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?


Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London