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Friel and the amateur theatre in Ireland

The death of Brian Friel recently was particularly sad and momentous for the Irish theatre scene, but particularly for the amateur drama scene. Theatre groups around Ireland have a particular affection and a familiarity with the works of Brian Friel. His plays were truly a mirror up to our society and the amateur theatre groups in Ireland were willing to present them – because they need to be shown.

Sure, the writing and direction of Friel’s plays were a thing of beauty and recognized universally, but Friel was also dealing with the issues that were bubbling under the skin of Irish people. He was often showing us our behaviours and actions cause by the oh-too-familiar shackles of Irish society in the middle of the last century,

Cahir O’Doherty writing for irishcentral.com descibe how many of us first experience Friel, especially those that were introduced to plays like Philidelphia, Here I Come! during their Leaving Cert:

“At first the play was very funny but then it grew darker and darker. Old people didn’t know how to talk to the young, fathers didn’t know how to talk to their sons, the well off could not or would not understand the plight of the poor, the lucky had no time for the unfortunate.”
Cahir O’Doherty @randomirish (

This was the power of the theatre, especially for those that attended the amateur drama circuit. Not to be patronising or condescending, but Friel was talking to the average small town person about the people living in average small towns – not in an angry or cynical way, nor overtly chastising the pillar of Irish society, his reflection of Irish society was as we knew it but not as we had seen it.

“The people on stage looked and sounded exactly like the people who lived in my town, I quickly realized. He had us down to the quirks and odd mannerisms. It was uncanny and hilarious.”
Cahir O’Doherty @randomirish (irishcentral.com)

Friel didn’t do interviews… Gate Theatre director Michael Colgan described Friel “Like Beckett, he was extraordinary in his ordinariness. He was at times shy, always modest”. He was not interested in a life that would alter him and that is what kept him so endearing to Irish audiences.

Friel’s place as a guiding star of Irish Theatre is guaranteed for centuries to come. He gave so much to Irish theatre because of what he was. His work was accessible and complete – he is described by many as a “dramatist” more than a play writer – a man that could write great words and give superb direction. His creating of Gar Private and his final scene of Dancing at Lughnasa (both words and direction) are sacred creation in the history of Ireland.


His early writing for the Irish Times was thoroughly entertaining. This short pieces was published on December 16th, 1957

The name is Friel

When the door opened, I could see the waiting room was already overcrowded and about a dozen people stood silently along both sides of the hall. A crisp receptionist looked at me.

“Friel,” I said pleasantly. “I have an appointment with the doctor at half-past.”

A dozen pairs of interested eyes roved over me. Any diversion was welcome to them; last year’s magazines were in the waiting room.

“Friel? Friel?” said the receptionist, consulting her book. “James Friel?”

“No. Brian Friel. ”

“B P Friel?”

“Yes. Yes. BP. Brian Patrick.”

She frowned at her book. She looked up at me. “What was the appointment for?”

I hesitated. One does not like shouting one’s ailments over the housetops. “As a matter of fact,” I began.

“Oh, I remember now. You want to have your ear syringed. Isn’t that it? You are deaf in the left ear. How stupid of me to have forgotten!”

Twenty-four eyes were glued to my left ear. It whistled and buzzed furiously.

She stood aside and I reeled into the hall and flattened myself against the wall between a corpulent man and a woman who clutched a child with a snotty nose. I patted the child on the head with the tips of my fingers. “A bad cold, eh, eh?”

The mother drew the child to her protectively. “Nothing wrong with the wain. It’s me. I’ve got asthma.” And she wheezed in demonstration and patted her chest and nodded at me to see did I understand her sign language.

The woman turned to the sallow girl next to her. “Terrible affliction is deafness, dear. Specially when they’re not so young. Like him there. Makes life so lonely for them. And then it’s pride that keeps them from using a hearing aid.”

The receptionist came out of her office and walked over to me. She caught me by the arm as if to lead me to the surgery. Some demon seized me then, some unaccountable frenzy over which I had no control. For I wrinkled up my face like a gnome and wriggled my fingers at the ceiling and did a little skip into the air.

“Tra-la-la, tra-la-la. Hi-bongo boo-boo-boo. The cat and the cosy cot. Choo-choo-choo.”

That shook them.