Wednesday, 27 January 2016
Death of Former Member: Expressions of Sympathy
I am privileged to lead the tributes to the late Brian Friel, teacher, storyteller, playwright and Senator. I would like to extend a warm welcome to the extended Friel family, especially to Brian's grandchildren who have made the trip from Donegal in his honour.
The tributes to Brian on his passing were wide and varied. He was praised and eulogised by many, both here in Ireland and abroad. He was described as a towering figure of stage and cultural life of this island. Living quietly in Donegal, however, Brian was a quiet, soft spoken man who shied away from the limelight and let his writing speak for him. Part of the first generation in Ireland to grow up with a new Border facing it, the Border came to play a significant part in Brian's life. Crossing it regularly, it became a focal point of his home, work, leisure and life.
Brian was a prolific writer and wrote over 30 plays in all. "Philadelphia Here I Come", "Dancing at Lughnasa", "Lovers" and "Aristocrats" looked at familiar topics such as poverty, emigration, family relationships and social change in Irish society. He also dipped his toe into political themes in dramas such as "The Mundy Scheme", "Translations" and "The Freedom of the City". Brian shared the same alma materof St. Columb's College in Derry as Seamus Heaney, another former eminent Senator. Both of them distinguished themselves on the world stage, gave exceptional pride to the rest of us and bolstered Ireland's reputation as a great literary nation.
One of the nicest testaments to Brian's character I have read is that having followed his father's footsteps into teaching and years after leaving teaching to become a full-time writer, he continued to inquire of his former pupils and their educational development, particularly their progress in the literary field. It is clear among all the great tributes and praise heaped upon Brian for his literary work that his home in Donegal, his leisure as a fisherman and his love for his family were the greatest works of his life. I was delighted to see last week that a trust has been established to preserve the homestead of Brian's grandparents in Glenties in Donegal. It is fitting that his daughter, Mary, is involved and I eagerly await a visit to the Brian Friel centre once it is established.
Ultimately, Brian was a private man. The following quote from his self-portrait gives an insight into modern Ireland's leading playwright:
I am married, have five children, live in the country, smoke too much, fish a bit, read a lot, worry a lot, get involved in sporadic causes and invariably regret the involvement, and hope that between now and my death I will have acquired a religion, a philosophy, a sense of life that will make the end less frightening than it appears to me at this moment.
I hope he did indeed find an adequate version of all three.
I will finish by extending my condolences to his wife, Anne, his children, his grandchildren and his many friends.I thank all those involved, especially those who travelled from County Donegal to join us in the House today. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam dílis.
I am honoured to have been asked by the Fianna Fáil group to pay tribute to the legendary figure of Brian Friel. I think that, with my friend and colleague, Senator David Norris, we are the only Members who served with him. I was first elected in 1987 when he was nominated as a Senator by the then Taoiseach Mr. Charles Haughey. It was a part of Mr. Haughey's make-up; he was a great patron of the arts. At the time, it was widely welcomed that Brian Friel should be recognised and honoured through a nomination to this House. From an historical point of view, it is interesting that he never actually sat in this Chamber because the Seanad met in the ante-room, as Senator David Norris may remember. As one does, a Senator in the previous Seanad, between 1982 and 1987, was glancing at the wonderful ceiling, which is a feature of the House, and noticed that rather ominously it was cracking and that dust was falling from it. The Office of Public Works was brought in and it decided to shut the place down. As a result, when I first came here in 1987, the Seanad met in the ante-chamber. There were Senators, including Brian Friel, who, while serving in that Seanad, did not physically get to sit in this Chamber, which in a way is sad.
That is only a small point on the historical record, but it made no difference to the status of Brian Friel or any of the rest of us. It was just physical.
