Brian Friel (1929 - 2015)
One of Ireland's most accomplished and celebrated playwrights passes away, aged 86
One of Ireland's best-loved literary figures and arguably its greatest modern playwright, Brian Friel, has died at the age of 86. The renowned writer has been the bedrock of Irish theatre for fifty years.
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. He attended Long Tower School in Derry and continued his education at the city's St Columb’s College 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 centred on the divide between religious, rural Ireland and the more progressive Ireland of the north and urban south.
Though he retained strong links with Derry, Friel moved to his beloved Donegal in 1966, where many of his later plays would be set – including the celebrated Dancing at Lughnasa. 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 and later went on Broadway. He would go on to write a further 23 published plays including Freedom of the City (1973), Faith Healer (1979), Translations (1980), Making History (1989) and of course Dancing at Lughnasa (1990). Subsequent works ranged from a version of Turgenev’s A Month in the Country (1992) to 2005's The Home Place, his final full-scale work.
In 1980 Friel co-founded the Field Day Theatre Company with actor Stephen Rea, staging 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 dealt with this divide, and through the five Mundy sisters Friel explored 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 received three Tony Awards in 1992, including Best Play. Skip one hour thirty-one minutes into the below recording of the ceremony to see producer Noel Pearson collect the award on Friel's behalf – 'Like a good wine, he doesn't travel too well' – and read a poem by W.B. Yeats, founder of Dublin's Abbey Theatre where the play premiered.
Philadelphia, Here I Come and Dancing at Lughnasa have also been adapted into film, the latter starring Meryl Streep. Collections of short stories include The Saucer of Larks (1962) and The Gold in the Sea (1966).
In 2011 Anita Robinson made the case for Friel as Ireland's Greatest Writer as part of a hotly contested Libraries NI initative. 'To me, Friel’s like a clockmaker,' she argued at the time. 'Strip away the seemingly simple casing of the piece. The wonder lies in the intricate craftsmanship of the movement.
'In Friel’s parochial lies the universal. In his smallest detail is a vital part of the larger picture.'
Just this year the organisers of Enniskillen's Wilde Weekend and Happy Days Beckett Festival honoured the playwright with the inaugural Lughnasa International Friel Festival, taking place across both Donegal and Belfast. Amongst its highlights was a modern re-staging of Dancing at Lughnasa at the Lyric Theatre, a production we described as 'a layer-cake of a play, showing more the more time you spend with it'.
A shy and reclusive man, Friel rarely made 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.'