[Currach from history into the present. Foto Rb]

This essay analyses two works by two authors who engage with the complex notions of writing and making history. Brian Friel, Irish playwright and director of the Field Day Theatre Company, was born in 1929, and Umberto Eco, Italian novelist and journalist, was born in 1932. Not only are they contemporaries but their countries similarly experienced a time of crisis in the second decade of the twentieth century. Friel, living and working in Northern Ireland, witnessed the Irish period known as “the Troubles”, which saw differences between Protestants and Catholics and the engagement of the IRA (Irish Republican Army) against the British army. At the end of the 1960s protests started in Northern Ireland against discriminations that affected the fair assignment of jobs and houses. In August 1969 the tension resulted in the clashes known as the ‘Battle of the Bogside’ which started as confrontation between local Catholics and the police but ended spreading sectarian rioting to a number of other cities. The climax was reached in 1972, a year when political violence escalated and nearly 500 people, a good part of them civilians, lost their lives.

An atmosphere of tension could be found in Italy approximately at the same time. It started with students’ protests in the late 1960s to demand adequate services in universities, and degenerated into the fascist terrorist attack to Banca dell’Agricoltura (Milan, December 1969), the peak episode in the so-called ‘strategy of tension’. The violence continued in subsequent years, and reached a high level from 1977 to 1979, a biennium known as ‘anni di piombo’ (yers of lead). In 1978 Aldo Moro, the President of the Italian Christian Democratic party, was kidnapped and killed by the Red Brigades, a far-left terrorist group [1]. In August 1980 a bomb, apparently set by fascists, exploded in Bologna railway station resulting in eighty-five victims.

Against the background of such political and historical circumstances, both authors address the question of the writing of history. The purpose of this article is to investigate how Eco and Friel answer such a question and to show how different their responses are. I argue that while Friel employs a serious and dramatic tone to support the cause of national myths on to which one clings at difficult times, Eco warns against the danger of myth-making and responds to it through parody. Both intertwine their intellectual activity with an active participation in contemporary social events. The Field Day theatre company that Friel founded with Stephen Rea in 1980 in Derry is often seen as a controversial political and intellectual venture based on both literature and history [2]. Friel’s first plays address the problem of the role of the artist as a story-teller and of fiction as either consoling or enabling. However, after 1972 he felt compelled to engage with the political events of his country. Pelletier points out that Friel is both perceived by his critics as the playwright investigating the family and the individual but also as the personification of the committed intellectual, in other words Ireland’s leading “écrivain engagé” (Pelletier, p. 188).

In particular, for Friel commitment meant entering the widespread debate on Irish history and Revisionism, which was started as early as in 1938 by T.W. Moody and R.D. Edwards, founders of Irish Historical Studies as a technical journal for historians [3]. With the beginning of the Troubles, Revisionism concentrated with more insistence on the effects that politics had on the writing of Irish history and ended up working as British propaganda (Whelan, p. 190). In the 1980s Revisionism left the academic and political elite to spread a more populist dimension through agencies of the literary and media establishment such as RTE, the Independent newspaper group and the Irish Times. Revisionism represented a strategy stressing the urgency of reformatting popular attitudes to the past so to undermine the appeal of republicanism (Whelan, p. 192).

This context becomes relevant in order to analyse Friel’s position towards historiography in MAKING HISTORY (1988), the play selected for this essay. Significantly, this text was written as an answer to criticism of Friel’s TRANSLATIONS (1980) which treated the question of the British settlement in Ireland from the linguistic point of view but clearly could not help engaging also with its political aspects. TRANSLATIONS shows how Irish place names were translated into English under the authority of an Ordnance Survey map-making team in the early 19th century. In Friel’s play, though supported by some locals, the project is led by British soldiers who destroy the village of Baile Beag (Ballybeg) after one of them disappears mysteriously. Critics have pointed out that there are several historical inaccuracies in the play. For instance, Sean Connolly remarks that in real life the translation of names was carried out by Irish scholars, not by the English army, and he says that Friel’s representation of the Ordnance is nothing but a “hostile caricature” [4].

Even though he made no attempt to explain the inaccuracies of TRANSLATIONS, Friel wrote another play, MAKING HISTORY, to justify the playwright’s privilege to manipulate historical truth. MAKING HISTORY focuses both on Hugh O’Neill’s attempt at making history by rebelling against the British in Renaissance Ireland, and on the power of the historiographer, epitomized by Archbishop Peter Lombard, to push history into a specific ideological direction. The main themes are O'Neill's loyalty to and betrayal of Ireland (his blood root) as well as of Britain (where he was fostered and educated to appreciate English culture), but also Lombard's attitudes towards the historical facts he witnesses and sets out to report. Lombard’s intention of manipulating O’Neill’s story by changing it into propaganda for the Catholic Church is clear from the beginning. When O’Neill asks Lombard whether he will tell the truth, the latter replies: “When the time comes my first responsibility will be to tell the best possible narrative. Isn’t that what history is, a kind of storytelling? […]. Imposing a pattern on events that were mostly casual and haphazard and shaping them into a narrative that is logical and interesting” [5].

