Modern Ireland in 100 Artworks: 1979 – Faith Healer, by Brian Friel

Brian Friel wrote three superb plays in an astonishing two-year burst of activity. ‘Faith Healer’ was the least well received but has become perhaps the most influential

In just 18 months, between March 1979 and September 1980, Brian Friel premiered three new plays in three different cities. Rarely in the history of modern theatre has any dramatist produced a burst of work of such dazzling variety and such impressive quality in so short a time. Each of the three plays – Aristocrats, which opened at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin in March 1979, Faith Healer, which opened at the Longacre Theater in New York the following month, and Translations, which inaugurated the Field Day company in Derry in September 1980 – has since become a classic of the Irish repertoire. Such are the vicissitudes of theatre that the one that seemed least successful, Faith Healer, has arguably become the most influential.

By 1979, when he was 50, Friel already had 20 years of plays behind him. Born in Killyclogher, near Omagh, Co Tyrone, to a postmistress and a primary-school principal, he studied for the priesthood in Maynooth before apparently following in his father's footsteps as a teacher and member of the Nationalist Party in Derry. He began to write stories, largely in the mode of Frank O'Connor (the subject of the entry in this series for 1931) but was so accomplished that by 1960 he had a contract with the New Yorker that allowed him to give up teaching.

He felt, however, that he could not find a truly original voice in fiction, and he began to write drama, initially for BBC radio. A turning point came in 1963 when the brilliant Irish director Tyrone Guthrie invited him to spend some months as an observer at his theatre in Minneapolis. While there Friel began work on his breakthrough play, Philadelphia, Here I Come! With its clever use of two actors to play the public and private selves of its main character, it announced him as indeed a highly original and inventive playwright.

Fine work followed, but there was nothing on quite that scale of achievement until the astonishing efflorescence of his work in 1979 and 1980. It was as if, by then, Friel had fully assimilated all the anguish and uncertainty of the Troubles and could process it in work that was shaped by the contemporary situation but not dominated by it.


The three plays together showed Friel's great ability to go over the same ground while using utterly different forms. Aristocrats is a Chekhovian big-house drama, Faith Healer a stark set of four interlocking monologues, Translations a history play. Yet each deals essentially with the same things: the slipperiness of memory, the treacherous nature of both private and public histories, the inadequacies of language, the ways in which families construct their own myths, the way things fall apart. These concerns were responses to the predicaments of Northern Ireland, but Friel's artistry made them universal.

Of the three, Faith Healer was the most original and initially the least well received. It opened on Broadway with James Mason in the title role but closed quickly because of bafflement and indifference. Only when Joe Dowling revived it in the Abbey, in 1980, with Donal McCann giving one of the great performances of modern Irish theatre, did its full power emerge, the starkness of Friel's monologues more than compensated for by the mesmeric rhythms of his language.

Essentially, the faith healer, Frank Hardy, is a version of the artist, haunted by his own power and struggling to understand the mysteries of how and why his art might take fire. In this extraordinary period it seemed that Friel’s own art could do nothing else.

Modern Ireland in 100 Artworks is a collaboration between The Irish Times and the Royal Irish Academy. Find out more at