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 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". 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 Paschal 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?
These 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.
In 1996 Vincent Canby wrote in the New York Times that 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.