Brian Friel 2

Forgive the minor personal recollections, but they’re bound to come to mind.  I first encountered Brian Friel in the front line of the throng that stood silently in the freezing cold as the coffins of Bloody Sunday victims emerged from a torrid requiem mass in St Mary’s Creggan. There was a silent moment of mutual recognition of the awfulness of the event.  As the Guardian says in its obituary:

The Freedom of the City (premiered in Dublin and subsequently directed at the Royal Court by Albert Finney) was the only direct foray by Friel as a playwright into the world of politics. It was a reaction to the events of Bloody Sunday in 1972, when 13 civilians were shot dead by British soldiers during a civil rights march in Derry; a 14th died later; Friel himself was one of the marchers. The whitewash presented in the resulting Widgery report outraged nationalist opinion. Subsequently Friel was often criticised – mainly sotto voce – for his reluctance to write further plays on similar themes

Brian Friel like many of his generation from the nationalist  side of the community  owed a good deal to the cultural side of BBC Northern Ireland, and in particular to my late friend Ronnie Mason, then the drama producer in Belfast and later head of BBC Radio Drama in London.  Ronnie shared with Brian a recognition of the Russian resonances in pre-Troubles Ireland. Friel then moved on  to London and a new champion  Tyrone Guthrie, who had long outgrown his BBC Belfast antecedents to become one of the leading theatre directors in English.

Having begun in 1951 as a short story writer, his work appearing regularly in the New Yorker (1959-65), Friel moved on to radio drama, where he was encouraged by Ronald Mason of the BBC, first in Belfast and subsequently in London. His chief mentor was his fellow Ulsterman Tyrone Guthrie, himself a pioneer of radio drama, who invited Friel to Minneapolis in 1963 to observe rehearsals of Three Sisters for the opening of the Guthrie theatre. Friel called this trip “my first parole from inbred, claustrophobic Ireland”.

From the New York Times written by the English critic Benedict Nightingale.

 For Theater Christopher Murray, Mr. Friel’s aim was to “take the spiritual pulse of the Irish people and find the dramatic form that will render the condition of universal interest.”

Those qualities prompted the poet Seamus Heaney, his contemporary at school in Derry and a lifelong friend, to write that Mr. Friel left his audiences renewed, elated and “with a sense of rightness, even though things have manifestly gone wrong for the people onstage.”

Living at various times on either side of the Irish border, he was preoccupied with aspects of dualism: divided loyalties, tensions between fathers and sons, the two languages and the island’s two political states.

His physical canvas rarely stretched beyond Donegal but his work was a reproach to our parochialism. Translations is an unsparing depiction of the British-Irish colonial relationship vitiated by love but ultimately destroyed by reflex hatred and misunderstanding where the military are involved . Lughnasa ( which for me doesn’t quite work ) has Donegal supernaturalism in it and recalls JB Priestly ‘s  An Inspector Calls. Philadelphia  is perhaps the accessible greatest hit.  It will be interesting to read what Frank McGuiness who wrote the screenplay for the film version of  Lughnasa says about Friel f he chooses to write.

The Irish Times carries the official obit tributes

Adds ..and a beautifully written piece by Fintan O’Toole

Friel’s gift was that he could salvage human dignity from the wrecking ball of history

.On a small and very parochial point. The Sinn Fein leaders pay proper tribute but as so often, the voice of unionism   is so far silent. Has Peter Robinson  ever seen a Brian Friel play?


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  • Rory Carr

    I first became aware of Brian Friel in the mid-sixties when I caught a production of ‘Philidelphia, here I come’ at (I think) Belfast’s LyricTheatre. I was completely blown away. My experience of Irish theatre up to that time had been the dire comedies of George Shiels or revivals of the vastly over-rated (to my mind) Séan O’Casey.

    In London I saw ‘Translations’ at the National Theatre and thought that here was an Irish play with a universal appeal equivalent to, perhaps greater than, ‘The Playboy of the Western World’, a judgement that has been borne out. Then in the mid-nineties I caught ‘Molly Sweeney’ at the Almeida with TP McKennam, Mark Lambert and the ethereal Catherine Byrne. The Almeida bar was my watering hole being nest door to my place of work and I happened to fall into conversation with Mark Lambert who suggested, on the play’s final night, that I stay on for the closing party which I was happy to do.

