Obituary: Brian Friel, playwright

Born: 9 January, 1929, in Omagh, County Tyrone, Northern Ireland. Died: 2 October, 2015, in Donegal, Republic of Ireland, aged 86.
Brian Friel: Renowned playwright was dubbed the Irish Checkov. Picture: PABrian Friel: Renowned playwright was dubbed the Irish Checkov. Picture: PA
Brian Friel: Renowned playwright was dubbed the Irish Checkov. Picture: PA

One of Ireland’s most accomplished poets and storytellers, Brian Friel is best known for his works Philadelphia Here I Come! Translations and Dancing at Lughnasa.

Faith Healer, which was staged at Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum Theatre this year, is Friel’s masterpiece, defining his uniquely poetic and intensely human voice. It has been described as “a landmark play in the rich landscape of Irish theatre”.

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The County Tyrone-born writer wrote more than 30 plays and Dancing at Lughnasa won three Tony Awards in 1992.

It and many of Friel’s other plays are hugely popular not only with professional theatre companies but with amateur drama groups – his comedy The Communication Cord is due to be staged from next Wednesday by the Dumbarton People’s Theatre Company at the Denny Civic Theatre.

Friel won a number of prizes for his work, including the Tony, an Evening Standard award, New York Drama Critics Circle award and Olivier award, and was elected a Saoi (wise man) of Aosdána, the Irish association to honour artists who have made an outstanding contribution to the arts in the country.

Friel was born in Killclogher, near Omagh, in 1929, and moved with his family – his father was a schoolmaster and his mother a postmistress – to Derry when he was ten years old.

He was educated at St Columb’s College, Derry, which is also the alma mater of Nobel laureates Seamus Heaney and John Hume.

Friel studied for a career in the Catholic priesthood in St Patrick’s College, Maynooth, near Dublin, but left to become a teacher in schools around Derry after studying at St Joseph’s College, Belfast.

He moved to Donegal in 1967, three years after his first stage success, Philadelphia, Here I Come, which was followed by a series of internationally regarded hits.

Friel wrote 24 published plays, two short-story collections and three unpublished and eight published adaptations or versions, most notably from Ibsen, Chekov and Turgenev.

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His plays also included Lovers, The Gentle Island, The Freedom of the City, Aristocrats, Faith Healer, Translations, Making History, Molly Sweeney, Give Me Your Answer Do! and The Home Place.

Friel’s grandparents had been illiterate Irish speakers from Donegal, and they were to prove influential in his work, which often centres on the divide between religious, rural Ireland and the more progressive Ireland of the north and urban south.

It is said that in 1969, when The Troubles in the North broke out, Friel, who was frustrated with the unionist domination of Ulster, moved to his beloved Donegal to be with his grandmother – she is at the centre of one of his best short stories, Mr Singh My Heart’s Delight.

In 1980 Friel co-founded the Field Day Theatre Company with actor Stephen Rea. It sought to find a middle ground between the traditional culture of rural Ireland and the more secular culture of the north.

In 1981, Translations, one of Friel’s seminal works, was awarded the Ewart-Biggs Peace Prize, named after the British ambassador who was assassinated in Dublin.

A shy and reclusive man, Friel rarely made public statements. However, a quote from his own Self Portrait perhaps sheds some light on the true character of modern Ireland’s leading playwright: “I am married, have five children, live in the country, smoke too much, fish a bit, read a lot, worry a lot, get involved in sporadic causes and invariably regret the involvement, and hope that between now and my death I will have acquired a religion, a philosophy, a sense of life that will make the end less frightening than it appears to me at this moment.”

Friel was known as the Irish Chekhov and his work was performed in theatres across the globe from the United States to Russia.

Friel was also, famously, a quiet man who shunned the limelight, although he was made a senator in the Irish Republic from 1987-89.

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In 2005, The Home Place, Brian Friel’s last original play, opened and sold out at The Gate Theatre, Dublin, before transferring to London’s West End and then on to the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis.

The following year, the then Irish president, Mary McAleese, presented the playwright with a gold torc, in recognition of his election as a Saoi by the members of Aosdana.

Accepting it, he joked: “I knew that being made a Saoi... is extreme unction; it is a final anointment – Aosdana’s last rites.”

Friel is survived by his wife, Anne Morrison, their three daughters, Mary, Judy, Sally, and their son, David. He was predeceased by his daughter Patricia, who died in 2012.