Saoi here, Friel has the rite stuff to merit our highest arts honour
Louise Hogan DRAMATIST Brian Friel joked last night that receiving Aosdana's highest honour was "like being read the last rites".
Major artistic figures, including poet Seamus Heaney and painter Louis le Brocquy, were present at the Arts Council's Dublin headquarters as President Mary McAleese placed a golden Torc around Friel's neck as a symbol of being elected a Saoi in Aosdana.
The reclusive playwright described it as an exclusive club, with only five Saois in the country at any one time.
"I asked one of them what was it about us that made us so special, so unique and indeed so magnificent. To be a Saoi, he told me, you have got to be very old, your career as good as washed up and the end just around the next bend in the road," the 77-year-old said.
"In fact, he said, you pulled a great trick - you went and had a stroke, so they probably felt safer to fast-track you to the top of the queue."
The author of 'Philadelphia, Here I Come!', 'Translations', 'Dancing at Lughnasa' and 'Faith Healer' joked: "Then I knew that getting this award is extreme unction, a final anointment, Aosdana's last rites."
Friel, whose plays have been produced around the world and won many awards, was born in Omagh, Co Tyrone, in 1929 and now lives in Co Donegal. He has published two collections of short stories and co-founded the Field Day Theatre Company in Derry in 1980. He served in the Seanad from 1987 to 1989.
Mrs McAleese said she took a special pride in placing the golden collar around the neck of a man she called a great Northerner.
"It is remarkable just looking around this room to think that not only is he receiving the Saoi today but there is, of course, a certain theatre in Dublin that is well-packed at the moment for 'Faith Healer'," Mrs McAleese said, as Hollywood actor Ralph Fiennes, the star of the current Gate production, looked on. The President revealed she was going to see Friel's play after the ceremony.
She added the writer had internationalised the border lands of Derry, Donegal and Tyrone in his powerful works.
"He explores idealism, relationships, moods, emotions, hopes and disappointments with a breathtaking deftness which has seen him recognised around the world as one of the finest playwrights and a seminal influence on our Irish theatre, Irish thinking and, importantly, thinking about Ireland."
Aosdana, which was established by the Arts Council in 1981, elects a Saoi for "sustained distinction" in the arts following a secret vote by its 220 members.