Friday 23 March 2018

Obituary: Brian Friel - shy playwright who became giant of world theatre

Brian Friel, pictured with Seamus Heaney, was awarded the Ulysses Medal by UCD
Brian Friel, pictured with Seamus Heaney, was awarded the Ulysses Medal by UCD

Despite his global acclaim, Brian Friel described himself simply as a reader and a worrier who hoped to find a sense of life before his death.

Famously shy and reclusive, he was widely regarded as a giant of world theatre and the foremost Irish playwright of his generation.

Anointed a "wise one" by his artistic contemporaries, he nonetheless described his own life, in a rare public statement, as a search for meaning.

"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," he said in his own Self Portrait.

His hope was "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".

His death comes just weeks after the inaugural Lughnasa International Friel Festival, a new annual cross-border festival dedicated to his works.

Playwright Brian Friel
Playwright Brian Friel

At the heart of the programme was a production of one of his best known plays Dancing At Lughnasa, which won three Tony awards in 1992 and was later made into a film, starring Meryl Streep.

Friel was born in January 1929 outside Omagh, County Tyrone, his father Patrick a schoolmaster from Derry and his mother Mary McLoone, a postmistress from Glenties, Co Donegal.

He once described himself as the "son of a teacher and grandson of peasants who could neither read nor write".

He moved to his father's native Derry at the age of ten, and retained a deep connection and affection for the city.

After attending St Columb's College, where Nobel laureates Seamus Heaney and John Hume as well as writer Seamus Deane were also educated, he studied for the priesthood at St Patrick's College, Maynooth.

But he later decided to follow his father into teaching and taught in and around Derry for ten years up to 1960, when he decided to become a full-time writer.

Playwright Brian Friel (left) and actor John Kavanagh at the Abbey for the opening of 'Three Sisters'
Playwright Brian Friel (left) and actor John Kavanagh at the Abbey for the opening of 'Three Sisters'

In 1954, he married Anne Morrison, with whom he went on to have five children: Mary, Paddy, Judy, Sally and David.

His short stories were published in The New Yorker before his first two collections, The Saucer Of Larks and The Gold In The Sea.

A Sort Of Freedom, his first play written for radio, was broadcast in 1954.

But his major breakthrough was Philadelphia, Here I Come! which gained critical and public acclaim when it showed in Dublin in 1964. It went on to great success on Broadway.

Two years later he moved from Derry to Greencastle in Co Donegal, where among other works he penned The Loves Of Cass McGuire, Lovers, The Mundy Scheme, The Freedom Of The City, Volunteers, Living Quarters and Faith Healer.

He was also renowned for his role in co-founding the Field Day Theatre Company in 1980 with actor Stephen Rea.

The groundbreaking and controversial collaboration, also involving Heaney and Deane, attempted to artistically engage with The Troubles raging on the streets of Northern Ireland at the time.

Its first production was Friel's play Translations, the premiere of which took place at Derry's Guildhall in 1980 and which was awarded the Ewart-Biggs Peace Prize.

Set in Ballybeg, the imagined archetypal small Irish town that is home of many of his works, it dealt with the mapping and Anglicisation of Irish place names by the Ordnance Survey in the 1830s.

Like WB Yeats before him, Friel also served in the Seanad, the Irish senate, from 1987 to 1989.

He was a member of Aosdana, an invite-only Irish association of eminent artists, who elected him a Saoi, or wise one, in 2006.

He has received numerous honorary doctorates and was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.

Read more: 'He was the extraordinary within the ordinary' - Friends and peers pay tribute to the late playwright Brian Friel  

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