When it comes to paying tribute to somebody of the stature of Brian Friel, I stand back in awe. I could not help but reflect on the fact that there were little things along the way when I touched on his life. As a young emigrant in London in my late teens, I always had a great interest in the theatre. I remember when "Philadelphia Here I Come" opened on Shaftesbury Avenue I bought a ticket to go see the production which starred the late Patrick Bedford and the late Donal Donnelly as Gar and the other Gar. I was absolutely enthralled by it. The fact that it had been written by an Irishman and that it was being premiered in the West End was a great source of pride to me at the time. To think that some years later I would serve in the House with him was awe-inspiring. I cannot say I knew Brian Friel the man. As happened in the case of many who were nominated for non-political reasons, his appearances in the Seanad, while important, were rare. I do not think he was a politician per se, but I found him to be friendly, courteous and always willing to engage in the small talk one makes in the House between votes.
Brian Friel voted on six pieces of legislation during his tenure in office and it is rather interesting to look at the broad breadth of that legislation. His voted first on the Adoption Bill 1987. He subsequently voted, believe it or not, on Report and Final Stages of an abattoirs Bill. He also voted on the Tenth Amendment of the Constitution Bill 1987, better known as the Single European Act. This was the the subject of the first contribution I made as a new Senator, not in this Chamber but in the Dáil chamber, as Senator David Norris might remember.
The very first sitting of the Seanad in 1987 was in the Dáil Chamber. I do not know what the reason for that was. I made my first and last speech in the Dáil Chamber on that Single European Act.
Brian Friel also voted on the video recordings Bill, in which he presumably had a particular interest. He voted for the last time on Fifth Stage of the Single European Act. While his appearances in the House were rare, he made an impact and took a keen interest in various pieces of legislation that were going through the House, as evidenced by the wide range of votes in which he participated during his two year period in the Seanad.
It is very difficult to know where to start when one considers the extraordinarily successful career of one of our leading playwrights. There is a little hero worship, as I was a fan before I was anything else and I still remain a fan of his works. They are his greatest legacy to succeeding generations when one considers work such as "Philadelphia Here I Come" and "The Faith Healer". There is also the famous "Dancing at Lughnasa" which, of all of his plays, resonates most strongly with the popular following across the world because of the wonderful portrayals by all of the actors and actresses in the film adaptation, led by Meryl Streep.
Apart from his prodigious output as a playwrite, the English-speaking world has hailed him as the Irish Chekhov, the universally-accented voice of Ireland. His plays have been compared favourably with those of contemporaries such as Samuel Beckett, Arthur Miller, Harold Pinter and Tennessee Williams. To be honest and lacking in total objectivity, he stands head and shoulders above even these distinguished individuals. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam. Like the Leader of the House, on behalf of the Fianna Fáil group, I pass on my deepest sympathy to his wife, Anne; his immediate and extended family. I applaud them for continuing the work of a wonderful man because the name Brian Friel will resonate long after many of his contemporaries have passed on to their eternal reward.
I express my thanks to Brian Friel for having lived his life and shared his great intellect and work with the rest of us. Like many others, I saw many of his plays during the decades and the one I valued the most and that spoke to me the most was "Translations". It had the capacity to draw in so many difficult strands, so many parts of our life, culture and history. To be able to create something engaging and lasting was quite an achievement. We are deeply at a loss for his passing. He was a great friend and colleagues of Seamus Heaney who we also recently lost and they were wonderful and inspiring men.
During the years so many people have written so much about Brian Friel and his work. He extended around the world, as his works have been translated into many languages and performed in many places. His work brought a piece of Ireland wherever it went but also a piece of humanity. That is his greatest legacy and gift. I know that his work will sustain and be remembered and performed for a long time to come into the future. I know that the Sligo Drama Circle is opening its year of performances this year with one of his plays. I simply wish to thank him and say we are all the richer for his great contribution. I never had the pleasure or honour of meeting him, but I feel as if I did. I feel part of what he said, what he said for all of us, will stay with me and I hope I am the better for it.
