Brian Friel: His Life Work and Legacy

Updated On: March 06, 2023

Brian Friel Irish Author with Sire Ian McKellen and Dr James Nesbitt

Brian Friel is a large name within Ireland’s literary world. During his lifetime he created many poems, plays and short stories. In addition, he created many well-known pieces, for example, Transitions and Faith Healer, and many more.

Continue reading to discover the life and work of magnificent writer Brian Friel, and his accomplishments.

Brian Friel
Brian Friel
Sourced: Flickr, Changing Times Theatre Company

Brian Friel Early Life

Brian Patrick Friel was born in Knockmoyle, County Tyrone on 9 January 1929. As a result, he grew up during the Irish Troubles, consequently influencing his later writing. Friel was firstly educated at Long Tower School in Derry, then St. Columb’s College in Derry.

Interestingly, St. Columb’s College was also attended by famous authors Seamus Heaney and Seamus Deane.  His further education took place, firstly at St. Patrick’s College in Maynooth, where he was on the path to priesthood however left before ordination and received his Bachelors Degree.

He then attended St. Joseph’s Teacher Training College in Belfast (now St. Mary’s University College). He graduated a qualified teacher and found full-time work in many schools around Derry.

He married Anne Morrison in 1954 and they had five children (four daughters and one son). In 1960 Brian Friel pursued his career as a writer, later, in 1969 he moved to Donegal to escape the political climate of Northern Ireland at the time. His first published work was his short story “The Child”, published in 1952.

Brian Friel Irish Playwright

Throughout Brian Friel’s literary career he wrote many plays. His first stage play “The Francophile” premiered in Belfast in 1960 and was later renamed “A Doubtful Paradise”. In 1964 Friel created his first major success, the play, “Philadelphia Here I Come!”.

This play is one of his most famous play. However, it was not his only success. Following came Friel’s “The Loves of Cass McGuire” (1966) and “Lovers” (1967). His next great successes are “Faith Healer” which was first performed in 1979 and “Translations” which was first performed in 1980.

Throughout his literary career, he published over 30 plays. Below we have comprised summaries of some of his most famous works worldwide.

“Philadelphia Here I Come!”

Brian Friel’s first major success in London, Dublin and New York. This play centres on a man named Gareth O’Donnell and his move to America.

“Philadelphia Here I Come” Characters

The main character Gareth is split into two characters: Public Gareth, and Private Gareth. ‘Gar’ is his nickname and each is portrayed by different actors.

S.B. O’Donnell is Gareth’s father. He is an emotionally unavailable character, this annoys Gareth as his father does not seem upset at his leaving.

Madge is Gareth and his father’s housekeeper. She is portrayed as a somewhat mother figure in Gareth’s life. She also gets annoyed at S.B. for his emotional unavailability.

Kate Doogan is Gareth’s love interest in the play. She is a big reason for Gareth’s leaving as, although they love each other, she is married to another.

Senator Doogan is Kate Doogan’s father. He studies law and is suggested to be wealthy. He also thinks Gareth is not good enough for his daughter.

Master Boyle is the local teacher. He is a self-centred alcoholic who attempts to boast himself up with lies, however, is pitied by many of the other characters who knows he is lying.

The Canon (Mick O’Byrne) is S.B.’s only friend who visits. He is “lean” and “white” and has a predictable nature. Friel uses him as a symbolic representation of the Catholic Church.

The Sweeneys (Lizzy, Maire and Con). Lizzy is Gareth’s aunt, Maire is Lizzy’s sister who died, and Con is Lizzy’s husband. Gareth’s plan in Philadelphia is to stay with Lizzy and Con.

The Boys (Ned, Joe and Tom) are Gareth’s friends who are loud and energetic characters.

“Philadelphia Here I Come!” Quotes

“Philadelphia, here I come, right back where I started from…”

“Screwballs, say something! Say something, father”!

-This quote emphasises Gareth’s wish for his father to show some sort of emotion to his leaving.

“I’ve been offered a big post in Boston, head of education in a reputable university there”

One of the many lies told by Master Boyle in the play.

Brian Friel “Faith Healer”

Here we have created a short summary of Brian Friel’s “Faith Healer”. This play consists of two acts and four monologues which tell the story of an Irish faith healer named Frank. He has travelled across Wales and Scotland with his wife and manager.

In each monologue, you will hear different accounts of healing experiences performed by Frank. The first and last monologues are spoken by healer Frank. There is also a love triangle between the three travelling companions.

“Faith Healer” Characters

There are only 3 characters in this play. Frank Hardy who is the healer spoken about in each monologue. His wife is named Grace who leaves her upper-class luxury to follow Frank. The third character is his manager, named Teddy.

