Brian Friel’s The Freedom of the City revolves around the nature of truth during times of political and social conflict. The deaths of the three innocent street marchers at the hands of the military shows that truth becomes the first casualty. The innocent victims who die as they seek a better deal from life, suffer disproportionately because of the imbalance of power between those in positions of authority and the downtrodden. As Friel shows through his carefully crafted play, the powerful often entrench their power and justify their actions through dubious means. In this case, a miscarriage occurs (quite easily) when the poor lack recourse to a transparent legal process and an adequate means of defence.
The austere and majestic Guildhall which serves as the backdrop for most of the play reinforces the trappings of power that alienate the marchers and draws attention to the powerful institution of the government. The guildhall is considered a symbol of “unionist domination” (117). It is an upper class English institution.
In contrast, the characters of Lily, Skinner and Michael, seem completely incongruous (out of place) in such a setting. They appear ordinary, powerless, and naïve members of the downtrodden class. The class difference becomes apparent when Skinner admires the traditional markers of power: the sword hails from the 14th century, and the musket is a garrison from 1691. Skinner holds the “ceremonial sword and an ancient musket” with a keen sense of importance.
Sequence of events:
Friel deliberately opens the play with the deaths of the three characters so as to focus the audience’s attention on the miscarriage of justice. Immediately, the audience is aware that the media, the balladeer and the army have magnified the threat. This also builds sympathy for the oppressed and gives a great deal of weight to Friel’s objective that they did not stand a chance against the powerful government with its ability to fire, and reveal and conceal information at its disposal.
The variety of characters function in similar ways to Brecht’s commentators or the traditional Greek chorus, each proffering their view point so as to constantly focus the audience’s attention on why they three have been inadvertently killed.
The way Friel juxtaposes the scenes steers the audience towards conclusions about the nature and corruption of power and emphasizes the miscarriage of justice. For example, Friel juxtaposes the Judge’s conclusions with Michael’s commentator about the circumstances of their surrender. (The deliberate use of setting.) The Judge concludes after examining the “evidence” that the choice of guildhall could not have been fortuitous so as to justify the army’s use of force. Immediately, after his conclusion, Michael states that he hopes that “this terrible mistake be recognized and acknowledged”. Michael died trying to articulate the word “mistake”. The juxtaposition serves to build sympathy for the victims and highlight the travesty of justice.
The order of the two scenes also reveals that the viewpoint of the powerful triumphs and takes priority. The three bodies are dramatically carried off stage in a way that magnifies the people in a position of power, but also magnifies their threat.
Throughout, Friel sets up the Army Press Officer and O’Kelly for criticism. O’Kelly constantly refers to the takeover of the Guildhall by “fifty armed gunmen” as “terrorists” (117).
The Officer is typical of those who belong to the establishment, and who attempt to re-invent the narrative of the Guildhall in such a way as to present the army in a favourable light. The Officer magnifies the threat of resistance and highlights a dangerous aspect to the rally. The Officer uses inflammatory language that paints an image of a “band of terrorists” who “took possession of a portion of the Guildhall”. Baseless factors are used, such as the “forty persons involved” and the “civilian injuries” to sensationalise the incident. He suggests that the marchers may have had access to arms and seized the entire first floor, hence the reluctance of the army to negotiate.
However, the Officer is also keen to avoid any questions and concludes his testimony with the comment that “no further statement will be issued”. Friel juxtaposes the officer’s comments with those of Michael to show the “civilian” perspective. Michael is keen to avoid the “hooligan” label and accuses the Army of disproportionate force. “They have to bull in” which, he believes, unnecessarily whips up anti-government sentiment.
Friel discredits the media by showing that they are relying on inaccurate news sources. The story is confirmed by the “usually reliable spokesmen from the Bogside”. IN this sense, the media also lets down the ordinary people, because they are too heavily reliant on the voices of authority for their news sources.
At the end, the reporter sums up the “dignified” funeral. He exaggerates its importance while he cannot even remember Skinner’s name. (168)
As Friel points out, the army further justifies its decision to blast three innocent civilians into oblivion by the lie that they were armed and dangerous. The army acted impetuously and pre-judged the three as “fucking yobbos”. Eight soldiers and four policemen testify that they fired first. They stated in a sworn testimony that they were “fired at by them”.
The soldiers are frustrated and worried that they have erred in their duty to protect the Guildhall. They are shocked that the side door was open (117) (Friel juxtaposes the soldiers’ response to the innocence of the activists. (117) Brigadier says they emerged “firing from the Guildhall” and proceeds to cover up his exaggerated response by stating that he would have acted the same.