I offer my deep condolences to Anne, Mary, Sally, Judy, David and all of the grandchildren. Sally, David and Mary are in the Visitors Gallery, as are some of the McLoones, the Friels and the Morrisons.I also wish to acknowledge the presence in the Visitors Gallery of the chairman of the Abbey Theatre, Dr. Bryan McMahon. This is an emotional day for me as he was a friend, a critic and a mentor. He was my referee when I applied first for the job in the Abbey Theatre and when I applied for it the second time. To pay tribute to this great man, I find myself at a loss; the challenge seems too great. I was uncertain where to begin to describe his contribution to Irish theatre, how to find an end to our gratitude for his work and his wisdom and in my confusion I turned to literature, as do we all. I turned to the great character of Hugh, the schoolmaster in "Translations" who assures us that "Confusion is not an ignoble condition." Friel's work is a layer in our subsoil. Any author who makes his or her way onto a school syllabus can become part of the weave of young minds and settle there but Brian Friel staged an extensive excavation on the site of the Irish psyche. I can think of no playwright whose stories have better explained ourselves to ourselves. Friel addresses weighty themes such as language and meaning, faith and authority through the quotidian of family life. The work was thematically epic, the situation achingly local. He wrote about the collective. He showed us who we are, shining a light on dark moments of the public and the private past.
What I love about Brian is that his work exhibits a boundless humanity. There are few victors in his histories. He believed that every story had seven faces and he generously revealed them all without judgment. His characters speak of relentless change and precious few constants, save for long golden summer afternoons, music and the eternal Ballybeg. If Ballybeg was his canvas, memory, the greatest of all his muses was his palette. He meditated on it and interrogated memory in all its forms including personal, the stuff of autobiography and cultural memory, exposing the make up of the collective consciousness of our race.
He knew the landscape of fact had limited value and that recollected moments held equal validity and sometimes greater significance than the truth of lived experience. It was my joy and privilege to have known and loved him over 20 years and I consider each person present lucky to have lived in his time. He was an artist of the highest integrity and the most rigorous craftsman I have ever known. There are few instances where I can claim one-upmanship on him, except in this act today. I am addressing Members here in the Seanad, something Brian never managed to do in his two-year term and I believe that was an active decision he made. He is truly irreplaceable and the constellation of Irish literature seems to shine less brightly in his absence. When asked why he had two birth certificates, one dated 9 January 1929 and the other dated 10 January 1929, Brian quipped "perhaps I'm twins". Indeed, it seems impossible that one man could have contributed so much. It could not be true that a sole imagination yielded Frank Hardy, Casimir O'Donnell and Rose Mundy, that one mind convinced us that Yalta was the same parish as Ballybeg and that made the concerns of a 19th-century hedge school feel more urgent than today's newspaper but it is true. They are all the work of a man to whom we pay tribute today, Brian Friel.
He gave us 24 plays in total and it has been my great joy to work on at least seven of them to date. In addition, he wrote two short story collections, as well as three unpublished and eight published adaptations, mostly from Ibsen, Chekhov and Turgenev. It is a formidable body of work as rich as it is varied. With deep connections on both sides of the Border, which the Leader mentioned earlier, he was preoccupied with aspects of dualism, divided loyalties, tensions between fathers and sons, the two languages and the island's two political states. In "Philadelphia Here I Come", which is a play about exile Senator Mooney mentioned, it is about fathers and sons but is both a cultural touchstone and an astonishing statement of intent from Brian, just three plays into his career. He split the theatrical atom when he created Gar Public and Gar Private. The play demonstrated Brian's masterful understanding of the unique potential of the theatrical form. It also showcased his great humour side by side with a nostalgic crushing melancholy.
In an extraordinary golden period of creativity in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Brian wrote "Aristocrats", "Faith Healer" and "Translations". In 1979, "Faith Healer" had its world premiere. The play's dedication, which I love, reads "For Anne, again" and for me, it is his masterwork. It is a personal favourite and is a play to which I have returned throughout my own life and work. One is presented with one story recounted by three tellers, unreliable narrators all. Each has his or her own particular recollection told through monologue. In its most basic reading, it is an extraordinary meditation on the distortions of memory. For artists, it is a searing self-portrait, a complex metaphor of the artist with a gift over which he or she has no control and the consequences for those around that artist. When Frank asks "Am I a con man?", we feel as though Friel is talking directly to us. Frank continues:
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 all artists. He is asking others to have faith in him but it is hardest to have faith in oneself.
