Brian Friel: Language, Politics, and Ireland

Brian Friel (1929-2015) is one of Ireland’s most highly regarded playwrights. He was born near Omagh in County Tyrone, and his writing is informed by the lives, stories, and political context of this childhood in rural Northern Ireland. Referred to as the “Irish Chekhov,” Friel set many of his works in the fictional town of Ballybeg (which translates to “small town”) in County Donegal. From his focus on ordinary people negotiating family and their sense of home, Friel explores history, culture, and identity. Vital questions of political belief and personal faith play out in language that is vibrant and vernacular, threaded with irony and humor.

During Friel’s childhood, his father was a nationalist politician and schoolmaster and his mother was a postmistress. He spent two years as a seminarian at St Patrick’s College in Maynooth, and later trained as a teacher at St Joseph’s College. Influenced by writers such as Sean O’Faolain and Frank O’Connor, he published his first short story, The Child, in 1952. However, he realized that short stories were not the right form for him because “there was the need for the discovery of a voice and [at that point] I was just echoing somebody else.”

Theatre is how he discovered his voice. He wrote his first play in 1952, originally titled The Francophile, and dabbled in radio plays. In 1963, he spent six months in Minneapolis with the theatrical director Tyrone Guthrie, who was founding the Guthrie Theatre at the time. This trip resulted in Philadelphia, Here I Come! It was his first to be set in Ballybeg and follows a young man preparing to leave rural Ireland for America. Friel split the protagonist in two—we see an insecure Gar Public, who interacts with the other characters, while we’re also privy to the running commentary of the sardonic Gar Private, who yearns to reconcile with his taciturn father before leaving. The play was Friel’s first major success, produced at the Gaiety Theatre in Dublin in 1964. The production moved with the same cast to London the following year and came to Broadway in 1966, where it was nominated for six Tony awards.

Friel’s work is deeply grounded in his sense of his Northern Irish identity: “I think that if you have a sense of exile that brings with it some kind of alertness and some kind of eagerness and some kind of hunger.” Friel later explained, “[The Border] has been an irritation but I’ve never intellectually or emotionally accepted it.” Border crossings—both physical and metaphorical, political and personal—are present in most of his plays.

Friel was a member of the Nationalist Party during The Troubles—the violent conflicts in Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, and across the UK between nationalists who believed that Northern Ireland should leave the United Kingdom, and unionists who favored continued control by British parliament. In 1972, Friel was part of the “Bloody Sunday” protest, so-called because the British soldiers opened fire on protesters, killing fourteen civilians; the British government later cleared the soldiers of blame. The incident and its cover-up formed the plot for The Freedom of the City (1973), which was praised for “fleshing the awful numbing casualty statistics and giving them breath and life” (The Sunday Telegraph).

Friel wrote profusely over the next decades. By the end of his life, he had published 24 plays, two short-story collections, and eight adaptions (primarily of Ibsen, Chekhov, and Turgenev). Faith Healer (1979) is considered one of his masterpieces, despite closing quickly in its Broadway premiere. Told in four successive monologues, it follows the life of the faith healer Francis Hardy. An early example of what has become a genre of Irish monologue plays, the play was praised for Friel’s ability to dance between “truth and lies, a swimming between realism and dream” (The Guardian). In 1980, Friel founded the Field Day Theatre Company with actor/director Stephen Rea as a “cultural and intellectual response to the political crisis in Northern Ireland.” Along with giving space to explore the particularities of a Northern Irish identity, the company allowed Friel to produce his plays in Northern Ireland itself, having had success in Dublin, London, and New York City. Friel and Rea inaugurated Field Day in 1980 with the premiere of Translations, one of Friel’s most acclaimed works, set in 1833 Baile Beag as the British Ordnance Survey renames the towns and landmarks of rural Ireland, including the newly renamed Ballybeg.

Later in Friel’s life, Dancing at Lughnasa (1990) premiered at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin and went on to success in New York, where it received three Tony Awards in 1992. The narrator recalls a childhood story from the summer of 1963. These memories follow the five unmarried Mundy sisters and the upheaval that transpires when their prospects of marriage and a prosperous future collapse, tracing both a personal story and a pivot point of cultural upheaval and family tragedy. In Molly Sweeney (1994), Friel returns to monologues to tell the complex story of a blind woman who undergoes surgery to partially restore her eyesight.

Friel’s writing philosophy emphasized exploration rather than political surety. Describing his writing process, Friel once said, “You delve into a particular corner of yourself that’s dark and uneasy, and you articulate the confusions and the unease.” He wrote with an understanding of Ireland, traversing borders, his passion for language, and his grasp of theatre as a political stage. In their obituary, The Irish Times said Friel “challenged the limits of the genre while never losing his ear for dialogue, his sense of humour and irony, or his ability to create deeply affecting characters.”

Julia Maier