It is an afternoon in late August of 1833 in the Irish-Speaking townland of Baile Bag/Balleybeg in County Donegal, Ireland. Manus and Sarah are in a hedge school situated in a dusty old barn, full of disused farm instruments alongside the students’ stools and benches and table for the school master.
Friel’s initial stage directions establish the simplicity and poverty of the Baile Beag hedge school. Hedge schools were common in nineteenth century Ireland and were often the only source of education for rural citizens.
Manus, the school master’s older son, is in his late twenties or early thirties with shabby clothes and an air of intensity. An aspiring teacher, he is also lame and works as an unpaid assistant for his father. At the moment he is teaching Sarah (who sits on a stool with a slate on her knees) how to speak. Sarah, who is waiflike and somewhere between the ages of seventeen and thirty-five, has a speech defect so severe that she communicates through gestures and grunts. In the corner reading Homer in ancient Greek is “the Infant Prodigy” Jimmy Jack Cassie, an unmarried man in his sixties who wears heavy clothing and attends evening classes for stimulation and company.
It will be revealed later in the play that Manus’ disability is the result of his father tripping over his cradle when he was a baby. Even this early moment, however, hints at the ways Manus’ father controls his son’s life and ultimately hampers his professional ambitions. Sarah, meanwhile will come to represent the country of Ireland itself—learning to speak a language soon to be rendered obsolete by the British. This moment also establishes Jimmy Jack’s erudition and ultimately doomed obsession with the ancient world.
Manus holds Sarah’s hand as he calmly instructs her to repeat phrases after him. She is reluctant, but with Manus’ steady encouragement she is able to say, “my name is Sarah.” Both are joyous. Jimmy enthusiastically reads aloud from Homer in both Greek and English, telling the story of the goddess Athene transforming Odysseus into an old man. He jokes with Manus about his love for “flashing eyed” Athene.
The fact that the first thing Manus teaches Sarah to say is her own name reflects the play’s theme regarding the connection between language and the assertion of identity—a connection soon to be further explored through the Irish Ordnance Survey. Jimmy’s obsession with the past is further established as well, and he will return to his love for Athene in the final moments of the play.
Manus looks out the window and wonders aloud where “he” (someone yet unknown) is. Sarah mimes that the man is probably drinking at a pub following a baby’s christening. With the man out drinking, Manus prepares to teach the class himself; it is now clear he was talking about his father, the school master. As he prepares the materials for class, Jimmy continues to read aloud, alternating between ancient Greek and English, stopping once to ask Manus the proper translation of a phrase. Sarah shyly gives Manus a bunch of flowers that she had hidden in the barn before class. Manus gets Sarah to say the word “flowers,” then kisses the top of her head.
Sarah’s gestures, though not language in the traditional sense, are nevertheless an important means of communication. She will repeat the same gestures in Act 3, though with an entirely different meaning. This moment also establishes Sarah’s deep affection for Manus, which will inform her actions throughout the play.
A “strong-minded, strong-bodied” woman in her twenties named Maire enters. Manus feels awkward that she saw him kissing Sarah and he comments on having seen Maire harvesting hay. Maire ignores him and sits on a stool next to Jimmy. The two converse briefly in Latin, before Maire comments that she is even worse in English, knowing only three words. She proceeds to say a memorized line of “English” aloud—"in Norfolk we besport ourselves around the maypoll”—though with an odd accent and without knowledge of the words she is saying. Maire continues to ignore Manus and asks Jimmy if he knows what the phrase means, but he responds that the only English word he knows is “bosom.”
Although the actors speak in English, within the world of the play, the characters are speaking Irish—and most characters, in fact, do not know how to speak English at all. Manus feels awkward for being caught kissing Sarah’s head because, it will soon be revealed, he is betrothed to Maire. The latter, meanwhile, will repeat her one English phrase in a romantic moment with Lieutenant Yolland.
Manus apologizes for not seeing Maire the previous night, saying he had been called upon to write a letter for a local woman. This woman dictated as Manus wrote, but she got so absorbed in her own story that she forgot who she was dictating to and insulted Manus and his father. This makes Maire laugh. She then notes that English soldiers will be coming to give her a hand with the hay, though she won’t understand a word they are saying.
