The life and times of Brian Friel

Brian Friel (left) pictured in September with actor Stephen Rea. The pair founded the Field Day Theatre Company together in 1980. 
Cathal McGuigan

THE playwright Brian Friel has died at his home in Greencastle, Co Donegal, at the age of 86.

The acclaimed writer rarely gave interviews but shed some light on how he viewed his own life in a 1972 radio talk entitled Self Portrait.

"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," he said.

His hope was "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 born in Killyclogher, near Omagh, Co Tyrone in 1929 and moved to Derry with his family at the age of 10. His father was a schoolmaster in the city, while his mother worked was a postmistress from Glenties, Co Donegal.

He  was educated in Derry, at Long Tower School and later St Columb’s College, and he went on to study for the priesthood at St Patrick's College in Maynooth from 1946 to 1949, an experience he described as “very disturbing”.

After earning his BA from the college, he decided to follow in his father’s footsteps and became a teacher.

He spent the 1950s teaching maths in Belfast and Derry and began to publish plays and short stories.

While working in Derry, he wrote his first play A Sort of Freedom, which was broadcast by the BBC in 1954.

In the same year he married Anne Morrison. The couple would go on to have five children.

In 1960, Friel decided to leave education to pursue a career as a professional writer. He had already published several short stories in The New Yorker at the time.

Following a stint at the Tyrone Guthrie theatre in Minneapolis, his first major success came in 1964 with the production of Philadelphia Here I Come!, which was performed on Broadway.

In 1980 he founded the Field Day Theatre Company in Derry with actor Stephen Rea.

The company’s first production was a performance of Translations. The premiere took place in Derry’s Guildhall on September 23 1980, with a cast featuring Liam Neeson, Stephen Rea, Ray McAnally and Mick Lally.

The play remains a popular set text today among both Leaving Certificate students in the Republic and A Level pupils in Northern Ireland.

He was asked by former taoiseach Charles Haughey to occupy a seat in the Seanad in 1987. He attended sessions for two years, but never spoke in the senate.

In 1990, Friel’s play Dancing at Lughnasa was performed to widespread critical acclaim. The play won the Olivier and Tony Awards for best play. 

The play was later adapted for the screen in an award-winning film starring Meryl Streep, Michael Gambon and Kathy Burke.

In 2005, he suffered a debilitating stroke as the production of his final original play, The Home Place, was being prepared.

The following year, he was elected as a Saoi by members of the Aosdana. The title represents the highest honour in Irish arts and is held by a maximum of seven people at one time.

Friel joined fellow Saoi Seamus Heaney, Benedict Kiely and Louis le Brocquy when then President Mary McAleese presented him with a gold torc in recognition of his contribution to Irish literature.


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