his perception of the 'Troubles' through the past in order to help the present, acting to some extent like a 'ventriloquist'.


McGahern uses conflict, often between the verbal exchanges of his characters. He also makes noted choice of pauses and silence in an effort to show readers that his characters are having trouble communicating. His characters are unable to express their feelings: a common thread throughout McGahern's work. In fact, the closer the characters are to one another, the more trouble they have communicating. [16] Heaney, however, has communication skills that are exact. He knows the right word to use for a specific tone he wants to express. However, non-Irish readers may have trouble reading Heaney's work due to the Gaelic influences used. Heaney communicates more often than the other writers; he has a respect for the land, and world around him. Like Friel, Heaney ties language to heritage. He provides a story of not only a family but an entire land. His respect for his father and the labourers is unique to Heaney. However, Heaney tells readers that he is involved in "digging," only with a different set of tools.

All three writers understood the importance of language to communicate. The phrase "lost in translation" exemplifies the vivid story portrayed in Friel's play as he considers a lost culture. In "Open Ground" Heaney searches for a lost identity. McGahern, on the other hand, shows how a lack of communication can cause conflict and pain. They all communicate a passion for Ireland that cannot be ignored.