The play "Translations", which premiered at the historic Guildhall in Derry in September 1980, was written to launch Field Day Theatre Company. Field Day's mission was to tour Ireland, North and South, and it was founded as the cultural and intellectual response to the political crisis in Northern Ireland. Brian, together with Stephen Rea and others, set out to create a space, a fifth province, whose art would transcend the borders of the political reality. Friel made the inspired choice to have all characters, Irish and English-speaking, speak the English text even though on stage, the characters cannot comprehend one another. It takes a true master to wield language so beautifully and so deftly while convincing us of its utter inadequacies.
"Translations" dramatised the key transitional moment when Irish gave way to English and when our culture was forced to translate itself into a different linguistic landscape. The Ordnance Survey map acts as a powerful metaphor for the transformation of cultural environment. However, the play is also deeply funny and has the greatest love scene in Irish theatre history when Máire and Lieutenant Yolland both pledge their love in a language the other does not speak and yet they understand, always. It is one of the most translated and staged of all the 20th-century plays and has been performed in Estonia, Iceland, France, Spain, Germany, Belgium, Norway, Ukraine, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland, together with most of the world's English-speaking countries including South Africa, Canada, the United States and Australia.
"Dancing at Lughnasa" holds a special place in my memory. After its world premiere at the Abbey Theatre in 1990 directed by Patrick Mason, the play transferred to Broadway, where it ran for a year and won three Tony awards. I was the assistant producer in that transfer and worked closely with Brian for the very first time. His keen ability to elevate and devastate is showcased in "Dancing at Lughnasa", which is set the year before the Constitution was established with all its limitations on women. Friel expressed the agency of these five brave Glenties women to dance in an alchemic coup de théâtre. His ability to engage the intellect and the heart sets him apart as a playwright. Seamus Deane, his Field Day colleague and dear friend, wrote "no Irish writer since the early days of [the] century has so sternly and courageously asserted the role of art in the public world without either yielding to that world ... or retreating into art’s narcissistic alternatives".
As e-mail took over, for the past ten years the Abbey Theatre's fax machine was maintained exclusively for Brian Friel and Seamus Heaney, who were committed to the medium of fax. There was great excitement every time one of Brian's messages would arrive full of one-liners or well-wishes. The Friel fax, as it came to be called, became increasingly hard to service over the years and it baffled IT department staff and repair shops around Dublin 1. However, it was lovingly prized and maintained diligently by my staff at the Abbey Theatre. Discontinued toner cartridges were sought online and carefully stockpiled and missives destroyed by paper jams were extricated with surgical precision and pieced back together. It was with deep sadness that we noted in October that this fax machine is now silent but it remains in our office.
Finally, in 1996 Vincent Canby wrote in the New York Timesthat Brian must be Ireland's greatest dramatist having, "dazzled us with plays that speak in a language of unequalled poetic beauty and intensity". How could we ever express adequate gratitude to Brian Friel for Marconi, for Frank, for Teddy and Grace, for Screwballs versus Cannonballs, for poor Lieutenant Yolland, for casting W.B. Yeats as a cushion, for indelible Kinlochbervie in all its retellings, for the heart scalds and the big sore laugh and for building a home for our imagination in Ballybeg?All tributes and thanks fall short in the wake of its mastery. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.
We are here today to talk about Brian Friel. To quote Milton:
Nothing is here for tears, nothing to wail
Or knock the breast
The family might agree with me that this is a moment for celebration of one of the great talents of Irish theatre. It was a really imaginative use of the power of nomination by the late Charles Haughey to nominate Brian Friel to this House. The current Taoiseach has continued this tradition in nominating the director of the Abbey Theatre, Senator Fiach Mac Conghail, whose very eloquent praise of Brian Friel we have just heard.
