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Literary world mourns titan of theatre Brian Friel

Celebrated Co Tyrone-born playwright passes away aged 86 after long illness

By Adrian Rutherford

Published 03/10/2015

Friel in the study of his home near Muff in Co Donegal
Friel in the study of his home near Muff in Co Donegal
Brian Friel and his wife Anne at the Lyric Theatre in London in 1967

Tributes have been paid to Brian Friel, hailed as a giant of world theatre, following his death at the age of 86.

From humble beginnings in rural Tyrone, Friel became one of Ireland's greatest playwrights.

His talent produced works such as Dancing at Lughnasa and Philadelphia, Here I Come, earning him fame and recognition around the world.

A humble and quiet man who shunned the limelight, Friel was famously described by Bill Clinton as "an Irish treasure for the entire world".

News of his death yesterday, following a long illness, drew tributes from across Ireland and beyond.

Irish president Michael D Higgins reflected on the passing of a giant of Irish literature.

"He was a man of powerful intellect, great courage and generosity," he said.

"These were talents that he delivered with great humour, grit and compassion. His legacy to the Irish people is immense."

Born in Killyclogher, near Omagh, Friel was educated at St Columb's College after his family moved to Londonderry when he was 10. The school is the alma mater of Nobel prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney.

Friel worked as a teacher in Derry before moving to Co Donegal in the 1960s, where he focused on writing. His breakthrough came when Philadelphia, Here I Come was performed on Broadway in 1964.

Arguably his best-known work was Dancing at Lughnasa, which won him three Tony Awards.

The play, set in the fictional Co Donegal town of Ballybeg in the 1930s, was later made into a film starring Meryl Streep.

His other plays included The Gentle Island, The Freedom of the City and Translations.

Ballymena-born actor Liam Neeson said: "It was a joy to say his words and to feel secure in the hands of a master craftsman."

He said Friel's plays "touched on the parochial and the universal".

"Their themes described the complexities of the Irish character with enormous wit, grace and love," Neeson added.

"I hope he and Heaney are having a 'wee one' together now and sharing a giggle." Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness said he was greatly saddened.

"Brian was a quiet, unassuming man who made a huge contribution to the arts and his work had universal appeal," he said.

Culture Minister Caral Ni Chuilin said: "Brian Friel's name features highly on the list of great modern writers. He had a rare ability to delight audiences with plays that are both entertaining and thought-provoking."

The Arts Council of Ireland described Friel as a giant of Irish and world theatre.

Its chair, Sheila Pratschke, said: "His legacy is a truly remarkable canon of work - work which has already achieved classic status in his lifetime, and which will go on to be produced for many years to come. He is one of the great Irish playwrights of our time."

Actor Stephen Rea paid tribute to "that humanity, that connection with his audience and his masterly writing", which had made him "a unique figure in Irish and world theatre".

Former SDLP leader John Hume, a close friend, said he was deeply saddened.

"To put simply, Brian Friel was a genius. But he was a genius who lived, breathed and walked amongst us," he said.

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