This scene begins to clarify the romantic relationship between Maire and Manus. This is also the play’s first indication of the presence of British soldiers, whom Maire notes she cannot communicate with—foreshadowing the many moments of miscommunication that will take place between the British and Irish throughout the play.
Doalty and Bridget, two students in their twenties, enter noisily. Doalty carries a surveyor’s pole and does an imitation of the drunken school master. Doalty says that whenever the Red Coats put a surveyor pole down, he picks it up and moves it a few paces to confuse them and assert “a presence.” Jimmy recites Latin and Manus beats Doalty to translating it.
Doalty’s entrance suggests the growing Irish resentment towards the British soldiers’ presence on the island. His prank is a means of asserting his Irish identity in the face of British colonialism.
Everyone settles down for class, and Bridget asks if anyone knows the name of Nellie Ruadh’s baby, who was christened earlier that day. Manus asks where the Donnelly twins are, and Bridget begins to answer before commenting on the squeakiness of her slate. She practices writing while Doalty works on multiplication.
Nellie Ruadh’s baby becomes a symbol of the Irish language, with its christening representing the impending renaming of the Irish landscape by the British. This is also the play’s first mention of the Donnelly twins, who are later implied to play a role in the disappearance of the British officer Yolland. The fact that Bridget appears evasive in talking about the twins immediately suggests that they are involved in something illicit.
Manus walks around the school room to check in with each student. Upon reaching Maire, she says that the “passage money” came the previous night. She then tells Manus he needs to apply for a job at the national school that is soon opening, because it will put the hedge school out of business. He says he cannot apply because his father already has. Sarah is listening behind his shoulder.
The British began to implement a national school system throughout Ireland in the mid-nineteenth century. Free for students and taught only in English, these schools did indeed lead to the end of the hedge school system and were another mechanism of colonialism. This scene also further establishes Manus’ deference to his father. It will also soon be revealed that Maire is discussing the money required for her move to America.
Bridget off-handedly mentions soldiers making maps while talking about the “sweet smell,” indicating crop rot. Maire grows annoyed, asserting that the potatoes have never failed in Baile Beag. Talk returns to the new national school; the new laws say children must attend from the age of six until at least twelve, and that people don’t have to pay for anything except their books. This seems outrageous to Doalty. Bridget adds that all lessons will also be taught in English.
Bridget’s repeated references to the “sweet smell” foreshadow the potato blight known as the Great Famine that devastated Ireland in the 1840s. The elaboration of the new national school system reaffirms its potential to decimate both the presence of hedge schools throughout Ireland as well as knowledge of the Irish language.
Manus’ father, Hugh—a large, dignified yet shabbily-dressed man—enters carrying a stick. He has clearly been drinking, though he does not appear drunk, and explains that he was celebrating following the christening of Nellie Ruadh’s baby. As Hugh speaks, he quizzes the room on the Latin and Greek etymological origins of certain words and phrases, such as “caerimonia nominationis”—which Maire correctly responds means “the ritual of naming.” Hugh also asks where the Donnelly twins are; after a brief pause, Bridget says they’re probably at “the turf” before changing the subject to how much she owes Hugh for lessons.
This moment establishes both Hugh’s alcoholism and his penchant for ancient languages. The mention of Nellie Ruadh’s baby in conjunction with “naming” reaffirms the connection between names and the establishment of identity. Bridget’s quick changing of the subject regarding the Donnelly twins again suggests she is hiding some knowledge about them; given their later implied involvement in Yolland’s disappearance, they may be participating in illicit anti-British activities at this moment as well.
Hugh tells Manus to get him a cup of tea and then address the class. He says that on his “perambulations”—which Maire responds means his walk—he met Captain Lancey of the Royal Engineers. Lancey, who is in charge of surveying the area, told Hugh that some of his equipment and horses have gone astray. Lancey also said he speaks only English and was surprised the Baile Beag townspeople did not; Hugh responded that they could not properly express themselves in English.
The fact that Lancey speaks only one language makes him appear less educated than the Irish peasants he seeks to “civilize” through the Ordnance Survey. Hugh’s comment, meanwhile, creates a sense of comedic irony, given that the actor portraying him would, in fact, be speaking English in this moment.
As Hugh quizzes Bridget on Latin conjugations, Maire gets to her feet and asserts they should all be learning English. She says that the “Liberator” Daniel O’Connell called Irish a “barrier to modern progress,” and Maire agrees that it is far more useful than Greek or Latin—especially because she is going to America after the harvest. Hugh responds that he discussed the new national school with the local Justice of the Peace, who invited him to take it over when it opens and run it as he runs the hedge school.
