“It is not the literal past, the ‘facts’ of history, that shape us, but images of the past embodied in language.” –Brian Friel
When asked why he had two birth certificates, one dated 9 January 1929 and the other 10 January, the Irish playwright Brian Friel, replied: ‘Perhaps I’m twins.’
Originally from Tyrone, Friel moved to Derry at the age of 10. He went to the same Catholic boys’ grammar school in the city as two Nobel laureates – Seamus Heaney and John Hume. Friel once described himself in a radio documentary as the ‘son of a teacher and grandson of peasants who could neither read nor write’.
Recognised for early works such as Philadelphia, Here I Come! and Faith Healer, Friel had 24 plays published in a more than half-century spanning career that culminated in his election to the position of Saoi of Aosdána. His plays were commonly featured on Broadway throughout this time. In 1980 Friel co-founded Field Day Theatre Company with actor Stephen Rea, and his play Translations was the company’s first production. With Field Day, Friel collaborated with Seamus Heaney, 1995 recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature. Heaney and Friel first became friends after Friel sent the young poet a letter following the publication of Death of a Naturalist.
Some of his other plays included the The Gentle Island, The Freedom of the City, Aristocrats, Translations, Making History, Molly Sweeney, Give Me Your Answer Do! and The Home Place. Dancing at Lughnasa, is set in the late summer of 1936 and loosely based on the lives of Friel’s mother and aunts who lived in Glenties, on the west coast of Donegal. Probably Friel’s most successful play, it premiered at the Abbey Theatre, transferred to London’s West End, and went on to Broadway. On Broadway it won three Tony Awards in 1992, including Best Play. A film version, starring Meryl Streep, soon followed.
Much of Mr. Friel’s work, was set in Ballybeg (Baile Beag, which means ‘small town’), an imaginary Donegal village much like Muff, where Mr. Friel first lived after moving to Donegal
The setting let him bring characters past and present onstage to explore themes that reflected his era’s concerns and confusions: cultural identity, social change, loss; the power of the imagination and the lure of escapism; the importance of language and the significance of history.
After a long illness Friel died at the age of 86 in the early morning of 2 October 2015 in Greencastle, Co Donegal. He was survived by his wife Anne and children Mary, Judy, Sally and David. A daughter, Patricia, predeceased him in 2012.
The National Library of Ireland houses the 160 boxes of The Brian Friel papers (Manuscript Collection List No. 73 [MSS 37,041–37,806], given as a gift to the state in December 2000), containing notebooks, manuscripts, playbills, correspondence, contracts, unpublished manuscripts, programmes, production photos, articles, uncollected essays, and a vast collection of ephemera relating to Friel’s career and creative process from 1959 through 2000. It does not contain his Irish Press articles, which can be found in the Dublin and Belfast newspaper libraries.