Although the Judge presents the case as a “fact-finding exercise”, he assumes that they were terrorists and constantly labels and derides the marchers as such.
The question for the judge is to ascertain whether or not they were misguided or “callous”. He assumes that they “openly defied the security forces” and wonders whether they were “callous terrorists” who planned the take-over weeks before or that the “misguided scheme” occurred on the “very day”. Either way, they are already charged as guilty.
As a result, the Judge’s speech seeks to vindicate the army and magnify the threat of the “terrorists”.
What does the Judge overlook?
The Judge is aware that he must ascertain the following: “Did the security forces initiate the shooting or did they merely reply to it”. For expedient purposes, he knows that he will need to justify the use of force, and therefore the army’s necessary “reaction” to violence.
- The Judge dismisses and overlooks the the army’s incorrect reports about the number of people in the Guildhall. He also canvases and then dismisses the idea that there was “no attempt to arrest these people as they emerged” and that “they were dealt with punitively” and perhaps in a way that would ‘to teach the ghettos a lesson’ (134). The failure to negotiate becomes a bone of contention.
- Whilst Father Brosnan and Mr Montini suggest that there is sufficient evidence to suggest that the marchers were not armed, the Judge needs to find a way to justify the army’s deployment of several brigades and regiments as well as “twelve Saracens, ten Saladins, two dozen Ferrets and four water-cannons”. Furthermore, there are “sworn testimony” from eight soldiers and four policemen” who claim that they were “fired at by them” (142). As a matter of course, the Judge and the Army Officers deliberately magnify the threat of the three characters so as to justify the army’s assault. The policemen and soldiers are using pseudonyms because of the “danger of reprisal”. (109)
- The Judge does not admit any personal considerations of the three characters. He abruptly dismisses the policeman when he says that “we are not conducting a social survey”. (108) This view betrays Michael’s view that they will earn the authority’s trust if they act reasonably and sensibly. The Judge dismisses the comment about the lack of firearms and also arrives at hasty conclusions with regards to the “defacement” of the guildhall.
The symbolism of the Guildhall
The judge struggles to defend the army’s actions, and seizes upon the symbolism of the guildhall, in order to magnify the importance of the “takeover”. The guildhall is a symbol of Unionist domination. It is significant then that it has fallen “into the hands of terrorists” which is embarrassing to the Government. It is of considerable embarrassment that the Guildhall was not guarded. The side door of the guildhall was not guarded. (126) As the three comment, they just walked in because of the open door. (116)
However, the judge offers the irrelevant detail that because they did not choose any of the “buildings adjacent” to the Guildhall, then the choice was not “fortuitous” but deliberate. “They happened to choose the one building which symbolised for them a system of government they opposed and were in fact at that time illegally demonstrating against” (149).
The judge then systematically sets out to discredit the marchers. They “defaced” the guildhall and “despoiled” the furnishings. This is further proof of their guilt and deliberate act of subversion.
Who initiated the shooting? The Judge uses evidence from Dr Winbourne who is from the Army Forensic Department, who proves to be biased. The Judge directs his questions so as to elicit a response that is favourable to the army – that is that Hegarty probably fired first. And yet at first Dr Winbourne cannot conclude beyond reasonable doubt that the victims fired. They could have been “contaminated” by firepower within thirty feet of another soldier, or they may have been touched “or handled by someone who has just fired”. (142) “They could have been contaminated while they were being carried away by the soldiers who shot them”. (143)
Owing to suggestive prompting by the Judge, Dr Winbourne admits that he is personally convinced that Hegarty probably fired. (143)
The post mortem proves that the army used excessive force – up to 10 bullets on each victim.
Lily, Skinner and Michael
They are not radical activists or terrorists. Lily admits that she “followed the crowd”. She did not know where she was running. (116) They just walked in by the side door. Likewise, Michael admits that “after the canister burst I don’t know what happened”. Inside the Guildhall, their behaviour and attitude are completely at odds with that of “terrorists” or “hooligans”.
Lily is ignorant and naïve and caught up in the struggle despite herself. One of the reason she marches is because its “the only exercise I get”. She knows enough to state that “it’s a very unfair world” 141. She is also marching as well because of Declan – a mongol. “I marched for him”. 155
Skinner and Michael are politically aware. Skinner died in “defensive flippant” – knew that the price of the poor is always exacted more than others (150) He believes the march is about the poor grumbling in their sleep and their poverty. In Skinner, we see elements of the unchecked hooligan who could get out of hand without the restraining voice of reason.
