Brian Friel Festival

The Brian Friel Festival began in Derry last week. ‘A good beginning is half the work.’

The Brian Friel Festival began in Derry last week. ‘A good beginning is half the work.’

Fintan O’Toole, the theatre critic and controversial journalist, gave a lecture on Friel in the Guildhall last Thursday. Brian Friel needs no introduction. His play, ‘Philadelphia Here I Come’ was made into a film starring Donal McCann. Meryl Streep starred in ‘Dancing at Lughnasa.’

Irish language enthusiasts will be interested in two works of Friel in particular. He edited the English language edition of ‘The last of the name.’ This is an account of life in the Inis Eoghain Gaeltacht around a century and a half ago. The book was put together from notes that a Clonmany schoolmaster, Packey Kavanagh, made from conversations with his old friend, one of the last native speakers in the area. It is a classical biography, which can stand comparison with ‘Peig’ and the other biographies from the Blasket Islands.

The other work is ‘Translations’, a play concerning the decline of Irish in the nineteenth century when the Ordnance Survey was being carried out. As well as mapping the physical geography of Ireland, the members of the team wrote down place names, sometimes in proper Irish, sometimes in bad Irish, and sometimes they translated the place names into English. But for the Ordnance Survey, many place names would have been lost.

The play involves more than language shift.Two civilisations are in conflict. Two mentalities are involved. Other changes at that time are touched upon, including the transition from hedge schools to National Schools. The play is also a mirror of Ireland in the second half of the twentieth century: Ireland under Seán Lemass was changing from an agricultural country to an industrialised country, with huge social implications.

I am delighted that tribute is being paid to a living writer: a prophet is often without honour in his own country. This is particularly true of this little country of ours.