I knew Brian Friel but it is extraordinary the way one's memory plays tricks on one. I thought I met him in this Chamber. I remember very clearly that in 1987 we had to meet in the ante-chamber. I have vivid memories of talking to Brian Friel during a division which I thought was in here but obviously I am wrong. All kinds of odd things can happen. I was intrigued to learn from the Leader's speech that Seamus Heaney was also a Senator. I must have slept through that one because I have no recollection of it. Perhaps that was an error of memory.
Fifty years ago or more, as a student in Trinity, I wrote the first review of "Philadelphia, Here I Come!" which I saw at the Gate Theatre. As Senator Paschal Mooney said, Paddy Bedford and Donal Donnelly were in it and it really brought me alive. It was one of the most exciting and thrilling moments in theatre that I can recall. The idea of having two physical actors on the stage - one playing Gar private and the other Gar public - was just electrifying. The acting was superb, not only by the actors playing the two principal characters but also by the man who played the father - a tragic, incoherent, isolated figure so familiar to me from my own experience of the poor people of the midlands. The pub interior was also beautifully presented on stage. The pub grocery and the old housekeeper are familiar from that period of Irish life. There was something really haunting about it. I wrote the first review in Icarus, the Trinity magazine, and when I met Brian here when he had been elected, he remembered it. I was so pleased that a man of such extraordinary distinction would remember the admiring scribblings of an undergraduate.
He is, as I say, a great playwright and translator and his translations of Chekhov were remarkable. He was a man of great humour whom I do not recall speaking at all in this House. I think he was nominated by Mr. Haughey as an accolade to thank him for what he had done for Ireland and I do not think he was expected to speak. I remember asking him why he did not and he said it was because they never talked about anything that interested him, which I thought that was a perfectly rational and reasonable argument. He spoke outside this House and he spoke from the heart about the Irish people. He also had a wonderful sense of humour. "The Loves of Cass McGuire", which I also saw, was terribly funny in some instances and had a pathos of exile. There is a wonderful moment when someone in America keeps writing back home saying they got a promotion. They say three times "This is a feather in my cap" and when they ask whether they should take the boat or plane home, one of the characters left at home tells them to stick all the feathers up their arse and fly home. I thought that was pricelessly funny.
We remember the humour and the breadth of his understanding, not only of nationalist Catholic people in the North but also his understanding of Protestants and the English. We remember his refusal to be narrowly judgmental in a republican sense, his breadth of imagination and lack of judgment, which was remarkable, as was his capacity to take apparently small, local and parochial things and turn them into the international and universal through the medium of art.
Many years ago, the late Frank O'Connor said to a group of us in Trinity that to be parochial was not dreadful because if one understood one's own parish, one understood everybody else's. The bad thing was to be provincial. There was nothing provincial about Brian Friel but he sure as hell was parochial. He made the parish universal and, as a result, it was represented in theatres in the west end of London and on Broadway.
We stand in honour and awe at the career of a modest man who did not parade his genius. There is no doubt that Brian Friel was a genius of the theatre. We should be grateful and celebrate his life. As I said at the beginning:
Nothing is here for tears, nothing to wail
Or knock the breast
Brian was 86 when he died, I am now 72. When one is over 70, one is in the departure lounge and might as well get used to it. We are perishable goods and that is it. I hope he found solace and absolved himself of the fear of death. I am very glad to say I have no fear of death at all and I hope to God I do not acquire one on my death bed, which would be unfortunate. I am grateful for the life of Brian Friel because he has enriched many evenings in the theatre. Reading his remarkable short stories also enriched my life.
