Brian Friel, ‘giant of world theatre’, dies aged 86

‘His work spoke to each of us with humour, emotion and authenticity,’ Taoiseach says

One of Ireland’s best known playwrights Brian Friel has died aged 86, Peter Crawley of The Irish Times and fiach Mac Conghail of The Abbey Theatre speak about his career and legacy.

One of Ireland's best known playwrights and a 'giant of world theatre', Brian Friel has died aged 86 . He passed away on Friday morning.

President Michael D Higgins paid tribute to the writer, saying his contribution to what one might call 'the theatre of memory' is an outstanding legacy".

“After Brian Friel’s work no one could offer amnesia as an alternative to history,” he said.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny said the nation and the world “have lost one of the giants of theatre.”


“The consummate Irish storyteller, his work spoke to each of us with humour, emotion and authenticity,” Mr Kenny said in a statement.

Friel was born in Killyclogher, near Omagh in Co Tyrone in 1929 and moved with his family to Derry when he was 10-years-old. He was educated in St Columb's College, Derry – also the alma mater of poet Seamus Heaney and politician John Hume.

Having become a teacher, Friel moved to Donegal in 1967, three years after his first stage success, Philadelphia, Here I Come, which was followed by a series of internationally regarded successes.

Dancing at Lughnasa, probably his most successful play, won three Tony Awards in 1992 .

Friel studied for a career in the priesthood in St Patrick's College, Maynooth, However, he decided to follow his father's footsteps to become a teacher and later studied at St Joseph's Teacher Training College, Belfast.

He taught at schools around Derry during the 1950s before his move to Co Donegal.

Friel won a number of other awards for his work including the Evening Standard Award, the New York Drama Critic’s Circle and Olivier Award, and was elected a Saoi of Aosdána in 2006.

He wrote 24 published plays, two short-story collections and three unpublished and eight published adaptations or versions, most notably from Ibsen, Chekov and Turgenev.

His plays also included: Lovers, The Gentle Island, The Freedom of the City, Aristocrats, Faith Healer, Translations, Making History, Dancing at Lughnasa, Molly Sweeney, Give Me Your Answer Do! and The Home Place.

Tánaiste Joan Burton said Friel would be remembered as one of Ireland’s “truly great writers” who bought Irish theatres and arts to the international stage.

Minister for Arts Heather Humphreys expressed great sadness at his death. "Brian was one of our truly great playwrights and was a household name not only here at home but on the international stage as well..... Through his writing he brought Ireland, and particularly Donegal, to the world.

Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams said he was "humble man, he was also a national treasure and a truly unique individual. Ní bheidh a leithéid arís ann."

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin said today was " a truly sad day for Irish cultural life. We have lost an iconic figure and tremendous artistic craftsman."

His wife, Anne Morrison, their three daughters and their son survive him.

Nobel peace laureate John Hume said he was “deeply saddened” at his “dear friend’s” death.

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

Minister for Diaspora Affairs Jimmy Deenihan TD has expressed his sympathy at the death of Friel.

“The passing of Brian Friel will be felt keenly by Irish people everywhere, many of whom have been deeply touched by his work.

“Brian Friel possessed a unique ability to portray a sense of Ireland and Irishness in his work and to do so with an unerring sense of realism.

“That realism was evident in Plays such as ‘Philadelphia, Here I Come!’, with emigration as one of its central themes and which was performed all over the world, resonating deeply with generations of Irish people living overseas and serving as a valuable connection between Ireland and the Global Irish family.”

SDLP MP Mark Durkan said Friel was a man of “formidable” intellect and “fond spirit”.

“He could be robust in his views but always modest of himself,” he said. “In Brian Friel’s view of the world there were no small experiences and no small people, but there could be small-mindedness on the part of supposed big people or systems.

The Catholic primate of All Ireland, Archbishop Eamon Martin, said “generosity and modesty were the hallmark of this great Irishman, who never strayed far from his roots”.

“During my time as President of Saint Columb’s College in Derry, I had contact with Brian on a number of occasions, he being a most distinguished past pupil of the college. He was genuinely interested in the students’ progress and especially supportive with regard to the development of their literary skills.

“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.

Friel is survived by his wife Anne and his children Mary, Judy, Sally and David. He was predeceased by his daughter Patricia who died in 2012.

Friel will be buried in Glenties cemetery on October 4th at 3pm.

Rachel Flaherty

Rachel Flaherty

Rachel Flaherty is Digital Features Editor and journalist with The Irish Times