Brian Friel

I remember exactly where I was when I first saw Brian Friel’s play ‘Translations’.

It stopped me in my tracks.

Back then I was a militant young twenty something and I already had a reasonable view of the crimes of British imperialism in Ireland.

Of course I had no idea then that the twists and turns of life would bring me to live in the landscape of ‘Translations.’

It is here that I have reared my three Donegal Gaeilgeoirí.

The little one was born in the land of Translations.

She is a native of Cloch Cheann Fhaola and in 2009, aged 12, herself made one his creations come to life on the stage.

She was cast as wee Maisie McLaughlin in the Lyric Theatre’s production of ‘The Home Place’.

My youngest was treading the boards of An Grianán Theatre in Letterkenny and Omagh’s Strule Arts Centre.

The latter venue being in Friel’s home town.

She never missed a cue; the kid was a natural.

For the avoidance of doubt, her playwright father was rather proud, as you can see from this piece of mine at the time.

She got the full professional treatment in makeup and on the trips over to Omagh it was her and dad.

We were always ridiculously early and had time to chat about the play.






The cast, all established professionals, signed the programme for her as a memento.

The Home Place 1

There was, though, one signature, missing and that was Brian Friel.

She wanted his autograph to complete this rather special keepsake of her professional debut on stage.

The wee one asked me to write to Brian and ask him to sign the programme and I promised that I would do just that.

My intentions were the best, but it was on a pile of things to do.

The pile got bigger and bigger.

Earlier this year little Maisie, now 18, gently pointed out to me that I had not kept my promise to her.

It was one of those “Tá brón orm fá dtaobh de” moments for her old dad.

So, years after the fact, decided to be good to my word.

I made a couple of calls and got the news back that Brian was in failing health.

I didn’t want to pester the man, but I didn’t want to fail to come through in my own home place.

This led me to conduct a correspondence with his very gracious wife.

At this stage, Brian’s health was very weak and the Bean a tí of the Friel household promised me she would ask him to sign the programme.

Within a few weeks, my postman had come up this hill with a letter from Inis Eoghain.

It was a missive from the Friel’s home place.

The programme had been returned accompanied by a lovely letter from Mrs Anne Friel.

The hand of her husband, which had wielded a pen that produced such brilliant insights over the decades, was now very weak.

However, he had managed his signature and my little one was thrilled and grateful.

The Home Place 2

She was thrilled and my Little Maisie penned a thank you card to the man himself and, I hope, that in those days it gave him a reason to smile.

When I told herself about Brian Friel’s passing, she was saddened.

Being wee Maisie was an important part of her journey.

My Donegal girl was playing a part of her own history.

There was a time when ‘the mere Irish’ here were considered little more than pack animals for the British landlord class.

For the scientifically inclined among the master race, the Irish peasantry was viewed as zoological curiosities.

On my side of the house, she has Mayo Land Leaguers in her line and, yes, armed Fenians too.

That was the grim reality of those days and Brian Friel’s pen brilliantly evoked them.

The oppression of women in Catholic Ireland was brilliantly captured in the lives of the five Mundy sisters.

If you’re not quite sure how the old Priest run Ireland curtailed the life chances of Irish women, then add ‘Dancing at Lughnasa’ to your list.

My little one is now the Baby Doctor of the clan and she’s studying medicine at Trinity College Dublin.

That fine establishment was once the seat of learning for the British in Ireland, but no more.

Like the Gores of Ballybeg, those days are as gone as are the old days of priest rule.

These are the good old days and the characters created by Brian Friel helped us to see the waypoints on our journey as an island people.

I was in Dublin last week on NUJ business and, thankfully, herself could fit her dad into her busy schedule.

When we were catching up on her first weeks as a Baby Doctor, she told me of a classmate who is from England.

She did admit that strong drink had been taken by herself when she sat this nice lad from Cheshire down and gave him The History Lesson.

All 800 years of it.

She paraphrased for her oul Da:

“I said to him that, although he was a nice guy, his ancestors did from pretty messed up things here.”

In the place that was once an academic citadel of West Britishness, my little one is already putting manners on the master race.

I don’t think she’ll contract revisionism anytime soon.

All her mother’s doing of course…

History forgotten is a betrayal and Brian Friel’s work brilliantly reminds us of the story of this island.

Consequently, he has left us a lasting legacy that future generations can learn from.

His oeuvre has landscaped what it is to be Irish; constructing a narrative that spoke to us about our experience as colonial subjects of the British Herrenvolk.

He provided a translation service for the people of this island.

In doing so, he helped us to come to terms with the legacy of Imperialism and Plantation.

Just like Sean O’Casey’s trilogy Brian Friel’s plays will ensure his cultural immortality.

We have lost a genius.

Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam

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