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Brian Friel gets the send-off he might have written himself

By Lise Hand

Published 05/10/2015

Family and friends carry the remains of playwright Brian Friel to the graveside
Family and friends carry the remains of playwright Brian Friel to the graveside
Brian Friel
Brian Friel’s widow Anne sheds a tear during his funeral
Former politician John Hume
Mark Durkan
Tom Paulin reads a Seamus Heaney poem at the graveside during the burial ceremony for Brian Friel

It was almost as if the master playwright had crafted this closing scene in the final act of his long life's journey. For it was a Brian Friel sort of setting; a hillside just outside Ballybeg, bathed in the lingering touch of a summer late to arrive but now unwilling to depart. The mountains are a distant purple backdrop in the slanting afternoon sun, and spread across the glen is an autumnal patchwork quilt of faded green, russet, stone-grey, amber, gold and the brown stubble of fields freshly-shorn of their harvest.

And the directions, as requested by the intensely private man who shunned fuss or fanfare, were carried out to dignified and graceful perfection.

After a private ceremony in his home in Greencastle yesterday morning, a modest cortege of family and close friends travelled 100km of winding roads through his beloved Donegal to the town of Glenties, the real-life version of his fictional Ballybeg, which was the setting for some of his greatest works, such as Dancing At Lughnasa and Faith Healer. His mother Mary McLoone had worked as postmistress in Glenties.

There was a fiddlers' festival in Glenties, and it was suggested a lone musician might play on the roadside as the cortege passed. But the kind offer was declined; it wasn't in the pianissimo script.

And Brian had emphasised the importance of punctuality, requesting his coffin should arrive at its journey's end at 3pm. Which is precisely what unfolded.

At the dot of 3pm, family members carried his wicker casket, adorned only by a plain wooden cross and small plaque, to the grave.

There was one wreath of white flowers, and each of his immediate family carried single red roses. And around the grave had been placed sprays of vivid orange-yellow Montbretia, a familiar sight in hedgerows along country lanes in the west of Ireland, flaring like small fires in the tangled undergrowth.

Around 1,000 people, family and friends stood in a wide circle marvelling at the beneficence of the blue skies, for this exposed hillside would be bleak indeed if the wet and windy Atlantic weather had bared its teeth instead.

The chief mourners were his wife Anne, daughters Mary Bateman, Judy Maher, Sally Sultan, his son David and his sister Mary. He was predeceased by his daughter Patricia, who died in 2012.

Among those who gathered to say a final farewell were Belfast actor Stephen Rea, who co-founded Field Day theatre company with Brian in 1980; Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness; former SDLP leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner John Hume; local Fine Gael TD Dinny McGinley, and Mark Durkan of the SDLP.

Also at the graveside was film and theatre producer Noel Pearson; artist Bobby Ballagh; actors Sean McGinley; Eamon Morrissey and Gerry McSorley; director of the Abbey Theatre Fiach Mac Conghail; broadcaster and writer John Kelly, composer Bill Whelan, and also Marie Heaney, widow of Brian's great friend, the late Seamus Heaney.

As he arrived at the graveyard Mr McGuinness paid tribute to the work of both Heaney and Friel. "They brought their love of Ireland and their sense of place to the wider world in a powerful and stunning way," he said.

The simple prayers over the coffin were said by local parish priest Fr Pat Prendergast, who said that the parish regarded it as "an enormous privilege that Brian has chosen to be buried among us, and we welcome him here today to the soil of Glenties, which was so dear to him".

It was the simplest of ceremonies. There were two graveside eulogies from poet and critic Thomas Paulin and playwright Thomas Kilroy.

Mr Paulin described Friel as "the warmest and most loyal of friends".

"His strong grip of a handshake and tight hug stays with me. He spoke of politics, always with passion, never in wrath," he said.

"Brian's heart and mind did not grow old as he aged; his intellect, his intensity, his compassion, generosity and warmth never faltered," he added, ending his tribute by reading the Seamus Heaney poem Sunlight.

In a moving speech, Mr Kilroy said: "Theatre people have very mixed feelings about the final curtain. The show is over, the lights have been switched off, and the curtain has come down.

"But there is something else. There is something mysterious, something beautiful about the final curtain. Because in the final curtain there is always the promise of the next performance. The curtain will go up again, and the show will go on."

But there was some music too, set against a quiet chorus of the wind hushing through the trees. Mezzo-soprano Ruby Philogene-Doran sang a favourite hymn of the playwright, Oft In The Stilly Night, and she brought the final curtain down with the aria Dido's Lament by Henry Purcell.

As the song soared above the grave of this master-weaver of word-spells, it was, of course, just perfect:

"Remember me, remember me, but ah! Forget my fate."

Belfast Telegraph

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