“Faith Healer” Quotes

“How did I get involved? As a young man, I chanced to flirt with it and it possessed me.”

“I had some envy of the man who could use the word “chicanery” with such confidence.”

“Faith healer — faith healing. A craft without an apprenticeship, a vocation without a ministry. How did I get involved? As a young man I chanced to flirt with it and it possessed me. No, no, no, no, no — that’s rhetoric. No; let’s say I did it… because I could do it. That’s accurate enough.”

Brian Friel “Translations”

Brian Friel Irish Author with Sire Ian McKellen and Dr James Nesbitt
Brian Friel, Irish dramatist, author and director of the Field Day Theatre Company pictured with Sir Ian McKellen and Dr James Nesbitt. (Image Source: Flickr – Ulster University)

“Translations” was written in 1980 and is set in Baile Beag (Ballybeg). It was first performed in  the Guildhall in Derry on 23 September 1980 and was the first play ever to be performed in the Field Day Theatre Company.

“Translations” Summary

This play is divided into three acts:

  • Act 1: An Afternoon on late August 1833
  • Act 2: A few days later (which has two scenes)
  • Act 3: The evening of the following day

Act one opens in the hedge-school showing Manus trying to teach Sarah to speak. Jimmy Jack is on stage watching the lesson and commenting. The evening class is about to begin and one by one student arrive and await the arrival of the headmaster.

The headmaster arrived with Captain Lancey, Owen and Lieutenant Yolland. This is the first time Owen has returned home in six years. Owen translates while Lancey explains the Ordnance Survey.

Yolland explains that he has fallen for Ireland and wishes that he could speak Gaelic. Manus is critical of them and thinks Owen is hiding that these happenings in Baile Beag are no more than “a bloody military operation”.

Act Two, Scene One opens on Owen and Yolland renaming some Irish placenames. Yolland is distracted by his want to learn Gaelic, and how beautiful the names sound. Yolland then announces that he does not want to do this work anymore and admits that their Ordnance is “an eviction of sorts”, but Owen ignores him.

Manus enters and announces that he has been offered a job to open a hedge-school in Inis Meadon, 50-miles-south of Baile Beag. Then, Máire enters near the end of the scene to announce that there is a dance taking place the following evening in the hope that her new love interest, Yolland, attends.

Act Two, Scene Two opens with Yolland and Máire running from the dance together. They cannot understand each other but both admit loving the other. They kiss but is caught by Sarah who tells Manus.

Act Three opens with Manus running away from Baile Beag. As Yolland has gone missing, Manus is likely to be held accountable as he searched angrily for him the previous night after kissing Maire. Owen advises him not to leave as it will make him seem more suspicious.

After Manus leaves, Doalty and Bridget arrive and announce that fifty or more British Soldiers have arrived carrying bayonets. They tell Owen that Hugh and Jimmy Jack protested their arrival by calling them many names meaning “invaders”. Lancey arrives and announces that Yolland is missing and if he is not found then they will destroy the village. Doalty tells him his camp is on fire to make him leave.

She then asks Owen is they will really destroy the village. Owen replies that they will and that the army will proceed to evict people regardless if Yolland is found or not. To end, Hugh and Jimmy Jack arrive drunk, Hugh admits that they will have no choice but to accept and learn the new placenames and to make them their own.

“Translations” Characters

Manus is a son of Hugh and is in love with Máire. He does not win her love as he is unemployed and has no land or wealth to offer her and her family.

Owen is a member of the English Army and was hired to help Yolland anglicize Irish placenames. Later, he leaves to join the Irish resistance. He is also Manus’ younger brother. Mistakenly called Roland by the English.

Hugh is the father of Manus and Owen. He is the headmaster of the local hedge-school. He is often drunk within the play and teaches his students Irish, Latin and Greek. He often quizzes his students on the origin of words.

Sarah is a young character who has a speech defect, Manus helps her to speak her name.

Lieutenant Yolland was sent to Ireland from the English Army to replace and rename Irish placenames throughout the country. However, he falls for both Ireland and Máire, who he kisses. Following this, he goes missing which leads the Army to threaten to destroy the village if he is not retrieved.

Máire has ambitions to leave Ireland and to learn English. She is the love interest of both Manus and Yolland. She refuses Manus’ hand as he does not have the means to care for her.

Jimmy Jack Cassie is a bachelor in his sixties who still attends evening classes at the hedge-school. He is dirty, never washing or changing his clothes. He lives alone and only speaks in Latin and Greek.

