There is a motif running through modern Irish literature where somebody starts out unable to speak, and finishes in a condition of great eloquence. In James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man on the first page, Baby Stephen is lisping, he’s mispronouncing words, he cannot speak, but that novel, a sort of central classical Irish novel, ends with Stephen about whom the story was being told, taking over the story and telling it himself in his own eloquent way.
Similarly, in J. M. Synge’s Playboy of the Western World, the hero when we first meet him, is a stuttering lout in a ditch, he can’t speak and he comes out of the ditch into the pub, and he starts telling a story which is partly a lie and partly of course the truth. And he becomes more and more eloquent. The more eloquent he becomes the more he discovers he has an identity, that he is a person.
More recently Brian Friel also uses this more nuanced device in Translations where, as the play opens, Manus is teaching Sarah to speak in the local hedge school in Ballybeg. Her speech defect is so bad that all her life she has been considered to be dumb and she herself has accepted this. She is described in the Stage Directions as being ‘waiflike’ and she, ‘could be any age from seventeen to thirty-five’. She is used in the play to symbolise the vexed issue, a preoccupation of Friel’s, of communication, language and Irish identity. In the play Sarah is perpetually spoken for, she then gradually finds her voice only to lose it again. She never achieves the eloquence of Stephen Dedalus or Christy Mahon. Towards the end of the play she refuses to speak to Captain Lancey and maybe this act can be interpreted as regressing back to her previous state or maybe as an act of resistance to his colonising influence……..
This enforced silence is also a feature of more recent Irish writing. A well-known saying in the North during ‘The Troubles’ was, ‘Whatever you say, say nothing’. Seamus Heaney used the phrase as the title and the theme of one of his most impressive poems on the North of Ireland:
‘The famous Northern reticence, the tight gag of place
And times: yes, yes. Of the ‘wee six’ I sing
Where to be saved you only must save face
And whatever you say, say nothing.’
There is a natural reserve built in to any discussion about politics or about happenings where there may be conflict. Nowhere is this depicted better than in Seamus Deane’s brilliant novel about the Northern Ireland conflict, Reading in the Dark.