- The Englishmen in the play are a detachment of the Royal Engineers and function as part of the Ordnance Survey creating six inch maps of Ireland. The characters of Captain Lancey and Lieutenant Yolland are fictionalized representations of two real soldiers who took part in the survey: Thomas Frederick Colby and William Yolland, but Thomas Larcom has also been identified as a possible model for the lieutenant, with Owen based on his teacher, the Irish linguist John O'Donovan.
- The character Máire contemplates emigration to America, reflecting the mass emigration of Irish people to America in the 19th century. The theme of emigration is key throughout the whole play, as Manus plans to leave after being offered a job in another hedge school.
- There are fearful references to potato blight, reminding the modern audience of the Great Famine of the 1840s, although the play is set in 1833.
- Irish politician and nationalist hero Daniel O'Connell is mentioned and quoted as saying that Irish people should learn English and that the Irish language was a barrier to modern progress. Anglicisation of place names, including Baile Beag (the setting), is prominent in the dialogue, because it is Lieutenant Yolland's professional assignment.
- A national school is to open in the town, replacing the existing hedge school.
- Characters Hugh and Jimmy remember how they marched to battle during the 1798 rebellion against the British influence in Ireland, only to march back home upon feeling homesick.
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