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Saturday 23 November 2019

Playwright Brian Friel: 'A giant of Irish literature, a great Irishman'

Literary giants: Brian Friel with Seamus Heaney, who died in August 2013, at the celebrations by the Abbey Theatre for Friel's 80th birthday Photo: Collins Photos
Literary giants: Brian Friel with Seamus Heaney, who died in August 2013, at the celebrations by the Abbey Theatre for Friel's 80th birthday Photo: Collins Photos
President Higgins: Paid tribute to Friel’s 'outstanding legacy'
Nicola Anderson

Nicola Anderson

It was a youthful Mary McAleese - as yet to be President - who interviewed Brian Friel on the opening night in 1980 of 'Translations', the play that would open the eyes of the world to his work.

Friel mused on the Irish difficulty of expressing ourselves through English, our acquired language, saying the subtle differences existed "even today, with a whole series of words with totally different connotations for English people than they have for us".

"Loyalty, treason, patriotism, republicanism and homeland" were amongst these, he said: explaining: "Words which we think we share and which are, in fact, barriers to communication."

It took a playwright with the shrewd and all-seeing eyes of Friel to take these conflicting concepts and mine them, repeatedly, for treasure.

And the often awkward and stilting conversations between his protaganists did as much to explain the Irish psyche to ourselves, as it did to the world.

This towering figure of the world stage passed away peacefully yesterday from cancer at the age of 86 at home in Greencastle, Co Donegal, surrounded by his loving wife Anne, their three daughters and son. Brian was predeceased by his daughter Patricia on 2012.

He will be buried at Glenties Cemetery tomorrow afternoon.

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Born near Omagh, Co Tyrone, Friel was the son of Patrick, a schoolmaster and nationalist county councillor, and Mary Christina (nee McLoone), a postmistress. Educated, like Seamus Heaney and John Hume, at St Columb's college in Derry, he spent a short and unhappy time training as a clerical student at the National Seminary at Maynooth, before going on to train as a teacher at St Joseph's in Derry and spent a decade in the 1950s as a maths teacher in various schools.

But writing beckoned - and he took leave in 1960 to concentrate on short stories, published in the New Yorker, and radio plays for the BBC.

'A Doubtful Paradise' was his first stage play, produced by the Ulster Group Theatre in late August 1960.

In 1967 , he moved his family from Derry to Muff in Co Donegal, eventually settling in Greencastle on the Inishowen peninsula, later expressing some regret that he had not stayed around for the Civil Rights Movement in Derry.

International acclaim came when Hilton Edwards's 1964 Dublin production of 'Philadelphia, Here I Come!' transferred two years later to Broadway.

'Aristocrats' (1979), 'Translations' (1980) and 'Dancing at Lughnasa' (1990) established him as a towering figure on the stage.

In 1980, he founded the Field Day Theatre company alongside actor Stephen Rea in the hope of making Derry a theatrical centre.

And in 1987 he was appointed to the Seanad by Taoiseach Charles Haughey. Friel accepted the honour in the hope of getting funding for the Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing.

Read More: A genius, both shy and modest, with a vicious turn of phrase

But throughout all his achievements, the man himself remained modest and unassuming, unwilling to give interviews and preferring the private company of his family to the glaring spotlight of public life.

A special 25th anniversary production of 'Dancing At Lughnasa' will come to the Abbey next week as part of the Dublin Theatre Festival.

The playwright's great friend, President Michael D Higgins led an outpouring of tributes, both national and international.

"It is with great sadness that I have heard of the passing of Brian Friel who was and will be remembered as one of the giants of Irish literature, and a great Irishman," he said.

"His contribution to what one might call 'the theatre of memory' is an outstanding legacy," the President added.

Mourning for Friel was echoed in Hollywood, with Meryl Streep, who starred as Kate Mundy in the 1998 screen version of 'Dancing at Lughnasa' describing Friel's work as having "universal appeal."

"When a poet dies, we lose not just his, but the voices of all the people who passed through his life and imagination."

Irish Independent

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