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His Own Twin
Brian Friel at The Abbey
Brian Friel was born in Killyclogher, near Omagh,
Co Tyrone, on January 9th, 1929. This is how biographical
sketches usually start, but for Friel, as for Beckett,
naming, timing and placing, the keys to identity,
were to prove problematic from almost the very beginning.
This is because two birth certificates exist for him,
one for the 9th of January and another for the 10th,
both of which bear the names Bernard Patrick Friel.
But in the parish register his name at baptism is
recorded as Brian Patrick O’Friel.
The fact that at the time of Friel’s
birth the Protestant bureaucracy discouraged the registration
of ‘Gaelic’ names may account for the substitution
of the Anglicisation ‘Bernard’ as his given
name. And the fact that ‘O’ means ‘son
of’ in Gaelic may account for the difficulty surrounding
his family name. “Perhaps I’m twins,”
he has joked about this muddle, which may have influenced
his decision to divide Gareth O’Donnell, the hero
of his first major success in the theatre, Philadelphia,
Here I Come, into two personae, Gar Public and Gar Private.
Or maybe, like Stephen Dedalus’s artist in Joyce’s
Portrait, he is ‘invisible, refined out of existence’.
His father, Patrick Friel, a native of Derry, taught
at a local primary school, and his mother, who hailed
from Glenties, Co Donegal, was a postmistress. When
he was ten, Friel’s family moved to Derry, where
his father had obtained another teaching post, and the
young writer-to-be spent many holidays just across the
border with his mother’s people. This relocation
gave rise to more dualities in Friel’s background.
For, while the town is known to the Nationalist community
as ‘Derry’, and to the Unionists as ‘Londonderry’,
the city has only partially been recognised in the official
lexicon as Derry since the Nationalist (or Catholic)
controlled city council voted to change its name; meanwhile
the county surrounding it remains Londonderry, by similarly
democratic decision of the Unionist (or Protestant)
County Council. Thus, this geographical space has what
Seamus Heaney has called ‘an obstinate bilingual
determination to live in and through its two names’.
Again, Inishowen, in northern Donegal, where Friel has
lived since 1969 and where most of his plays are set,
in the fictional town of Ballybeg, is only narrowly
linked to the rest of the Republic, and although part
of the ‘South’, is more northerly than almost
all of ‘Northern’ Ireland.
He went to secondary school in St Columb’s College,
Derry, and university in St Patrick’s College,
Maynooth, where he explored a vocation for the priesthood
but decided against it. He taught in Derry for the next
ten years, and wrote short stories, for which he had
a contract with The New Yorker. He published
two collections, A Saucer Of Larks and The
Gold In The Sea, and also had radio plays produced.
Philadelphia was the hit of the 1964 Dublin
Theatre Festival, and launched his highly productive
career as a playwright. In 1980 he founded Field Day
Theatre Company with actor Stephen Rea, and fellow-writers
and ex-St Columb’s boys, Seamus Heaney and Seamus
Deane. In 1987 he was appointed to the Irish Senate.
Among his best-known plays are Faith Healer, Translations,
Making History and Dancing At Lughnasa.
One striking facet of Friel’s work is his concern
with form, which gives rise to his dramaturgical innovations.
As he wrote in 1968: ‘...the days of the solid,
well-made play are gone, the play with a beginning,
a middle and an end, where in Act I a dozen carefully
balanced characters are thrown into an arena and are
presented with a problem, where in Act II they attack
the problem and one another according to the Quennsberry
Rules of Drama, and in Act III the problem is cosily
resolved and all concerned are a lot wiser, a little
nobler, and preferably a bit sadder. And these plays
are finished because we know that life is about as remote
from a presentation-problem-resolution cycle as it can
be.’ So in different plays of his we have seen
two aspects of the same character represented on stage,
a character addressing the audience and then later not
being able to find it, plus use of flashback and other
Friel is notoriously reluctant to give interviews, and
dislikes attention from the press, but actress Aideen
O’Kelly, who plays Maggie in his new play Give
Me Your Answer, Do!, says of working with him:
“He never tells you anything explicit about a
character, but leaves you alone to find the truth of
a part for yourself, and just smiles when you get what
he wants. He’s such a genius.” The enigma
which began with his being named has grown over the
years and continues to this day, spawning work which,
while it addresses local themes, has universal significance,
as is only to be expected from a man who personally
embodies many of the contradictions of his native land,
and of the human condition.
First published in The World of Hibernia