Known as the Irish Chekov, Brian Friel wrote masterful plays about his country's troublesby Michael Coveney / October 2, 2015 / Leave a comment
Extravagant tributes have been paid, rightly, to Brian Friel, the Irish Chekhov, who died aged 86 on the morning of 2nd October. But it’s worth remembering that he was an outcast for years—as was Sean O’Casey—from his own theatre in Dublin, and made his reputation first as a fiction writer for the New Yorker and then as a playwright on Broadway and in London before coming home.
He was always ambivalently positioned between home and away, north and south Ireland. This was inevitable given he was a Catholic in Donegal, a place he fictionalised as Ballybeg in so many of his plays, and which came to represent the emotional and political melting pot of his writing.
He was born in Omagh, Co Tyrone in 1929 and had two conflicting birth certificates (9th and 10th January), which may explain his deep-rooted scepticism about absolute truth. Still, he nearly became a priest, studying at Maynooth College before finding his vocation as a writer, a transition brilliantly evoked in camouflage in his dramatic masterpiece Faith Healer (1979).
By now Friel was established alongside his friend Seamus Heaney as the quiet dramatic voice of Irish sensitivity during the Troubles of the 1970s and 1980s. I recall meeting them both, and the great conciliatory nationalist politician John Hume—all three friends were educated at St Columb’s College in Derry—in 1980 at the first night of Friel’s Translations in the Guildhall, Derry. It was the launch, too, of Friel and actor Stephen Rea’s groundbreaking, cross-boundary company Field Day.