Tuesday 16 January 2018

'He was an extraordinary man with a great big heart'

Julie Kavanagh, former London editor of The New Yorker, was pen pal to Brian Friel for more than 30 years, says Claire Mc Cormack

Brian Friel
Brian Friel
Claire Mc Cormack

Claire Mc Cormack

The last time she saw her beloved friend Brian, he was standing by the window and wearing a blue jumper.

It was just four months ago on June 21.

Writer Julie Kavanagh, the former London editor of The New Yorker and Vanity Fair, travelled to Drumaweir House, Greencastle in Co Donegal to visit Irish playwright Brian Friel and his family.

But deep inside, Ms Kavanagh knew the time had come to finally say goodbye.

Their friendship had begun decades earlier when Ms Kavanagh wrote a profile piece on the great giant of Irish literature for Vanity Fair.

"I was a huge fan of his work. I can still see Dancing at Lughnasa so vividly in my mind. I was a dancer and the story holds that primal energy that he gets across and it totally resonated with me," said Ms Kavanagh (63).

The themes and complexities of Mr Friel's work captivated and inspired the writer and she said that when they met there was an instant connection.

"He was incredibly private but we just sort of clicked. It's something like that platonic soulmate thing when you just get on with somebody."

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Ms Kavanagh and Mr Friel became great pen pals through letters, fax and post-cards - all of which feature in the Brian Friel Collection at the National Library of Ireland.

Her husband, Ross MacGibbon, a film and live performance director, also became fascinated by his work. As did many other industry heavyweights, such as actress Meryl Streep, who starred in the film production of Dancing at Lughnasa in 1992. In response to his passing the three-time Oscar winner said we had lost "a tender dramatist, an insightful humanist and a lovely man".

But for Ms Kavanagh, he became a mighty figure in her life.

"Even though we probably only met four or five times in the last 25 years or so, really it was the correspondence that was very special," said Ms Kavanagh.

Although she was a journalist and her husband a film-maker, she said this never interfered in anyway with their friendship with Mr Friel.

"He was always very supportive, wanting to know what Ross was up to and we asked him to be the unofficial godfather to our son Alfie," she said.

When Alfie became ill in later years, she says Brian was "extraordinary" to him. "Brian really came from the heart, he really cared.

"Fame never went to his head, he just loved hearing stories and wanting to know about my writing and my friends and family - that's the playwright in him," she said, adding that she had hoped to send him the proposal for her new book, which is set in Donegal.

In his absence, she will send it to his wife Anne and daughter Sally, two friendships that she will continue to treasure.

"My greatest memory is the joy of seeing that envelope with his very distinctive typed envelope and knowing there was another letter from Brian and now I must face the sadness that that feeling won't come again," she said.

Sunday Independent

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