VIDEO: Lasting legacy of the humble giant of theatre - Brian Friel

Once described by former US president Bill Clinton “as an Irish treasure for the entire world”, Brian Friel was celebrated as the ‘Irish Chekhov’ for plays such as Translations, Faith Healer and Philadelphia Here I Come!

He was considered not just the most notable Irish playwright since Samuel Beckett, but a world figure who was most famous for his three-time Tony Award-winning play, Dancing at Lughnasa.

He was a prolific dramatist and wrote more than 30 plays in a career spanning six decades.

Friel was born in Killyclogher near Omagh, Co Tyrone in 1929, and moved with his family to Derry at the age of 10.

He trained as a teacher and began as a writer of short stories. In 1960 he left teaching to concentrate full-time on his writing.

His plays also include Lovers, The Freedom of The City, as well as adaptations of classics by Chekov, Ibsen and Turgenev, among others.

VIDEO: Lasting legacy of the humble giant of theatre - Brian Friel

He won numerous awards for his work, including the Evening Standard Award, Tony Award, New York Drama Critics’ Circle, and Olivier Award, and he was elected a saoi of Aosdána in 2006.

In a statement, the Toscaireacht of Aosdána, of which he was a member, described him as a giant of Irish literature, noting that his colleagues in Aosdána recognised his stature by electing him to be a saoi, an honour limited to only seven artists in the country.

“Now that he has died we can begin to see his work as one huge but intimate symphony,” said the Toscaireacht, the governing committee of Aosdána. “As an artist, he is irreplaceable.”

That view was echoed by Sheila Pratschke, chair of the Arts Council, who described him as a giant of world theatre whose canon of work achieved classical status in his lifetime.

“Brian was an inspiration to Irish playwrights, actors, directors, and theatre makers,” she said.

“It is the mark of the man and his achievement as a writer that his work is conjured by use of his surname only.”

A bronze cast outside the Gaiety Theatre in Dublin of the hands of Brian Friel, who died yesterday, aged 86
A bronze cast outside the Gaiety Theatre in Dublin of the hands of Brian Friel, who died yesterday, aged 86

Ms Pratschke added that he was also a humble and quiet man who enjoyed the private company of family, friends, and colleagues but who shunned the spotlight.

Friel guarded his privacy zealously as his grandniece, film-maker Laura Gaynor, noted yesterday. In a tweet, she recalled a letter the playwright sent her four years ago, shortly after her 17th birthday.

He wrote to wish her a happy birthday and to congratulate her on her film success but declined an interview she had sought with him. “I do NO interviews of any kind,” he said in the letter. Nor do I do TV, radio, book reviews, jacket blurbs, etc — in short, I’m a total churl. All this can be difficult when I have a play opening because managements need publicity and they don’t understand when I don’t co-operate.”

One of his early works, Lovers, was staged at the Everyman Theatre in Cork in July and its director Julie Kelleher spoke yesterday of the complexity of his writing and the humanity at the heart of his work. “I was not undaunted at the beginning but he was such a master you knew you were in safe hands.

“He was one of the best playwrights in the world and it was amazing to see his brilliance emerge in the rehearsal room,” she said.

Poet and fellow playwright the late Seamus Heaney with Brian Friel on his presentation with a UCD Ulysses Medal
Poet and fellow playwright the late Seamus Heaney with Brian Friel on his presentation with a UCD Ulysses Medal

“His writing is always beautifully crafted, so subtle and, of course, he wrote great characters. Lovers was one of those plays that constantly reveals itself and the actors loved the experience of working on it.”


The works of the master playwright

Although writing since the 1950s, Brian Friel struggled for years to gain international recognition for his work.

He began writing short stories for The New Yorker in 1959 and subsequently published two collections: The Saucer of Larks and The Gold in the Sea.

In the early 1960s, he also wrote a series of article for the now defunct Irish Press, among them short stories, polemics on life in Northern Ireland and childhood memories of Donegal.

He also wrote for radio in his early career, including two plays in 1958 for the BBC, A Sort of Freedom and To This Hard House.

This was followed by four TV plays in the mid 1960s and early 70s.

His first stage play was A Doubtful Paradise, his first stage play, produced by the Ulster Group Theatre in 1960.

His first major play, Philadelphia, Here I Come!, was the hit of the 1964 Dublin Theatre Festival, and Dancing at Lughnasa, probably his most successful play, in 1992, won three Tony Awards.

Among his works spanning 60 years of writing are:

  • A Sort of Freedom (Radio play, 1958)
  • To This Hard House (Radio play, 1958)
  • A Doubtful Paradise (1960)
  • The Enemy Within (1962)
  • The Blind Mice (1963)
  • Philadelphia, Here I Come! (1964)

  • The Founder Members (TV play, 1964)
  • Three Fathers, Three Sons (TV play, 1964)
  • The Loves of Cass McGuire (1966)
  • Lovers: Winners and Losers (1967)
  • Crystal and Fox (1968)
  • The Mundy Scheme (1969)
  • The Gentle Island (1971)
  • The Freedom of the City (1973)
  • Volunteers (1975)
  • Farewell to Ardstraw (BBC TV play, 1976)
  • The Next Parish (BBC TV play, 1976)
  • Living Quarters (1977)
  • Faith Healer (1979)
  • Aristocrats (1979)
  • Translations (1980)
  • Three Sisters (Anton Chekhov translation, 1981)
  • American Welcome (one-act play, 1981)
  • The Communication Cord (1982)
  • Fathers and Sons (Ivan Turgenev adaptation, 1987)
  • Making History (1988)
  • Dancing at Lughnasa (1990)

  • The London Vertigo (Charles Macklin adaptation, 1991)
  • A Month in the Country (Turgenev adaptation, 1992)
  • Wonderful Tennessee (1993)
  • Molly Sweeney (1994)
  • Give Me Your Answer, Do! (1997)
  • Uncle Vanya (Chekhov adaptation, 1998)
  • The Yalta Game (one-act Chekhov adaptation, 2001)
  • The Bear (one-act Chekhov adaptation, 2002)
  • Afterplay (one-act play, 2002)
  • Performances (70-minute one-act play, 2003)
  • The Home Place (2005)
  • Hedda Gabler (Henrick Ibsen adaptation, 2008)

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