Fintan O’Toole: The truth according to Brian Friel

For the late playwright the past and our images of it were slippery and treacherous. Truth lay not in public facts but in private fictions

Portrait of the artist: Brian Friel in one of Colin Davidson’s portraits of the late playwright

Portrait of the artist: Brian Friel in one of Colin Davidson’s portraits of the late playwright


The boy, in this memory, is about nine years old, and his father is in his early 40s. It is summer in the beautiful Donegal village of Glenties, where the boy’s mother was brought up. Now the boy and his father are walking home from a lake with fishing rods across their shoulders. It has been raining all day, so they are soaked to the skin. But, perhaps because the fishing has been good, the boy’s father is unusually happy. As they walk along the muddy road into the village they start to sing.

This memory was important to Brian Friel, as it is to his first enduring dramatic creation, Gar O’Donnell, in the 1964 play Philadelphia, Here I Come!

Glenties, disguised as Ballybeg in almost every Friel play, remained the imagined setting of much of his work. Those childhood holidays there, in his mother’s old home, remained so vivid for him that he seemed to remember the shape of cups hanging in the scullery, the texture of every tree around the house, the pattern of every flagstone in the kitchen floor. They were, perhaps, the nearest that his restless, angular sensibility ever came to a sense of belonging.

The only problem is that he knew that what he remembered with such certainty of that summer day could not have happened. As he said in a talk he gave on BBC radio in 1972, “there is no lake along that muddy road. And since there is no lake, my father and I never walked back from it in the rain with our rods across our shoulders. The fact is a fiction.”

Yet – and this is the centre of Friel’s work – this realisation that memories may be inventions does not deprive them of their force.

Friel liked a quote from Oscar Wilde about the “inalienable privilege” of the artist to “give an accurate description of what has never happened”.

Truths, for him, were not mere facts. Of this false memory he insisted, “For me it is a truth. And because I acknowledge its peculiar veracity it becomes a layer in my subsoil; it becomes part of me; ultimately it becomes me.”

In Philadelphia, that first great play, Friel’s own real memory is transported into his fictional character’s memory, and there, too, it proves illusory. Yet the very power with which it is evoked on stage lifts it into a different kind of reality. It makes its own truth. That trajectory, from reality to fiction to shattered illusion and back to a sort of heightened presence, is the journey of a Friel play.

And the journey is not just personal. Friel’s great originality lay in the way he treated public history as if it were private memory – as a construct whose truth does not lie in its mere facts. Just as it did not matter to him in the end that his lovely memory of his father could not have happened, the characters in his plays turn history into words, images, stories. It is their way of not being crushed by the weight of its cruel inevitability.

After his world has imploded, at the end of Translations, the schoolmaster Hugh tells his son Owen that “it is not the literal past, the ‘facts’ of history that shape us, but images of the past embodied in language”.

Deep roots

For Friel, both as a man and as a writer, the past and all our images of it were slippery and treacherous. He had two birth certificates. One says he was born, the child of a schoolteacher and a junior civil servant, in Omagh, Co Tyrone, in what was then the new entity of Northern Ireland, on January 9th, 1929. The other gives his date of birth as January 10th.

The idea at the heart of his work – that our sense of what happened in the past owes more to our imaginations than it does to our memories – has very deep roots. Friel may not have invented the notion of the unreliable narrator. He may not have been the first to force an audience to try to reconcile conflicting accounts of the past. But the utter conviction with which these devices are used in his plays, the way they transcend questions of form and style and become a vivid and visceral presence on stage, must surely reflect the fact that they had a profound personal meaning for Brian Friel.

That utter uncertainty about the meaning of past events is one of the reasons why Friel’s lifetime of achievement evoked so little self-satisfaction. Self-contempt was more in his line than self-congratulation.

He talked, when he discussed his work at all, of “our trivial achievements and our abysmal failures”. The tributes of critics and academics did not impress him. In 1972 he conducted the following interview with himself for BBC radio:

“When did you know you were going to be a writer?

“The answer is, I’ve no idea.

“Which of your plays is your favourite?

“None of them.

“Which of your stories?

“Most of them embarrass me.

“Do you think the atmosphere in Ireland is hostile or friendly to the artist?

“I’m thinking of my lunch . . .

“Or would you say, Mr Friel, that the influence of Heidegger is only beginning to be felt in the drama and that Beckett and Pinter are John the Baptists of a great new movement?

“Well, in answer to that I’d say that I’m a middle-aged man and that I tire easily and that I’d like to go out for a walk now, so please go away and leave me alone.”

