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Tributes after Irish playwright Brian Friel dies at 86

Published 02/10/2015

Playwright Brian Friel, pictured in 2009
Playwright Brian Friel, pictured in 2009

One of Ireland's foremost playwrights, Brian Friel, has been remembered as a giant of world theatre after his death at the age of 86.

The teacher turned writer, who shunned the spotlight, is best known for Dancing At Lughnasa, which was adapted for a film starring Meryl Streep, and Philadelphia, Here I Come!, an internationally renowned play.

Irish President Michael D Higgins led tributes, describing him as a warm and gritty friend, full of generosity.

"His is a body of work that will endure. He was familiar to generations of Irish people and others across the globe," Mr Higgins said.

"While his work has been performed on the professional stage to huge acclaim, it is also widely presented year after year in the amateur drama movement, and in school productions at home and abroad."

The president went on: " He was a man of powerful intellect, great courage and generosity.

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

Friel was born in Killyclogher, near Omagh, Co Tyrone, in 1929.

He moved to Derry with his family at the age of 10 and then to Greencastle, Co Donegal, in the 1960s, where he penned most of his great works and where he died with family, including his wife Anne, beside him.

Friel's London-based agent, Leah Schmidt, said he was a world-class playwright and a wonderful man.

"I have had the honour of representing Brian for the last 30 years and, although his presence will be sorely missed, his work will continue to live on, allowing future generations to enjoy his unique literary legacy," she said.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny said Friel's death was a loss to Ireland and the world.

"The consummate Irish storyteller, his work spoke to each of us with humour, emotion and authenticity," he said.

Friel was educated at St Columb's College in Derry - also the alma mater of Nobel Prize winners Seamus Heaney and John Hume.

Some of his other works included the The Gentle Island, The Freedom Of The City, Aristocrats, Faith Healer, Translations, Making History, Molly Sweeney, Give Me Your Answer Do! and The Home Place. He was credited with adaptations of classics by Chekov, Ibsen and Turgenev among others.

A production of Dancing At Lughnasa is due to begin at the Dublin Theatre Festival next week and comes just weeks after the inaugural Lughnasa International Friel Festival, a new annual cross-border event.

Festival director Sean Doran spoke fondly of Friel: " It is an era gone. He was such a beautiful man, warm-spirited with great generosity as a person, the expansiveness of his thinking and beauty of the writing."

Mr Doran said he would be spoken about as a "titan of the arts" in the same way as Heaney.

Friel also served as a Senator in the Irish parliament.

Among the awards he was said to have wryly accepted was as Saoi in the Irish arts affiliation Aosdana for distinction in his theatre work and to have his handprints immortalised in brass outside Dublin's Gaiety Theatre alongside the likes of Luciano Pavarotti and fellow playwright John B Keane.

His portrait was also displayed in Ireland's National Gallery.

Friel was described as humble and quiet and a man who preferred the company of family, friends and colleagues rather than the limelight.

But he was repeatedly referred to as an inspiration.

Sheila Pratschke, chairwoman of Ireland's Arts Council, said: "It is the mark of the man and his achievement as a writer that his work is conjured by use of his surname only."

Belfast playwright Martin Lynch said: "To have someone who cracked Broadway and cracked the West End, not with populist stuff but with real plays, is huge.

"He was an inspiration in that respect for all Irish writers."

Friel's early recognition began with short stories being published in The New Yorker before his first two collections, The Saucer Of Larks and The Gold In The Sea.

But his major breakthrough was Philadelphia, Here I Come! which gained critical and public acclaim when it showed in Dublin in 1964.

Two years later, from his new home in Donegal, he penned The Loves Of Cass McGuire, Lovers, The Mundy Scheme, The Freedom Of The City, Volunteers, Living Quarters and Faith Healer.

He also co-founded the Field Day Theatre Company in 1980 with actor Stephen Rea.

The groundbreaking company's first production was Friel's play Translations, the premiere of which took place at Derry's Guildhall in 1980 and which was awarded the Ewart-Biggs Peace Prize.

Fiach Mac Conghail, director of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin where a portrait of Friel hangs, said the playwright's work left official Ireland with deep questions to answer.

"I consider Brian Friel to be one of Ireland's greatest nation-builders who forensically interrogated and challenged the establishment of the Republic of Ireland," he said.

"Brian Friel understood the power and ambiguity of memory in developing a sense of who we are as a people."

In political circles, tributes were paid by Micheal Martin, leader of Irish opposition party Fianna Fail, who said: "We have lost an iconic figure and tremendous artistic craftsman."

Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams said: "Much of Brian's work dealt with societal change in Ireland, culture, language and Irish identity. A humble man, he was also a national treasure and a truly unique individual."

Ireland's most senior Catholic cleric, Archbishop Eamon Martin, said g enerosity and modesty were Friel's hallmarks.

"Brian Friel's many achievements, nationally and internationally, are too numerous to mention and his legacy is a truly great one. We are all honoured to have had him in our midst," he said.

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