The death of Brian Friel last week is something that will be marked in Ireland and throughout the world. He is one of the great playwrights of the last half of the twentieth century. He is also a representative of that 'school' of Irish writing in English that carries the peculiarly intense intimacy of Ireland, a kind of Irish writing that is often at its most universal, by some strange magic, when it is at its most 'parochial'. Brian's plays mark out my own life, both in its different times and its different phases, and as part of the whole, as do so many great books, great plays, great poems, great films, great pieces of music of all kinds, that have played a part in enriching and shaping me, and making me who I am (for better or worse!). These things are part of the furniture of our minds; they live with us; they are the breath of life because they are the breath of imagination. The plays I most remember are: 'Philadelphia, Here I Come!', 'Translations', 'Faith Healer', 'Dancing at Lughnasa', 'Molly Sweeney'. In 'Philadelphia, Here I Come!', a long time ago, I not only first encountered Brian's writing, but also a personal intimacy that never quite went away; my grandmother had left Ireland in the 1920's, and in some ways stepping into the world of that play, albeit two generations later, was to step back into her world; that same personal 'striking to the heart' was there, too, at the end of 'Dancing at Lughnasa'. And the last play I saw, only a month ago, was Brian's adaptation of Turgenev's 'A Month in the Country', at the Gate in Dublin.
Of course Ireland, because it is so small, and because of the 'peculiar intimacy' it still carries about itself, will always pile the personal on the personal. If there are, supposedly, 'six degrees of separation' only between us and everyone else on earth, in Ireland there is only one! Brian Friel died at Greencastle, on the Inishowen Peninsular, in County Donegal, only a few miles along the shore of Lough Foyle from Moville, where my grandmother was born in 1898; it is a place I have a strong memory of.
One of the things that Brian Friel recognised very firmly, and one of the things that made his writing so powerful, so unique, often in the midst of elegant and measured understatement, was his awareness that 'words' made writing work. It sounds a daft thing to say; obvious, so trite as to be almost meaningless? But it is a reality that is not widely acknowledged or understood critically at the moment. The process of writing is about putting one word after another, and that process is what transforms plot, substance, content, character, etc., into the good, bad and indifferent products of literature, and, as in Brian Friel's case, the extraordinary and wonderful. It is a magical process, and for most of us, the best we can do is, hopefully, to produce some well-rehearsed and modestly entertaining conjuring tricks. The real magicians, however, can produce real magic. There is a sense (though generally we only whisper it - an analysis of character and plot is a much easier conversation) that great writing is entirely about how one word is put after another; the rest is simply the 'vehicle' for that. This is what Brian Friel himself says (in 'Translations'); for me, it is his epitaph. It is an epitaph that only reminds us, thankfully, that he will always be with us.
'Say anything at all - I love the sound of your speech.'