Sense of failure

That nagging sense of failure, that refusal to believe that anything has been achieved, haunts his nearest avatar, Frank Hardy, in Faith Healer, the role that gave Donal McCann his crowning achievement on stage. Frank’s doom develops in the space between his belief that he really can work miracles on the one hand and his fear that he may be, after all, a con man on ther other.

As a summoner of theatrical illusions Friel himself was drawn between that same belief and that same fear. Frank Hardy asks himself, “Am I endowed with a unique and awesome gift? – my God, yes, I’m afraid so. And I suppose the other extreme was Am I a con man? – which of course was nonsense, I think. And between those exaggerations, the possibilities were legion. Was it all chance? – or skill? – or illusion? – or delusion? Precisely what power did I possess? – Could I summon it? When and how?” Those questions are the abiding questions of Friel’s career.

At times they made for plays like The Freedom of the City, his response to Bloody Sunday, and Making History, his reflection on the myths and realities of Hugh O’Neill, which seem to despair of ever being able to say anything about momentous events.

And yet, for all his doubts about making sense of the past, for all his restlessness in relation to his own achievements, it is the very darkness of the past, the untrustworthiness of memory and of language, that has given Friel’s work its extraordinary force. The fictional nature of one’s own life sanctioned, in his mind, the fictions of the theatre. “An autobiographical fact,” Friel said, “can be pure fiction.” But, typically, he added, “And no less reliable for that.”

In his case the autobiographical facts, however untrustworthy, were crucial, for, more even than most writers, Friel was obsessively concerned with his own time and place. He quoted with approval a remark of his friend Seamus Heaney: “There are only certain stretches of road over which the writer’s divining rod will come to life.” (In one of Friel’s own short stories, The Diviner, it is said of the title character that “he could find anything provided he got ‘the smell of the truth in it’ ”.)

Those grounds for Friel were Catholicism and Irish nationalism, both with the deep and sometimes dark resonances peculiar to the embattled North.

When Friel was 10 he moved to Derry with his family. His father, Patrick Friel, was a Nationalist Party member of the notoriously gerrymandered Derry Corporation, representing the Catholic housing estates of the Bogside and Creggan, where the civil-rights movement came to the boil.

The Troubles

Brian Friel was himself a member of the Nationalist Party for a time, and, especially after the beginning of the Troubles in 1968, most of what he wrote was shaped in one way or another by the conflict. He never had a Yeatsian belief that theatre could somehow alter the entire consciousness of his place and time, but he held on to the hope that it might “make some tiny, thumbscrew adjustment to our psyche”.

Catholicism itself was a strong and troubling influence. After five years at St Columb’s college in Derry (alma mater, too, of Heaney, of John Hume and of his friend Seamus Deane, the writer and critic), Friel went, at the age of 16, to study for the priesthood at Maynooth College. He left 2½ years later.

What happened in the meantime is the most private aspect of a very private life. It was, he said in 1964, “an awful experience. It nearly drove me cracked. It is one thing I want to forget. I never talk about it, the priesthood.”

In Friel’s plays, however, silences and absences are always potent, and it is clear that some part of that experience remained with him. He spoke of his work as a search for “faith”, and his description of that search makes it sound very much like a religious quest. It was “the patient assembly of a superstructure which imposes a discipline and within which work can be performed in the light of an insight, a group of ideas, a carefully cultivated attitude”.

He talked, too, of the theatre as a “theoretical priesthood”. In his plays the figures who most closely represent the artist are priests or priest-like: St Columba in The Enemy Within, Archbishop Lombard in Making History, Fr Jack in Dancing at Lughnasa and, above all Frank Hardy in Faith Healer.

For what is Frank’s calling if not a kind of secular priesthood, or, as he calls it himself, “a ministry without responsibility, a vocation without a ministry”? And what is the life of a writer if it is not also a vocation without a ministry? In declining his call to the priesthood Friel found his vocation.

Nationalism and Catholicism are the forces that have shaped Friel’s consciousness, but he in turn shaped them to his needs as a writer. What makes him important beyond the theatre, indeed, is the way he reimagined those forces, making them fluid and open.

He probed with relentless questioning key aspects of an identity that has been all too fixed and certain. Politics and religion were as powerful for him as they were for James Joyce, and like Joyce he made his work from the struggle to escape them through “silence, exile and cunning”.


In Friel’s case the exile was internal and imaginative rather than physical. He chose to live, appropriately, just on the Donegal side of the Border, keeping his distance from both Belfast and Dublin, hovering between two political entities, neither of which he felt comfortable with.

Yet he made the break from his father’s world with one brief but highly significant episode of exile. At the invitation of the great theatre director Tyrone Guthrie, he went with his wife and two children to Minneapolis, in Minnesota, where Guthrie was founding his new theatre.

