The action of this play takes place in late August 1833 at a hedge-school in the townland of Baile Beag – an Irish speaking community in County Donegal. The ‘scholars’ are a cross-section of the local community, from a semi-literate young farmer to and elderly polygot autodidact who reads and quotes Homer in the orginal.
In a nearby field camps a recently arrived detachment of the Royal Engineers, engaged on behalf of the Britsh Army and Government in making the first Ordnance Survey. For the purposes ofr cartography, the local Gaelic place names have to be recorded and transliterated – or translated – into English, in examining the effects of this operation on the lives of a small group of people, Irish and English, Brian Friel skillfully reveals the unexperctedly far-reaching personal and cultural effects of an action which is at first sight purely administrative and harmless. While remaining faithful to the personalities and relationshiops of those people at that time he makes a richly suggestive statement about Irish – and English – history.