Doalty studies at the hedge-school. In the play, he breaks the theodolite machine. He is described as “open-minded, open-hearted, generous and slightly thick”.

Bridget is a cunning and vein young student at the hedge-school. She is described as “a plump fresh young girl, ready to laugh, vein, and with a countrywoman’s instinctive cunning”.

Captain Lancey is in charge of the first Ordnance Survey of Ireland. Unlike Yolland, he does not like Ireland and does not respect the people or try to understand them.

The Donnolly Twins are referenced throughout the play, however, are never seen on-stage.

“Translations” Quotes

“Yes, it is a rich language, Lieutenant, full of the mythologies of fantasy and hope and self-deception – a syntax opulent with tomorrows. It is our response to mud cabins and a diet of potatoes; our only method of replying to… inevitabilities.”

“To remember everything is a form of madness.”

Even if I did speak Irish, I’d always be considered an outsider here, wouldn’t I? I may learn the password but the language of the tribe will always elude me, won’t it?”

“Savages. That’s what they are! And what pagan practices they have are of no concerns of ours—none whatever! It’s a sorry day to hear talk like that in a Christian home. A Catholic home.”

“No matter how long the sun may linger on his long and weary journey, at length evening comes with its sacred song.”

“…that it is not the literal past, the ‘facts’ of history, that shape us, but images of the past embodied in language.”

Brian Friel “Dancing at Lughnasa”

Brian Friel wrote this play in 1990 and is set in County Donegal in August 1986. It is a play told from the viewpoint of Michael Evans about his summer in his aunt’s college when he was only seven years old.

This play was first performed at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin in 1990 and was transferred to London’s National Theatre in 1991. It is one of his most famous plays and was performed globally.

“Dancing at Lughnasa” Characters

Michael Evans is the main character, however, he is not seen on stage, however, he is referenced throughout by the other characters. As he is only seven years old when the play is set, the sisters adore him. Michael is the narrator and reveals the futures of the other characters in the play.

Kate Mundy is the oldest and therefore the mother figure of the Mundy sisters. She is the only working person in the house and is a school teacher. She is a devout Catholic and is displeased by the pagan practises at Lughnasa as well as Jack’s loss of faith in the Catholic Church.

Maggie Mundy is the homemaker of the house. Throughout the play, she plays an important role in diffusing arguments and keeping a light-hearted atmosphere. After learning of her friend’s success she quietly contemplates her life and shows she has dreams. This quiet contemplation in her monologue is contrasting to her usual light-hearted and happy self.

Christina Mundy is 26 years old and the youngest sister. She has a son, Michael, who is fathered by Gerry Evans. He shows up and leaves her when he pleases causing her to fall between depression when he leaves and into renewed optimism when he arrives again.

Rose Mundy is a 32-year-old woman, however, due to a developmental disability acts younger than her age. Due to this, she invulnerable and the other sisters think that Danny Bradley is exploiting her.

Agnes Mundy is a quiet character who is seen knitting with Rose and helping keep the house organised. She is shown to have an interest in Gerry. Michael’s narrative explains that her future will be bleak as a knitting factory will open, meaning her knitting will fail to support her. She emigrates to London with Rose and breaks all contact with their family.

Gerry Evans is shown at the beginning as a negative and mean character as he leaves Christina after fathering their son Michael. However, when first seen on stage he is charming and affectionate towards Christina. He is a free and wild character which contrasts with the Mundy sisters lives.

He was formerly a ballroom dance instructor, then a gramophone salesman, and now is leaving Ireland to fight in the Spanish Civil War in the International Brigade. Through adult Michael’s narration, we learn that he has a second family in Wales, a wife and many kids. His many proposals to Christina were therefore lying.

Father Jack is in his late fifties in the play. When he was young he left home to work as a missionary in a leper colony in Uganda. He is respected for his previous missionary work.

His sudden return to Donegal remains undisclosed throughout the play. In the play, it is shown that he has difficulty remembering things, such as his sister’s names. He also admits admiration for the African peoples pagan beliefs and it is hinted that he has lost his Catholic faith, which worries Kate. He is the only person who doesn’t refer to Michael as an illegitimate child, but rather calls him a Love Child, and says that they are common and accepted in Uganda.

Throughout the references Uganda as his home. He later recovers from his Malaria and confusion, however, through Michael’s narrative, we learn that he died of a heart attack soon after the events in the play.

“Dancing at Lughnasa” Quotes

“When I cast my mind back to that summer of 1936, different kinds of memories offer themselves to me.”