For six months he spent his days and evenings in the theatre, “literally skulking about in the gloom of the back seats”, until a doorman challenged him. As he was trying to explain his function one of the actors stepped in to rescue him with the words, “He’s okay . . . He’s an observer.”

As Friel later recalled, “that fortuitous christening gave me not only an identity but a dignity: an observer, part of the great communal effort – pass, friend.”

The result, eventually, was Philadephia, Here I Come!, which was a considerable success on Broadway, in London and in Dublin in 1964. But it is striking that, although he produced some interesting work between then and the early 1970s, his development rather stalled until the effects of the conflict in Northern Ireland began to seep into his plays.

It was as if, having dramatised his break with his past in Philadelphia, he needed to rework that play’s clash of father and son in a new way, as a metaphor for a larger conflict. That possibility emerged as Northern Ireland slipped into chaos.

Bloody Sunday

Friel cannot, however, be seen as a directly political playwright, much less as a spokesman for his tribe. The Freedom of the City (premiered in 1973), because it draws on the Bloody Sunday massacre in Derry, is sometimes seen as an attempt to adopt that role. In fact, for all the anger that burns through it, the play is partly about the impossibility of ever finding a single point of view that will encompass the truth of violent events.

It is not accidental that that perception finds its most oblique yet most powerful theatrical form in a play that seems entirely unconnected to the politics of Northern Ireland, Faith Healer. For what Friel drew from the conflict was an ever deeper sense of the untrustworthiness of language.

His terrain was the clash of languages and histories, the gap between private belief and public expression, the prevalence of official and unofficial lies.

The approach of Friel’s best plays – Faith Healer, Translations, Aristocrats, Dancing at Lughnasa (the first three premiered within an extraordinary period of 18 months in 1979 and 1980) – is much more oblique than a simple response to the Troubles might imply.

What the conflict provoked in him was a search for a way of locating the big issues – history, myth, language – within the lives of small communities or within the minds of ordinary people. He found a means of embodying in vivid characters the disjunction between private feeling and public form that was the experience of Northern Irish Catholics of his generation.

He found, too, images of quiet lives torn apart by the casual irruption of history, as the sisters in the small village world of Dancing at Lughnasa suddenly find themselves at the mercy of African rituals, the Spanish Civil War and the industrial revolution.

And he found, in Faith Healer, the most enduring images of the personal resonance of conflicting histories, the inability to deal with grief and the magnetic power of death. To say that these images are not political is perfectly true. But it cannot be denied that they distil the psychic experience of a vicious and intimate conflict.

Yet, like the false memories that somehow escape the tyranny of facts, the thrust of Friel’s best work was always towards an escape from the tyranny of history, even from the relentless grip of time.

World ending

In Friel’s plays the world is always ending but never ends. In Making History the struggle between O’Neill and the English is one of “life or death” for a Gaelic Ireland “on the brink of extinction”. The catastrophe at Kinsale should therefore be apocalyptic. Yet 2½ centuries later, in Translations, we have that same civilisation, still on the brink of extinction.

The brink of extinction, in Friel, is a surprisingly stable place. Kate’s sense in Lughnasa that “hair cracks are appearing everywhere; that control is slipping away; that the whole thing is so fragile, it can’t be held together much longer” is almost always there in Friel’s plays. The cracks do widen into gaping holes, control does slip away, the fragile things do fall apart. Yet things and people still go on.

The Homeric ending of Translations speaks in absolutes: there is no future for this ancient city. And yet, 100 years later again, in Dancing at Lughnasa, the old civilisation is still not quite dead; the “rituals and ceremonies and beliefs these people have practised since before history” of Making History are still pulsing through the lives of the Mundy sisters in 1936.

The golden late afternoon in which Aristocrats ends in the mid-1970s but which “may go on indefinitely” is the same golden, indefinite, unending late afternoon in which Dancing at Lughnasa ends in the 1930s.

Somehow, in some composite of Friel’s plays, it is always Ballybeg, it is always August, the day is always waning, the world is always ending. The magic of Friel’s theatre is that he could pause those moments and hold them forever in a perfect stillness so that they hover before us and hold back time and history.

Those images have touched audiences around the world, but their rapturous responses never made Friel any less restless. His most eloquent self-expression will always be the figure of Frank Hardy in Faith Healer, a man who may be a charlatan or who may be blessed and who is probably both.

And of whom it might be said, as Grace says of Frank, that “I’m sure it was always an excellence, a perfection, that was the cause of his restlessness and the focus of it.”

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