Brian Friel: Obituary of a literary giant

Brian Friel pictured at Derry's Guildhall which was the venue which hosted the first performance of the Field Day Theatre Company in 1980 which was the play 'Translations'.
Brian Friel pictured at Derry's Guildhall which was the venue which hosted the first performance of the Field Day Theatre Company in 1980 which was the play 'Translations'.

When playwright Brian Friel died aged 86 on October 2, it sparked a massive outpouring of tributes from across the globe.

The Co Tyrone artist had become – much like his friend Seamus Heaney who died just a little over two years earlier – one of the most famous Ulstermen on the planet.

Nonetheless he was quiet and reticent, and rarely gave interviews.

Among the plays for which he became famous was ‘Translations’; a drama about Ireland’s traditional Gaelic words being replaced with English ones. What is less known is that this very same drama played out in his own life from almost the moment the was born.

Born in 1929, in Killyclogher, just on the north-east edge of Omagh, both his birth date and his official name are the subject of contention. While he celebrated his birthday on January 9, the birth certificate his widow has lists it as being January 10.

A book titled ‘Brian Friel’s (Post)Colonial Drama’ states that his parish had recorded him as Brian Patrick O’Friel, born on January 9 with baptism taking place the following day. However the General Register Office in Belfast “lists his birthdate as January 10, and Anglicizes his name to Bernard Patrick Friel”.

Pictured  are the Friel family at the funeral of Brian Friel held at Glenties Cemetery in Co.Donegal.

Pictured are the Friel family at the funeral of Brian Friel held at Glenties Cemetery in Co.Donegal.

The book concludes that it had been his choice to plump for a “hybrid” Irish-British name (although on his wedding certificate he still recorded his surname as O’Friel). His father was Patrick Friel, a schoolmaster, and his mother was Mary (nee McLoone) a postmistress. He had been educated at St Columb’s College, Derry, and then spent two years at Maynooth seminary, training for the priesthood – an experience he described as “awful... it nearly drove me cracked.”

He then trained as a teacher in St Mary’s College in Belfast and went on to teach at the Christian Brothers school in Derry for 10 years – something he said was “nearly as bad”.

He first began writing radio plays for the BBC in the late 1950s, and also penned a stage play called The Doubtful Paradise. Performed in Belfast, he later acknowledged was “dreadful”. When the company which had put it on collapsed, he said his play “didn’t do them any good”.

But his break came with The New Yorker magazine.

His first piece for hugely-prestigious title appeared in 1959; called The Skelper, it was set in the fictional town of Bennafreaghan. Shortly afterwards he quit his teaching job and told an interviewer: “They paid such enormous money I found I could live off three stories a year.”

He gave an interview to a University of Ulster magazine called Acorn in 1965, in which he said: “I don’t concentrate on the theatre at all. I live on short stories. That is where my living comes from.

“As for playwriting, it began as a sort of self-indulgence, and I got caught up more and more in it. But the short story is the basis of all the work I do.”

Nevertheless, theatre became the medium through which he made his name. His breakthrough play the 1964 drama ‘Philadelphia, Here I Come’, about a young Irishman’s tough relationship with his father as he prepared to emigrate to America.

It was an immediate hit – though some Americans found it difficult to understand. The Ulster turns-of-phrase caused some problems, but he declined to tone them down so they would be “intelligible to foreigners”.

He would prowl through New York theatres during intermissions, listening to off-guard comments from his audience members. He recalled: “They were, and I put it very mildly, bizarre; but then eavesdroppers seldom hear good about themselves.

“One corpulent, silver-haired lady exploded into her husband’s face: ‘So he’s coming to Philadelphia! So what the hell is he crying about?”

Mr Friel’s also had a political life too – his father had been a member of the Nationalist Party in Derry, which he also joined.

A 1964 interview quoted him as being a nationalist who feels “very emotionally about this country”.

However, a few years later he had left the party.

Scott Boltwood, a US-based academic who has been writing about Friel for almost two decades (and who has a new book on the playwright expected out next year), said signs of political “disenchantment” were visible from the early 1960s.

