Brian Patrick O’Friel was born in 1929 in Omagh, County Tyrone, his father a schoolmaster from Derry and his mother a postmistress from Glenties, Co Donegal.
Friel attended Long Tower School, Derry and continued his education at St Columb’s College, Derry and St Patrick's College, Maynooth, where he studied for a career in the priesthood.
Friel would eventually decide to follow his father into the teaching profession and went on to enter St Joseph’s Teacher Training College, Belfast. He taught as a school teacher in and around Derry from 1950-60 and in 1954 married Anne Morrison. They went on to have four daughters and one son.
Friel's grandparents were illiterate Irish speakers from Donegal, and they would prove influential in his work, which often centres on the divide between religious, rural Ireland and the more progressive Ireland of the north and urban south.
In 1969, frustrated with the Unionist domination of Ulster, Friel moved to his beloved Donegal. Many of his later plays, including the celebrated Dancing at Lughnasa, were set in Ballybeg, a rural settlement in remote Donegal. As Seamus Deane notes, in 'that borderland of Derry, Donegal and Tyrone in which a largely Catholic community leads a reduced existence under the pressure of political and economic oppression', and which Friel understood perfectly.
Friel's first major success stage success, Philadelphia, Here I Come, was the undisputed hit of the Dublin Theatre Festival in 1964. Subsequent plays include The Loves of Cass McGuire (1966), Lovers (1967), The Mundy Scheme (1969), The Freedom of the City (1973), Volunteers (1975), Living Quarters (1977), Faith Healer (1979), Translations (1980), an adaptation of Chekhov’s Three Sisters (1981), an adaptation of Turgenev’s novel Fathers and Sons (1987), Dancing at Lughnasa (1990), a version of Turgenev’s A Month in the Country (1992), The London Vertigo, from Charles Macklin’s The True Born Irishman (1992), Wonderful Tennessee (1993), Molly Sweeney (1994) and Give Me Your Answer Do! (1997).
In 1980 Friel co-founded the Field Day Theatre Company with actor Stephen Rea. They staged Friel's Translations as their first production in Derry’s Guildhall.
Field Day Theatre Company sought to find a middle ground between the traditional culture of rural Ireland and the more secular culture of the north. Plays such as Dancing at Lughnasa deal with this divide, and through the five Mundy sisters Friel explores an Ireland where tradition, religion and modernity meet head on.
In 1981, Translations, one of Friel's seminal works, was awarded the Ewart-Biggs Peace Prize. After co-founding Field Day, Friel continued his interest in the arts as a member of Aosdana, to which he was elected in 1982. In 1983 he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Literature by the National University of Ireland. Dancing at Lughnasa, probably his most successful play so far, received three Tony Awards in 1992, including Best Play.
Two of Friel’s plays, Philadelphia, Here I Come and Dancing at Lughnasa have also been adapted into film. Collections of short stories include The Saucer of Larks (1962) and The Gold in the Sea (1966).
A shy and reclusive man, Friel rarely makes public statements. A quote from his own Self Portrait however perhaps sheds some light on the true character of modern Ireland's leading playwright.
'I am married, have five children, live in the country, smoke too much, fish a bit, read a lot, worry a lot, get involved in sporadic causes and invariably regret the involvement, and hope that between now and my death I will have acquired a religion, a philosophy, a sense of life that will make the end less frightening than it appears to me at this moment.'
Brian Friel lives in Donegal.