By setting the action in a hedge-school, threatened by the establishment of a national school which will conduct all classes in English only, Brian Friel creates a final redoubt for Gaelic culture and the revival of classical languages, which themselves had experienced a decline. Hugh draws just such a comparison between the classics and Irish for Captain Yolland by defining the essence of classical, and implicitly Gaelic, languages, in terms of their etymological and vibrant adherence to a principle innately spiritual (“We like to think we endure around truths immemorially posited”). Hugh’s suggestion that the opulence of the Gaelic language provides compensation for the material dearth of the country folk who speak it is the clearest exposition of Friel’s intent in the play.
As the play proceeds, Friel depicts a variety of responses to imminent cultural extinction. In the instance of Jimmy Jack, Gaelic and classical myths have merged so inextricably that he resides in a delusional state which, though charming in his blurring of myth and reality, denies him the opportunity for meaningful change and adaptation. Maire’s decision to flee the potato blight and learn English is portrayed as a logical step in this time of “modern progress,” but it is not passionately embraced by Friel. Captain Yolland’s affection for the Gaelic tongue and manners renders him an attractive figure in the play, though his implied death suggests that the barriers of language are not easily surmounted. Owen’s duplicitous translations of the English for the Irish invest him with an ambivalence which is itself a prison, as he discovers when he is forced to translate into Gaelic the potential violence to be exacted upon County Donegal by Captain Lancey. Hugh’s closing words to Owen sustain his notion that Gaelic myths invigorate a colonized world: “It is not the literal past, the ‘facts’ of history, that shape us, but images of the past embodied in language.” Whether this balance can be maintained under the duress of invasion remains unresolved, and Hugh’s quotation from Vergil regarding the urbs antiqua (the ancient city) analogically bodes ill for Baile Beag, itself an urbs antiqua poised for a heroic fall.