His relatively little-known 1969 play The Mundy Scheme was about an Irish government plan to sell off Connemara to a Texan tycoon, for use as a burial plot for expatriates who want to “come home to Ireland”.

“The little opinion he has for the Irish government comes through in that,” said Professor Boltwood.

When asked in a 1982 interview why he was not “loyal” to the south of Ireland, Mr Friel replied that his feelings for the nation were like those for an “old parent who is now beginning to ramble”.

He had been present during Bloody Sunday in 1972, and said that although he did not witness any killings, “to have to throw yourself on the ground because people are firing at you is a very terrifying experience.”

His play, Freedom of the City, is very loosely based on Bloody Sunday.

He had been asked in 1965 about plays which carry a “social message”, and about whether he wants his audiences to be angry.

He said that theatre-goers are like a “mob”, adding: “You can make them sympathetic. You can make them laugh. You can make them cry. You can do all these things. And this emotional reaction doesn’t live very long; I mean, they will not storm out of the theatre to pull down a government...

“But there is always a chance that a few people will retain a certain amount of the spontaneous reaction that they experienced with the theatre building and that they will think about this when they come outside. And perhaps they may do something. But this is not the end purpose.”

His fame grew over the decades thanks to plays including Faith Healer (1979), Translations (1980), and Dancing at Lughnasa (1990).

However, he became less and less inclined to give speak publicly.

Fintan O’Toole, Irish Times literary editor, said he was among the last journalists to conduct a full interview with him – in 1982.

“He stopped completely by the early ‘90s,” he said.

“There was a big difference I think between Friel in private mode and in public mode... He was extremely friendly, helpful, courteous, [would] spend time with me, was really quite lovely.

“Once the tape recorder went on, he was much more guarded and reticent – very self-conscious.”

Despite his interest in Irish culture and history, his plays were written in England, and it is not clear how much knowledge he had of the Irish language.

Professor Boltwood said: “He was so concerned [of] being seen to be taking one side or the other. He didn’t want to alienate his potential audience in the north. He wanted to stay as even-handed as possible.”

He may have seen his knowledge of Irish as “potentially alienating,” and as such it “would not be a ridiculous assumption” to believe that he was better versed in the language than he publicly acknowledged.

Mr O’Toole too believes he had “pretty decent” Irish, but that “he certainly didn’t flaunt it”.

He said: “He did remark to me that he had two grandparents who were native speakers of Irish, and two who were illiterate.

“It is remarkable when you think that he became one of the great writers of the English language, and adored the English language...

“I think one of the reasons why he regretted the Troubles so much was that the politics of it sort of complicated his relationship with English.

“But he was a great master of the English language. I think that’s also why he never played up his knowledge of Irish too much.”

He had moved from Derry to Muff in Donegal in the 1960s, and from these to Greencastle in the early ‘80s.

About a decade ago, he had suffered a stroke, but his widow Anne said although he probably never fully recovered, he did continue to work.

He had been diagnosed with cancer in February 2015, and she said he had opted not to be treated for it.

“It was because of his age, and because we had a daughter [Patricia, also known as Paddy] who died of cancer and he watched what the treatment did to her, I think.”

His funeral was in Glenties, Co Donegal, on October 4, where he is buried.

Father Pat Prendergast took the funeral, and asked why he had opted for it to be held in the village, he said: “There was a name of a place in [his plays] called Ballybeg. And Glenties is where Ballybeg, in his mind, was.

“Dancing at Lughnasa was about a family of sisters; it was a mirror of his mother’s family who lived in Glenties, and he spent a lot of time in the Glenties here as a child. It became his imaginary place.”

Professor Boltwood estimated there are roughly 18 books about Mr Friel, another 24 chapters within books, and perhaps 150 journal articles about him.

“Essentially, if you consider this was someone who, until the last week, was a living writer – living writers tend not to attract such a wealth of attention,” he said.

“On one level, you could say that Brian Friel is easily as widely respected, and perhaps even a little more written-about, than Seamus Heaney.”

He is survived by his widow, daughters Judy Maher, Sally Sultan, Mary Bateman, son David, 11 grandchildren, and sister Mary McMahon.