It gives me great pleasure, on behalf of the Labour Party, to offer tribute to the late former Senator, Brian Friel. I welcome those in the Gallery, particularly Brian Friel's family, friends and colleagues to whom I offer sincere sympathies. Others who knew Brian Friel have spoken eloquently but I will add a few words of my own. While he was a Senator here between 1987 and 1989, which is the basis upon which we are paying tribute, he was much better known as a playwright and was described at the time of his death as the best-known Irish playwright of his generation. Others have spoken of his many achievements. He was incredibly prolific. I have read through a list of his huge amount of work - 24 published plays, two short story collections, three unpublished and eight published adaptations or versions, most notably of the works of Ibsen, Chekhov and Turgenev. His best-known plays are "Dancing at Lughnasa", "Faith Healer", "Philadelphia, Here I Come!" and, of course, "Translations", which, like Senator O'Keeffe, is my personal favourite. It is a most beautiful evocation of the complexity of language, communication difficulties and mis-communications. It has much resonance and there is a political undertone which has been discussed at length but to me it is a beautiful discussion of language. Brian Friel has been honoured in so many ways, not only in Ireland, Britain and the US, but also internationally. Senator Mac Conghail spoke eloquently about the international impact that his work has had and the staging of many of his plays in many other countries, as well as the English-speaking countries in which he was honoured. He was honoured, by means of a Brian Friel season on BBC radio in the 1980s, in the Abbey Theatre in 2009 to celebrate his 80th birthday and through the bestowing of so many honorary doctorates by Trinity College, the National University of Ireland, NUI, and others.
One of the things I did not know about him until I read his obituary was that he had also been a writer for the Irish Pressand The New Yorker.Of the handsome reward he was given by The New Yorkerhe said, "They paid such enormous money I found I could live off three stories a year" which I thought was a lovely phrase. As Senator Mac Conghail said of Brian Friel's enormous achievements, it seems impossible that one man could have achieved so much in his lifetime.Clearly that is why he is the best known Irish playwright of his generation. That is why he was honoured so extensively on his death and regarded, as many wrote, as one of the greatest contemporary dramatists writing in the English language. He was rather nicely described by Meryl Streep, who acted in the film adaptation of "Dancing at Lughnasa", as a tender dramatist and lovely man. I wish to add my voice to those paying tribute to this extraordinary man.
Thar ceann ghrúpa Shinn Féin, ba mhaith liom fíorfháilte a chur roimh mhuintir Brian Friel anseo inniu agus ár gcuid comhbhróin a chur in iúl dóibh as ucht bás an fhathach fir seo, an laoch i measc laochra ó thaobh na drámaíochta de.
I take this opportunity to offer the collective sympathy of the Sinn Féin group to the family and friends of the esteemed former Senator Brian Friel, a genius and giant of Irish theatre. I feel a bit overwhelmed by the challenge of trying to live up to the rhetoric of previous Senators. One could talk about being upstaged before the final act. Coming in as one of the last speakers it is very difficult to follow some of the wonderful contributions previously made and I commend the Senators who have spoken already.
Brian Friel is a man who needs no introduction; he was a titan of theatre and it is a privilege that he came from these shores and served in this House that we too now serve. While he spent only a short time serving in the Seanad, he served Ireland and its people for decades. In all, Brian Friel penned more than 30 plays, two short story collections and three unpublished and eight published adaptations or versions, most notably from Ibsen, Chekhov and Turgenev. Other speakers have said that also.
I am sure that all Senators in this House have at some stage been influenced or inspired by Friel’s works. That in itself is a testament to the accessibility, power, and calibre of his works. Particular works of Friel have left a deep mark on many people, not only in Ireland but across the globe. His first major success, "Philadelphia Here I Come", is still a timeless piece of drama, especially from an Irish perspective. In itself, it challenged many traditional Irish societal norms of the time. More importantly, it challenged and highlighted the negative effects of certain aspects of Irish society on its people and the difficulties that created in their ability for expression.