    I reminded TP McKenna of how we had met many years before in the Hamill Hotel in Belfast when he was appearing along with Joe Lynch and Norman Rodwell in a theatre production of Joyce’s ‘Portrait of the Artist’ across the road in the Opera House. I had just turned twenty and marvelled at the ease with which McKenna, who then seemed so old to me, had been able to shift a fine looking;flame-haired young woman who was starry-eyed after the performance.Thirty years later, McKenna barely seemed to have aged.

    But it was meeting Brian Friel that was my great memory of that night. He was such an modest, unassuming man, so easy to be with and so accepting of the company of myself, a complete stranger.

    The last play of his I saw was ‘The Faith Healer’ with Ken Stott, Geraldine James and Iain McDiarmid at the Almeida at King’s Cross in 2001, three of the most mesmerising performances I have had the fortune to witness.

    It was such an honour to have met that great and humble man who has truly surpassed JM Synge in being recognised as the Irish Chekhov even though ‘The Playboy of the Western World’ yet retains the honour of being the greatest Irish play. second only to ‘Hamlet’ as the greatest play in the English language.

  • Tochais Siorai

    Translations is a wonderful explanation of how cultural imperialism in Ireland worked and how we came to our place names and how they were bastardised from the originals.
    Peter Robinson at a Friel play? Can’t see it meself.

    Actually, Peter Robinson at any play??

  • Tochais Siorai

    Nice piece, Rory. Failte ar ais,

  • MainlandUlsterman

    It’s not everyday our part of the world produces a playwright of his stature – sorry to hear of his passing. I’m not that familiar with his work to be honest – I’ve probably put him to one side as not being really my thing – but hope to see one of his plays one day.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Off topic of me a little, but I saw a great production of Playboy of the Western World about 5 years ago. Second only to Hamlet might be pushing it though 😉

    Also used to love the Almeida when I lived in London. The highlight for me there was The Ice Man Cometh back in the mid 90s, with a larger-than-life Kevin Spacey. Wonderful place to watch a play and almost turned a theatre agnostic like me – Shakespeare aside, which I love – into a more committed theatre-goer. But then the kids arrived … One of the things to pick up again in the next phase.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Indeed, Tochais Siorai, I think of Translations as his best play. An American friend who first produced it in California in 1983 sent me some of the obits and some recollections of his trips to speak with Friel just this morning.

    The Irish and English languages describe two such entirely different world images that it’s impossible to translate from one to the other without doing harm on one (usually the complex witty word play of Irish, where figurative meanings simply spiral out of what look like simple concrete words). One of the very best expressions of that almost automatic misunderstanding of cultures, from which Friel builds his drama, is the short story “Solace”, from Daniel Corkery’s “A Munster Twilight”. Have you come across it? I’d imagine so.

    Recently its become almost a point of honour in the houses of many graduates in the north to have no books whatsoever. But perhaps you are being unfair to our Peter, he is after all a much published author, as the section on his “Personal Life” at Wikipedia notes:

    But then again perhaps not……..

  • Elizabeth McC

    RIP, Mr Friel

    The Friels were contemporaries of my parents and I grew up round the corner from his Derry house and went to school with one of his daughters. I remember her heading off to the US when we were in P6 where they lived while Philadelphia was on Broadway and she later returned with stories of live in an American school.

    I grew up round the corner from their Derry house and my parents would have been contemporaries and known them quite well. I think they went to Dublin for the Abbey premiere of Philadlphia.

    It was well-known that many of the characters in the short story collections were based on real life and recognisable people. My granny, who lived in the same area, was in constant fear of bumping in to him in the local shop in case she’d appear in the next one.

    My father was involved in AmDram in Derry for many years and worked in the background with Field Day in the early years. Consequently my main claim to fame is that I sold programmes at the First Night of Translations in the Guildhall.