History for Lombard is a narration that needs to be made pleasant for the reader. Thus the historiographer takes sides by shaping his account according to his needs as an author, irrespectively of the actual bare facts. O’Neill tried to unite the numerous and separate Gaelic clans under the common aim to drive the Protestants out of Ireland. He looked for the help of another Catholic nation, Spain, that would send soldiers to Ireland in support to their cause [6]. The Spanish army did not meet Irish expectations, thus, when O’Neill was defeated at the battle of Kinsale, the Irish rebellion was crushed. Nonetheless, in his account Lombard can still report O’Neill’s failure as a triumph (MH, p. 332). The reason behind this is the necessity to create a national hero (MH, p. 335).

Although MAKING HISTORY is about Renaissance Ireland, it needs to be kept in mind that O’Neill was subsequently considered a hero by Irish nationalists, and in Irish history heroes were at times evoked in support of political arguments (Hewitt, ibid). On wavelength with this, Lombard’s approach to history-telling from a well defined perspective is justified by the claim of acting in the best interests of the Irish people. This persuasion would seem to indicate Friel’s own position in favour of the creation of a national myth during difficult times such as the Troubles. However, O’Neill resists Lombard’s intention to make him into a hero, and he even sends a letter of submission to the Queen, thus betraying the Irish. While Lombard’s story reaches a climax of Irish heroism, O’Neill plunges into despair and begs forgiveness from his second wife and his own people [7].

In brief, the play is Friel’s attempt to make sense of the conflicting histories of Ireland. These include the history of Northern Ireland’s struggle to establish its place in the UK, the Northern Catholic history of oppression and marginalization, and the definition of the Southern Republic as a nation which achieved independence from Britain but shares language, heritage and territory with that country. Friel’s scope is not propaganda but rather a play that both sides can claim as their own (Harp, ibid). MAKING HISTORY indeed encourages both sides to reconsider their common roots and ask themselves what role history might have in shaping the present.

Let us know turn to Umberto Eco. He, too, is a strongly politically minded intellectual. After his initial activity as a militant catholic writing for Gioventù cattolica in the 1950s, he has been constantly oriented towards the left. In 1965 he was encouraged to become an essayist and reviewer for L’Espresso, a left-wing magazine headed at the time by Eugenio Scalfari. In 1985, under a different chief editor (Giovanni Valentini), Eco was granted his own column in L’Espresso thanks to his success as a novelist. At the end of 1960s he had become a member of PSIUP (Partito Socialista Italiano di Unità Proletaria), a left-wing party very active during the years of the students’ protests. Eco, under the Joycean pseudonym of Daedalus, also wrote for Il Manifesto, a Marxist-oriented newspaper. In recent years, several times in lectures and conferences, Eco expressed his views against Berlusconi’s government and appealed in favour of the Italian Prime Minister’s resignation.

Even though he is explicitely committed as a journalist and columnist, Eco is politically more neutral in fiction. His first and still most famous novel, IL NOME DELLA ROSA (1980), was published at the peak of the “anni di piombo”. Due to the delicate political situation, Eco understated the fact that he was the real author of his first novel. The narrator of IL NOME DELLA ROSA claims to have found a manuscript in 1968 which was a faithful copy, made by Abbot Vallet, of a French translation of the story written by an author called Adso from Melk (who is also a character in the novel). In addition, on the dust jacket of the first Italian edition, Eco cautions readers against establishing connections with the present. He also argues that, as opposed to 1968 (when writers wwere often motivated by a desire to change the world), in 1980 the literati could write just for the sake of narrating stories [8].

Like Friel, whose early works remain detached from politics, Eco’s first novel engages with political contemporary issues only subtly and via vague allusions. However, in the subsequent novel, BAUDOLINO (2000), once again like Friel, Eco approaches directly the relationship between history writing and ideology. How is the history we read today shaped by those who wrote it? BAUDOLINO, set in the Middle Ages, questions both history and myth in their making. It is the story told by BAUDOLINO, a self-declared liar, who tells Nicetas Choniates, a Byzantine logothete and historian, the events that lead him to become Friedrich Redbeard’s most trusted counselor, to fight on the side of the emperor, and finally to travel to the legendary land of Prester John. Because Baudolino never attempts to hide his trickster-like attitude and his habits of lying and cheating, the reader is immediately encouraged to treat the story suspiciously.


[1] See Donatella Della Porta, MOVIMENTI COLLETTIVI E SISTEMA POLITICO IN ITALIA: 1961-1995, Roma-Bari, Laterza, 1996, p. 88.

[2] Martine Pelletier, p. 191 of TELLING STORIES AND MAKING HISTORY: BRIAN FRIEL AND FIELD DAY, Irish University Review, 24.2, 1994, pp. 186-97.

[3] Kevin Whelan, THE REVISIONIST DEBATE IN IRELAND, Boundary 2, 31.1, 2004, p. 179.

[4] Sean Connolly, THE ACHIEVEMENT OF BRIAN FRIEL, Gerrards Cross, Colin Smythe, 1993.

[5] Brian Friel, PLAYS, Vol. 2, London, Faber, 1998, p. 257. Hereafter MH.

[6] Rachel Hewitt, MAKING HISTORY, NEW YORK NOTES, London, Longman York Press, 2006, p. 8.

[7] Richard Harp, Robert C. Evans, ed., A COMPANION TO BRIAN FRIEL, West Cornwall, Locust Hill Press, 2002, p. 383.

[8] Umberto Eco, IL NOME DELLA ROSA, Milan, Bompiani, 2000, p. 15. Hereafter NDR.