The fight for justice: Michael says “we want fair play”. “It’s something every man’s entitled to and nothing can stop us getting what we’re entitled to”. (161) Michael just wants a “decent place to live, a decent town to bring up our children in”, but this is a distant dream because of the situation of oppression.
Michael is intent to show them that “we’re responsible and respectable”. He erroneously thinks that this will give them respect. He underestimates the callousness of the oppressors as well as their desperation. He knows that it is important that they don’t become a rabble response, because that is the excuse they are looking for: “but they’re also giving the hooligan element an excuse to retaliate – and that’s where the danger lies. “ 127 He believes in the need to show a “united front”. “The ultimate objectives are more important than the personalities or the politics of the individuals concerned.”
He praises the marcher as being responsible : “The hooligan element kept well out of the way”. It was a good, disciplined, responsible march. And that’s what we must show them – that we’re responsible and respectable..” As he concedes, he is marching for fairness. He expresses his desire for dignity – a decent job, a decent place to live, a decent town to bring up our children in. “That’s what we want … as well as fair play” (160 / 161). “It’s something every man’s entitled to”. (162)
Michael quotes Gandhi who ‘showed that violence done against peaceful protest helps your cause”. (140) He believes that they will win as long as they don’t act violently. And yet, the army outplays them.
He becomes angry when Lily and Skinner start joking around, because such behavior shows that that they are “not worthy of trust” 146 . He resists the tendency to become “bloody vandals .. that’s keeping us all on our bloody knees” (147). Such behavior gives the army an excuse to retaliate.
He didn’t believe they would be shot but realizes there has been a terrible mistake . He hopes it will be “acknowledged”. (And yet the judge has just handed down his findings of guilty.)
The sad irony is that Michael knows that it is important for the opposition to retain dignity and earn respect. They do act reasonably, but their actions are exploited and betrayed by an army seeking to justify its excessive use of force.
The priest is already eulogizing them as martyrs to fit a popular myth and to assuage the public’s anger. “They died for their fellow citizens”. He uses the occasion to inspire fellow people.
Again, he is just as guilty of manipulating the situation and honouring them in ways that is incongruous. He comments that “they died for their beliefs. They died for their fellow citizens. They died because they could endure no longer the injuries and injustices and indignities that have been their lot for too many years.”
Turns it into his own sermon – that they were victims of a conspiracy to “deliver this Christian country into the dark dungeons of Godless communism” – he concludes “blessed are the meek for they shall possess the land”
AS the sociologist, Dodd’s speeches are interspersed throughout the court proceedings and he offers a commentary role on the nature of poverty.
Whilst his role is impartial, there is a sense that he is offering an academic view of poverty that also does little to improve the downtrodden plight of the victims.
- Dodds offers an academic and pragmatic framework from which to view the three marchers. He offers an insight into how they are likely to think so as to direct audience thoughts on their condition. He makes certain observations about the “subculture of poverty” – many of which are true.
- Academic status and voice – prestige, but also enables Friel to make the point that again they are being judged from the position of the dominant structures/hierarchy…
- Convenient tool to broaden the playwright’s views and values/ comments/ and reflections.
- Sympathetic perspective ; alternative perspective to poverty that is not steeped in the culture/ not real life
Dodds offers an intellectual and academic view of poverty that contrasts with the real –life experience of the three characters. His comment that it is easier to romanticize poverty if you are not trapped by it, very much applies to himself. He tries to understand the “culture of poverty” and the how these people are victims of circumstances and their standard of living. He believes that ‘you inherit the economic condition and you inherit a social and psychological condition”.
Dodds also advances the view that poverty is self-perpetuating. Lily is perhaps the best example of someone who is trapped by poverty and does not have the education nor the resources to rise above her condition. Michael tries to and shows more understanding but again, circumstances conspire against him and the powerful seem too large an enemy.
Dodds also believes that it is necessary for these marchers to gain a sense of objectivity, for only then, can they gain a realistic view of their poverty-stricken circumstances. Only then can they break the “rigid caste” that encases their minds and bodies.
He shows a tendency to romanticise poverty. He admits that ‘it’s easier to praise poverty than to live in it”. (135) And all the while the downtrodden are becoming increasingly estranged from the dominant society. (163)
Whilst Lily appears to confirm Dodd’s analysis of the local orientation of the marchers, she also shows a keen awareness of the incongruity of her position. Also, as perhaps the least politically aware of the marchers, Lily does show a capacity to recognise the extent of the injustice…