For me personally, two of his works stand out, namely, “The Freedom of The City” and “Translations”. The play, "The Freedom of the City" had its genesis in Friel’s own participation in the civil rights march on Bloody Sunday. It was a response to the whitewash Widgery report on Bloody Sunday and it is one of the best dramas to emerge from the conflict in the North. The play was a product of Friel at his most politically engaged period. It was an exposure of the corrupt state authority in the North at the time and was critical of the British establishment vis-à-visthe British army and Widgery tribunal. "Translations", one of Friel’s most celebrated works, is a complex play about language but with many sub-themes running throughout, such as nationalism, republicanism, imperialism, emigration, culture, identity, acceptance, family, love, and many more. It was powerful to me to see how it explored the use of language as an instrument of colonial power. Mar dhuine a labhraíonn Gaeilge ó lá go lá, bhí sé iontach speisialta ar an mbunús.
The real power of Brian Friel’s work was the emotiveness and power of themes and how his work spoke to people. His plays, short stories, and adaptations have a timelessness quality and will endure in a way that only the greatest works of art and literature can endure. Brian Friel is a loss to Ireland, a loss to literature and theatre and a loss to his numerous friends in many fields. It is his family, however, who will miss him most. On behalf of Sinn Féin, I again wish to express my sincere sympathy to his wife Anne and all his family and friends who are with us today. Go dtugfaidh Dia suaimhneas síoraí dó.
I can remember vividly attending the first production of "Dancing at Lughnasa" in the Abbey Theatre and the impression it made on me. I was attending with my then new wife. Even today the play is still in my mind. We are talking about the transience of life and the permanence of art. It is said that Brian Friel was greatly influenced by Chekhov. In "The Circus Animals' Desertion" Yeats said, "I must lie down where all the ladders start/In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart". Chekhov said all art starts in the dunghill. There is also the image from outside Kavanagh's house, the carn aoiligh as it is called in Irish. That is the basis of the genre, the everyday, the local elevated to the universal. As Kavanagh said, the local is far more important than the provincial because the local has a justifiable pride in its own achievements whereas the provincial tries to aim its efforts at its perceived betters.
Brian Friel's school colleagues were Seamus Heaney and John Hume - the three wise men - the three whin bushes that looked across the horizon, to quote from Patrick Kavanagh's poem "A Christmas Childhood". One is looking at something special, a unique communication. An uilethacar - the universal set, which will live forever. When, as the Leader outlined, Brian Friel said that he hoped "that between now and my death I will have acquired a religion, a philosophy, a sense of life that will make the end less frightening than it appears to me at this moment", I though he was a very lucky man because he only feared the end. Most of us fear life. I am sure there is no end as far as Brian Friel is concerned because he has moved through his art into that permanence that will last forever.
My colleague in the English department in TCD, Terence Browne, wrote about "Dancing at Lughnasa": "Their dance is the dance of the misplaced, of proud, gifted, bravely energetic women whose lives were misshapen by an Irish society that will, as it changes, destroy the life they have struggled to achieve". Senator Ó Clochartaigh has referred to the social commentary that runs through these plays, and the search for the fifth province by a man who crossed from Muff to Derry to the Field Day theatre to do his work every day.
His colleague, Seamus Heaney, commented on the cathartic effect of Friel's play on audiences saying:
Their elation comes from the perception of an order beyond themselves which nevertheless seems foreknown, as if something forgotten surfaced for a clear moment. Whatever they knew before that moment becomes renewed, transfigured in another pattern.
We are doing that in the year of commemorations as we think more about the nature of this country and society and the need to expand on traditional interpretations of it. That is echoed in Declan Kiberd's examination of Field Day and its expression here in this House and in the political and social life of Ireland. He said that when Mary Robinson was elected President in 1990 and achieved that expanded definition of Irishness with her candle in the window reaching out to the diaspora, he felt that the artistic agendas of Friel and Heaney had at last found a political embodiment.
The idea of home, emigration, ancestry and exile are rooted in Glenties and Ballybeg. They all come together in the beautiful and dramatic west Donegal landscape. There is a very nice quote from Rosita Boland, quoting from Seamus Heaney speaking about Friel in the Glenties summer school of 2008, The Catechism of Friel -
B was for Ballybeg, “a place where the soul had no hiding place”.
R was for the risk he had taken in first deciding to write full time.
