Brian Friel

In my final year at UCC, I played the part of S.B.O’Donnell in Brian Friel’s early, brilliant and ground breaking play Philadelphia Here I Come. Although only in my early twenties, it was somewhat ridiculous for me to be playing ‘Screwballs’ but this is what happens in University: somebody has to play the old people.
          After qualifying I toured Germany with a company visiting gymnasiums in a Culture through theatre project. To address the emotional cost of emigration in Ireland we used an extract from Philadelphia Here I Come and this time I played Screwballs son Gar(public).
          I eventually left Ireland to teach chemistry in recently independent Zimbabwe and as a going-away present, my friends gave me Selected plays of Brian Friel and appropriately wrote messages on the fly leaf. One said “Promise me you won’t try and do any of these with the Zimbabweans. It wouldn’t work.” Thankfully I didn’t follow that advice and in a production of Philadelphia Here I Come I played Gar(private). In fact, it did work and was intimately understood by our Zimbabwean audience, a country with a similar colonial history and familiar with emigration.
          Back in Ireland in 1995 I went to see Philadelphia Here I Come at the Abbey and that night I met my now wife of 23 years. Philadelphia strikes again.
          Although Philadelphia was the play that introduced me to Friel’s work it was his play Making History about the life of Hugh O’Neill and the Flight of the Earls that introduced to Friel himself some 12 years later in 2007.
          That year was the 400th anniversary of The Flight of the Earls. I wrote to Friel asking for his permission to stage Making History in site specific locations associated with O’Neill’s journey. To my great delight he was supportive of the idea. This started an almost two year tour with Ouroboros theatre company from the battle site in Kinsale throughout Ireland, and then through France, Belgium, Switzerland and finally ending with a production of Making History in the Irish College in Rome. A visit to O’Neill’s grave in The Church of St Pietro de Montorio completed an extraordinary journey. O’Neill’s grave lies hidden under a carpet at the Gospel side of the altar and it was very emotional when the beautiful ornate gravestone embedded in the floor was finally revealed.
          All along the way Friel kept in touch to see how it was going, mentioning that he had a particular grá for this play. Unfortunately around that time he had suffered a stroke so couldn’t join us anywhere along the way much as he wanted to. However, we were invited to do the play one last time at the MacGill summer school in Glenties, Donegal in 2009.
          I was delighted that Brian was going to be there. Walking out on stage as Hugh O’Neill I sneaked a look into the audience. Sitting in the front row were three of the most iconic Irishmen of my lifetime. Brian Friel, Seamus Heaney and John Hume. I took a deep breath and reminded myself to ‘Be careful what you wish for’. Thankfully the show went very well. Most importantly Friel was pleased and I and the other actors spent most of the rest of a long night with him and getting to know him. There was much laughter and gossip and general craic. From that point, until he died in 2015 I had many more meetings and correspondences with Brian. I have a folder of letters in his inimitable style, typed and then corrected by hand, which I treasure.
          Shortly before he died I went to see him and Anne at their home in Greencastle. I sat on the side of his bed, Brian lying there with his dog and although he was dying, we still had the gossip and the craic in so far as you do under these circumstances. I knew when I left him that it was goodbye.
          During the ease in lockdown this summer I went back to visit Friel’s grave in Glenties. His gravestone lies flat, like O’Neills’s and the beautiful black marble reflects Brian’s treasured Donegal sky. It is a fitting place for him to rest among his people.

Sleep well old friend.

Denis Conway
Dublin Unitarian Church

Read on RTE1 Sunday Miscellany 13thDecember 2020.


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