Playwright Brian Friel dies aged 86


One of Ireland's foremost playwrights, Brian Friel, has died.

The writer who gained international recognition for works such as Philadelphia, Here I Come! and Dancing At Lughnasa has been remembered as a giant of Irish and world theatre.

In a heartfelt tribute, Sheila Pratschke, chairwoman of Ireland's Arts Council, said Friel earned himself a deserved place at the top table of world playwrights.

"The Irish theatre and arts world generally is devastated by this sad, sad loss," she said.

"Brian was an inspiration to Irish playwrights, actors, directors and theatre makers. It is the mark of the man and his achievement as a writer that his work is conjured by use of his surname only."

He was 86.

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

He was educated in St Columb's College - also the alma mater of Nobel prize winners Seamus Heaney and John Hume.

Friel trained as a teacher and began writing short stories before leaving education for good in 1960 and moving to Greencastle in Co Donegal where he lived the rest of his life.

Some of his other plays included the 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.

He was also credited with adaptations of classics by Chekov, Ibsen and Turgenev among others.

A production of Dancing At Lughnasa was due to begin a run in the Dublin Theatre Festival next week.

Friel was described as humble and quiet and a man who preferred the company of family, friends and colleagues rather than the limelight.

Ms Pratschke said: "He had a natural, easy and profound understanding of the actor's craft, and he spoke about how the actor's public utterance of the playwright's private words was what made the experience of theatre so unique.

"He said of the process: 'it is a contrived miracle - well a trick of the trade'. Friel will be deeply missed by all of the professional colleagues who had the great fortune to work and collaborate with one of Ireland's true world talents."

Taoiseach Enda Kenny said: "The nation and the world have lost one of the giants of theatre.

"His mythical stories from Ballybeg reached all corners of the world from Dublin to London to Broadway and on to the silver screen. All of his plays, including Translations, Faith Healer, Philadelphia, Here I Come! and Dancing At Lughnasa, will forever form part of the canon of greatness in dramatic writing.

"The consummate Irish storyteller, his work spoke to each of us with humour, emotion and authenticity."

Friel's death comes just weeks after the inaugural Lughnasa International Friel Festival, a new annual festival dedicated to his works.

The cross-border celebration, reflecting Friel's themes, took place in both Donegal and Belfast and a Dancing At Lughnasa production was centre stage.

Festival director Sean Doran spoke fondly of Friel: "He was such a great, great man, you feel empty when you hear that news even though it was potentially coming.

"It is an era gone. He was such a beautiful man, warm-spirited with great generosity as a person; the expansiveness of his thinking and beauty of the writing.

"It is a huge loss for us all, he and Seamus Heaney in recent years, great titans of our artistic world in Ireland."

Mr Doran added: "As a person it was the sheer radiance of him as a person and his integrity. These are what makes an absolute great.

"It is rare that you have the privilege to work so closely and see that great integrity and truth I felt in him. That was there in his work and that is why it touches people worldwide."

Friel, who had battled cancer for a long period, is survived by his wife Anne and daughters Mary and Sally.

Of the many tributes and honours he received for his work, one included his handprints being immortalised in bronze outside the Gaiety Theatre in Dublin alongside the likes of Luciano Pavarotti and fellow playwright John B Keane.

Friel's father was a schoolmaster from Derry and his mother a postmistress from Glenties, Co Donegal.

He studied for the priesthood at St Patrick's College, Maynooth, before deciding to follow in his father's footsteps in education.

His short stories were published in The New Yorker before his first two collections, The Saucer Of Larks and The Gold In The Sea.

But his major breakthrough was Philadelphia, Here I Come! which gained critical and public acclaim when it showed in Dublin in 1964.

Two years later he moved from Derry to Greencastle in Co Donegal, where he penned The Loves Of Cass McGuire, Lovers, The Mundy Scheme, The Freedom Of The City, Volunteers, Living Quarters and Faith Healer.

He was also renowned for his role in co-founding the Field Day Theatre Company in 1980 with actor Stephen Rea.

The groundbreaking company's first production was Friel's play Translations, the premiere of which took place at Derry's Guildhall in 1980 and which was awarded the Ewart-Biggs Peace Prize.

Heather Humphreys, Ireland's Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, said: "Brian was one of our truly great playwrights and was a household name not only here at home but on the international stage as well.

"He was renowned on Broadway, where many of his plays ran to great acclaim. Through his writing he brought Ireland, and particularly Donegal, to the world."