I was for integrity.
A was for Anne, his beloved wife of more than half a century.
And N, Heaney told the packed hotel ballroom, was for “a very important word in the Friel vocabulary: No. No to the cult of self-promotion” – a reference to the fact that Friel did not give interviews.
He is looking down on us today from his heavenly abode and we are saying thank you so much to Brian Friel for all that he has inspired in this country.Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam dílis.
I too am glad to have the opportunity to join in the tributes to our former colleague, the late Senator Brian Friel. Mention has been made of his reflection about making the end less frightening. It is an appropriate reflection for the Houses of the Oireachtas over the next two or three weeks for many, or all, of us to try to make the end less frightening, if it is to be an end.
I was fortunate to serve with the late Senator in that period 1987 to 1989. It is a long time ago but we have nothing but the fondest memories of that Seanad. It was an eclectic Seanad for me, to put it mildly, as I was a political novice just out of short pants. To walk into the House and sit alongside figures such as Brian Friel, Éamon de Buitléir - who was another very interesting Independent appointment by the then Taoiseach, Charles Haughey - John Robb from Northern Ireland and John Magnier of Coolmore Stud fame was something I was in awe of, although on reflection, I treasure it greatly.
The work, worth and fame of Brian Friel stretches much beyond this House and, clearly, he is known not for his political interventions but for his life of creativity. From the perspective of a man of such creativity, one of the disappointing aspects of his membership of the Seanad was that the Seanad building in which we sit, the finest room of Leinster House, was under repair and reconstruction in that period 1987 to 1989, so it was not in this hallowed spot and on these well-cushioned leather seats that we sat but rather in the ante room, where we sat on chairs and benches like little schoolboys in a room. Notwithstanding that, each Member, including Brian Friel, played their part in that Seanad.
Senator Norris has posed the question of whether he contributed much by way of debate to the Seanad. Most of us who entered the Seanad on that occasion were in awe of the building and of politics but any moments of silence were filled by the said Senator Norris, so there was very little time for the novice Senators to make their speeches. Brian Friel was a mannerly, friendly colleague of those on all sides in the House. If we recall, it was a time when the politics of this Republic and this island was very fraught with the divisions in Northern Ireland. On an almost daily basis, certainly a weekly basis, we were speaking of death and division, bombing, murder and killing. That was the big political backdrop at the time. People such as Brian Friel and other colleagues like him, by their presence here and their gentle chats, not always within but also outside the Chamber and in the more social parts of the building, forced us all to try to look in a broader fashion at the conflict on the island and forced us all to try to accept that change, compromise and movement would be required. Therefore, the Senator did play a constructive political role in that regard. Different voices from the normal Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Labour Party voices, which we were traditionally more used to, were very helpful in making us look at some of the big problems in a new light.
I have very pleasant memories of Senator Brian Friel. While his fame is much greater than his political career, he certainly leaves a legacy in this House and way beyond it.
I would like to compliment the longevity of Senators Bradford, Mooney and Norris. When I look around the Chamber, I wonder who is going to be here in 25 years' time. It is quite a long time to be in Seanad Éireann.
I did not know Brian Friel but, by all accounts, he was an absolute gentleman of the highest standing. He was a playwright, a storyteller and a teacher. He was born near Omagh, County Tyrone, in January 1929 but ten years later, he moved with his family to Derry. There he was educated at St. Columba's College, following which he spent two years as a seminarian in St. Patrick's College in Maynooth. He trained as a teacher at St. Joseph's College, Belfast, and he began his teaching career in 1950.
While I never met Brian Friel and did not know him, I can assure Members that from the contributions that have been made in the House today, I feel I knew him very well.
I would like to be associated with the tributes to the late Senator Brian Friel, who was nominated to be a Member of Seanad Éireann from 1987 to 1989 by the then Taoiseach, Charles J. Haughey. I extend my sympathies to his wife Anne, his children and grandchildren, his extended family and all his friends here in the Seanad today. The House will observe a minute's silence.