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Dancing at Lughnasa playwright Brian Friel dies, aged 86

Published 02/10/2015

Brian Friel (Belfast Telegraph Archives)
Brian Friel (Belfast Telegraph Archives)
Brian Friel at the Opera House in Belfast, Northern Ireland. (Belfast Telegraph Archives)
Brian Friel and his wife at the Lyric Theatre in London in September 1967 (A.Harris /Belfast Telegraph Archives)
9th November 1967, Brian Friel in the study of his home near Muff in Co Donegal. (Belfast Telegraph Archives)
Brian Friel during rehearsals for the play Translations. (Belfast Telegraph Archives)
Playwright Brian Friel
Acclaimed: Brian Friel
Brian Friel with his University College Dublin Ulysses Medal and Seamus Heaney. (Julien Behal/PA Wire)
Brian Friel with President Mary McAleese as he received the Aosdana's highest honour. (Julien Behal/PA Wire)
Brian Friel with his University College Dublin Ulysses Medal. Friel, one of Ireland's foremost playwrights, has died. (Julien Behal/PA Wire)
Playwright Brian Friel and Lyric chairman Mark Carruthers OBE took centre stage to address the audience at the gala opening of the new Lyric Theatre on Sunday 1st May
Brian Friel in the auditorium at Belfast's Grand Opera House before the the final performance of his play, The Homeplace. (Brian Morrison/PA Wire)

The playwright Brian Friel has died this morning, aged 86.

Friel was born in Omagh in 1929 and studied at St Columb’s College, Londonderry. He worked as a teacher in Londonderry before moving to County Donegal in 1967, three years after his first stage success, Philadelphia, Here I Come, which was followed by a series of internationally regarded successes.

He has been described as one of Ireland's greatest playwrights,  an “honourable heir” to JM Synge and Sean O'Casey and the Irish Chekhov.

Nobel peace laureate, John Hume, expressed his deep sadness today at the death of Friel, describing him as "a gentle literary giant".

Mr Hume said: “I am deeply saddened to learn of the death of my dear friend Brian Friel. To put simply, Brian Friel was a genius, but he was a genius who lived, breathed and walked amongst us.

“His loss will be felt terribly by his family and his fans; however, we can count ourselves lucky that the treasure of his work will be with us forever. I express my sincere condolences to Brian’s wife Anne, his daughters, son and wider family circle.”

SDLP Culture Spokesperson Karen McKevitt has said there is sadness across Irish and global theatre following the passing of playwright Brian Friel.

She said: “Brian made an immeasurable contribution to our cultural heritage which will long survive any of us.

“Brian leaves us with a rich and diverse legacy. His works stand alongside the very best in theatre across the world and have inspired generations of playwrights, actors and theatre professionals. I have no doubt that his work will continue to inspire the young and old alike for generations to come.

“I want to express my very sincere condolences to Brian’s family and friends at this difficult time. I hope they can take comfort from the special place he held in the hearts of Irish people and the proud legacy that he has left us all with.”

Alliance Councillor Emmet McDonough-Brown said Brian Friel “one of the finest writers in Irish history”.

Councillor McDonough-Brown said Friel’s contributions to the literary canon were “both important and enduring”.

He said: “Dancing at Lughnasa recently finished another amazing run at the Lyric Theatre in South Belfast, which reaffirmed Friel’s place in the literary history of our country. Through such works, he explored the universal themes of society, which meant he spoke to each of us.

“I was proud to support the recent inaugural Lughnasa International Friel Festival, which was funded by Belfast City Council, and was a perfect tribute to him. Although he will be sorely missed, his writings will live on and continue to be enjoyed by many.”

In celebration of the 25th anniversary of Friel's most famous play, Dancing at Lughnasa, the Lyric Theatre put on the show from August 26 to September 27.

Some of his works include Philadelphia, Here I Come and Translations. He was bestowed with numerous awards including a Tony Award in New York in 2006 for Faith Healer, the Lifetime Achievement Award in 2009, the UCD Ulysses Medal in 2009, and Donegal Person of the Year in 2011.

In 1992, Friel also won three Tony Awards for Dancing at Lughnasa. The play was later made into a film starring Meryl Streep.

Friel was described by former US president Bill Clinton “as an Irish treasure for the entire world”.

Mr Clinton, who has been often linked with the playwright, said that although Friel’s plays were “set in his small town of Ballybeg, the themes and issues explored in them – identity, family, and conflict – have a universal appeal".

Mr Clinton was also present at the Lughnasa International Friel Festival in August, Ireland's first cross-border arts festival, that honoured Friel with a dramatic production of one of his most important works.

Friel wrote more than 30 plays, including Lovers, and Aristrocrats. Several of his plays looked at family relationships and changes in Irish society.

He served in the Irish senate from 1987 to 1989 and was a Saoi of Aosdána, the highest honour one may receive for singular and sustained distinction in the arts.

In 1980, he formed the Field Day Theatre Company with actor Stephen Rae, its first production being Friel’s own Translations.

He married Anne Morrison in 1954 and they had five children: Mary, Paddy (who predeceased him), Judy, Sally and David.

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