As the hearse wound around the coastal roads from Brian Friel’s Greencastle home, on the shores of Lough Foyle, traditional musicians prepared to go on to Glenties main street to salute the cortege with the music he loved. But such was the playwright’s fierce determination to leave this life as he had lived it, in privacy and humility, they were asked not to play.
And so Friel completed his final journey to his beloved Glenties, without fanfare or “folderol”, as a friend put it. No bishops, no president, no members of the “great and the good”; just the people of Donegal, applauding on roadsides as the cortege wound its way across the county.
The mourners climbing the steep hill towards his grave were distilled to the true, lifelong friends, the Field Day commune, the artists, poets, performers and theatre-makers who gave life to his words and vision, and the people of Glenties who knew him just as “Brian”.
Under a blazing, azure sky, and bathed in the unseasonal warmth of a beautiful October day, they stood on the sun-lit hillside, listened to the wind whispering through the spruces and gazed across to the hills of Meenahalla and over towards Lough Crillin and marvelled at the playwright's choice of resting place. In fact, it emerged that his son, David, with Fr Pat Prendergast, the parish priest, had chosen the grave – destined to become a shrine – where it will cause least intrusion to others.
Glowing branches of montbretia taken from the Friels’s Greencastle home were scattered around the graveside. Family members, led by Friel’s wife, Anne, his children, Mary, Judy, Sally and David, sons and daughter-in-law and grandchildren held red roses as the simple wicker coffin, topped with small sods of Greencastle clay, was lowered into the grave.
The grave-marker featured a picture of a honey bee on a flower, a gesture towards his beekeeping interest.
After Fr Prendergast had welcomed Friel "to the soil of Glenties which was so dear to him" and said the committal prayers, Tom Paulin, the poet and just one of just two speakers at the 30-minute service, described Brian Friel as "the warmest and most loyal of friends . . . who kept in touch constantly. The strong grip of handshake and tight hug – never a slap on the back – stays with me". He ended with a recital of Seamus Heaney's poem, Sunlight.
Playwright Tom Kilroy spoke movingly about theatre people's "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 – something mysterious, something beautiful about the final curtain. Because there is always the promise of the next performance. The curtain will go up again and the show will go on . . . There is the promise of the continuation of life itself and in the final curtain, there is truly hope for salvation.”
He finished with a passage from Shakespeare’s The Tempest: “Our revels now are ended . . . We are such stuff as dreams are made on and our little life is rounded with a sleep.”