Maire is clearly forward-thinking and understands that English will afford her more opportunities than Irish ever could. This underscores another way in which colonialism functions and effectively forces people to abandon their culture in order to survive. Many Irish citizens did indeed immigrate to the United States at this point in history as well.
Hugh’s younger son, Owen, enters. He is in his twenties, handsome, charming, and dressed like a city man. He enthusiastically greets everyone, remarking that even after six years nothing has changed. Owen confirms that he now owns multiple shops in Dublin and has six servants. He says he travelled from Dublin with Lieutenant Yolland, one of the sappers in charge of re-naming places in Baile Beag. He has also brought Captain Lancey, the British cartographer in charge of the area.
This is the play’s first introduction of Owen, whose actions will forever change the landscape of Ireland. His success in Dublin—where a significant amount of English was spoken at this time in history—reveals that Ireland is already changing quickly while remote, Irish-speaking places like Baile Beag are left behind.
Before bringing the men in, Owen remarks to Sarah that she is a new face in the classroom. After a brief pause she responds with her name. Before letting the men in, Owen says he is now on their payroll. Sarah excitedly tells Manus that she “said it,” but he ignores her, too interested in his brother. Owen says he is acting as their interpreter.
The fact that Sarah has grown increasingly confident in expressing her Irish identity makes her ultimate silencing at the hands of the British all the more tragic. Already her accomplishment is overshadowed by Owen’s entrance.
Hugh has everyone frantically tidy the room. Manus approaches Maire and remarks that she should have told him she was definitely leaving Ireland. Maire responds that though Manus talked to her about getting married, he has no solid job nor home and refused to apply to work at the new school—and, as such, he now has nothing.
Owen returns with the two British soldiers: Captain Lancey, a middle-aged man who seems uneasy around foreigners, and the shy, gangling Lieutenant Yolland, who is in his late twenties or early thirties. Lancey bluntly asks Owen—whom he mistakenly calls “Roland”—if the Baile Beag residents speak any English. Lancey proceeds to address the group as if they were slow-witted children, over-enunciating as he explains that his job to create a map of the county. Owen tells Lancey to simply speak normally and let him translate.
This scene introduces both Lancey and Yolland and establishes the latter’s impatience with the locals. Lancey clearly views Baile Beag as backwards and uncivilized. He represents oppressive British colonialism and prejudice towards the Irish.
Lancey says that the queen’s government is creating a new comprehensive map of Ireland, complete with topographic details, to provide the military with better information and for taxation purposes. Owen translates the gist of everything Lancey says, though he simplifies Lancey’s grandiose language and makes it more palatable to the Irish locals. Owen asks if the group wants to hear Yolland speak; Maire asks if Yolland has anything to say, which Owen translates to Yolland as “she’s dying to hear you.” Yolland stumbles over his words, saying he feels foolish for not knowing the language—which Owen translates as “he wants me to teach him Irish”—and that he has fallen in love with the country.
Lancey’s grandiose language again underscores his sense of superiority over the Irish, even as he initially attempts to present the mapping project as beneficial for locals. Owen’s translation is not necessarily inaccurate, but it does reflect his desire to make the project appear less threatening. Unlike his colleague, Yolland is quickly established as more sympathetic to the Irish. This is also the first interaction between Yolland and Maire, albeit through the medium of Owen.
As the others mingle, Manus confronts Owen about mistranslating the soldiers’ words. Manus says that the undertaking sounds like a “military operation” and demands to know what is “incorrect” about their current place names. Owen responds that they will be “standardized,” which Manus understands to mean “changed into English.” Manus also asks if Owen will ever tell the soldiers that his name is, in fact, not Roland. Owen insists it does not really matter since he is the same man regardless of what he is called Manus watches as Owen confidently returns to the rest of the group, while Sarah stares at Manus.
Because Manus speaks English, he is able to understand everything Lancey just said and grasp the threat the project poses to Irish identity. Owen’s nonchalance about being misnamed by the British reflects that he does not yet grasp the important link between names and identity. Sarah’s staring ends the act on an ominous note and foreshadows the fact that she will silently watch other important moments unfold.