“Dancing as if language had surrendered to movement – as if this ritual, this wordless ceremony, was now the way to speak, to whisper private and sacred things, to be in touch with some otherness. Dancing as if the very heart of life and all its hopes might be found in those assuaging notes and those hushed rhythms and in those silent and hypnotic movements. Dancing as if language no longer existed because words were no longer necessary…”

“Does Mr. Evans ever wonder how Christina cloths and feeds Michael? Does he ask her? Does Mr. Evans care? Beasts in fields have more concern for their young than that creature has.”  -Kate Mundy showing her dislike for Gerry Evans

Savages. That’s what they are! And what pagan practices they have are of no concerns of ours—none whatever! It’s a sorry day to hear talk like that in a Christian home. A Catholic home.”

Accomplishments and Awards

The Brian Friel Theatre at Queen's University Belfast
Brian Friel at the opening of The Brian Friel Theatre at Queen’s University Belfast (Image Source: Brian Friel Theatre Website)

Brian Friel has won many awards for his works. He was nominated to serve as a member of the Irish Senate in 1987 and he served here until 1989.

In 1989, the BBC Radio launched a “Brian Friel Season” which was a six-play series devoted to his work. On February 2006, President Mary McAleese presented Friel with a gold torc in recognition of his election to the position of Asoi.

In 2008 Queen’s University Belfast announced their intention to build a theatre, and Brian Friel attended the opening of The Brian Friel Theatre and Centre for Theatre Research in 2009. The National Library of Ireland has 160 boxes of The Brian Friel papers, containing: notebooks, manuscripts, correspondence, uncollected essays, photographs and much more from throughout his life.

His 1979 play “Aristocrats” won the Evening Standard Award for Best Play in 1988 and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Foreign Play in 1989. Following this, “Dancing at Lughnasa” won the 1991 Laurence Olivier Award for Best Play in 1991, the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for best play in 1992, and the Tony Award for Best Play in 1992.

Then, in 1995 his play “Molly Sweeney” was awarded the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Foreign Play. In 2006 Brian Friel was added to the American Theatre Hall of Fame and in 2010 was awarded Donegal Person of the Year.

He was also made members of The American Academy of Arts and Letters, The British Royal Society of Literature, and The Irish Academy of Letters. He was also awarded an Honourary Doctorate from Rosary College, Illinois in 1974 and was a visiting writer at Magee College (Ulster University) from 1970 until 1971.

These prestigious awards and honours are only some of the many that he and his works received throughout his Literary Career.

Brian Friel Film Adaptions

Many of Brian Friel’s plays were adapted into a film. “Philadelphia, Here I Come!” was adapted and released in Ireland in 1970. It was directed by John Quested and starred Siobhán McKenna, Donal McCann and Des Cave.

In 1975 Brian Friel’s “The Loves of Cass McGuire” and “Freedom of the City” were both adapted into a film. “The Loves of Cass McGuire was directed by Jim Fitzgerald. This also starred Siobhán McKenna, acting Cass McGuire. “Freedom of the City” was directed by Eric Till and was adapted for television by Hugh Webster. Starring in this adaption was Desmond Scott, Gerard Parkes, Cedric Smith and Florence Paterson.

In 1998, his play “Dancing at Lughnasa” was made into a film starring Meryl Streep as Kate Mundy. Actress Brid Brennan was awarded an Irish Film and Television Award for Best Actor in a Female Role. It was directed by Pat O’Connor.

There were also some documentaries featuring Brian Friel himself. The first was filmed in 1983 and was called “Brian Friel and Field Day” which was a short 45-minute documentary about the writer himself and his founding of the Field Day Theatre Company.

The second was made in 1993 called “From Ballybeg to Broadway” which is about his first production of “Wonderful Tennessee” to his Tony Award-Winning “Dancing at Lunhnasa”.

Fun Facts

  • Brain Friel theatre at Queen’s University Belfast, to find out what’s on, look here
  • He died on 2 October 2015 after a long illness, in Greencastle, County Donegal
  • His surname, Friel, originated from the Gaelic name O’Firghil
  • He had five children named: Judy, Mary, Patricia, Sally and David
  • Former United States President, Bill Clinton described Brian Friel as “an Irish treasure for the entire world”

Have you watched or read any of the many literary works by Brian Friel? Say what you thought about it in the comments below!

If you enjoyed this blog about Brian Friel and some of his most famous work and achievements, please enjoy more posts about famous Irish writers below:

Two Authors | One Man | John Banville  Lady Gregory: An Often Overlooked Author | James Joyce: His Life, Work and Legacy | William Butler Yeats: A Poet’s Journey | Irish Author: Cecelia Ahern – Book and Film Success

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