Amid the chatter and the buzz of the room, I discreetly asked my friend ‘any sign of him?’. ‘Nah, he’s not coming’ was the reply. The elusive Brian Friel was nowhere to be seen. The setting was the Backroom bar of McGrory’s of Culdaff in north Donegal at the commencement of the 24th Charles Macklin autumn school, an annual arts festival paying tribute to a local 18th century actor/playwright who achieved great success on the London stage and died aged close to 107. Friel’s 'The London Vertigo' was a reworking of Macklin’s original play.
The opening event was a book launch and its author, Sean Beattie, referred to Brian Friel by stating that the playwright had been good enough to have attended the first Macklin festival, eventually becoming its patron. ‘He usually makes an appearance at some stage over the weekend’ said Sean sheepishly alluding to the fact that Friel was still nowhere to be seen. Friel hadn’t been seen at his friend Seamus Heaney’s funeral in Dublin, nor at the MacGill Summer school in Glenties which he never misses. At 83 and in poor health, it looked as if the man had the good sense to stay put and get an early night.
A break in the formalities allowed more chat and some of Sean’s books to be sold and signed to the sounds of a local traditional group of musicians. At the recommencement, I looked around the room and there he was right in front of me. Looking frail and older than I’d remembered him, Friel sat across the room with his wife Ann, listening to the speeches. The first speaker ironically told the story of a woman who talked for longer than she should have at a theatre launch in Greencastle some years back. She talked about John Hume being on a mobile phone to a man named Bill beside her as that longwinded speech took place. Once off the phone, she asked Hume who that guy was – ‘Bill Clinton’ he responded ‘I should have put you on to him for the craic’ he added for good measure. ‘That was when I nearly became very famous!’ she declared and the crowd gave her a faint laugh at this tenuous aimless tale. Friel sat stoney-faced. I enjoyed his honesty – it was a dire story.
Friel didn’t have to be there. It was very much a courtesy to the organisers. He had travelled from Greencastle as he always had on the opening night without fail for 24 years. The speeches carried on and Friel combined listening to them with reading the copy of Sean’s book he had on his lap. More references were made to Friel and even a round of applause was offered at one point. Friel carried on reading, oblivious to it all. Just like Philadelphia's Gar, there is a public and a private persona at play here. In private, Friel is renowned as a great wit, full of stories and gossip and fun. In public, he runs a wary gauntlet, unsure of who will accost him or put him straight on how he should have done such and such.
The playwright has never enjoyed the limelight, nor is he prone to speeches, interviews or indulging in the fame game. His craft has made him world famous. Much and all as I’d always hoped he would win the Nobel Prize, I’m glad he hadn’t that day. Instead, new Nobel Laureate Alice Ann Munro was being harangued in Canada by the media frenzy while Friel was able to keep a long-standing appointment in Culdaff. Outside for some air, I heard the name-dropping earlier speaker telling the young publisher that she knew Friel well and would he like her to introduce him to the playwright.
Back inside, the last of the great Irish writers sat quietly after the speeches catching up with some well wishers he knew. My friend who had known him for years went to chat to him about Frank McGuinness’s new play on in Dublin for the Theatre Festival. The poker face had given way to animation about his fellow playwright and anecdotes galore. Health prevented him from getting around so hearing about what was going on in the Big Smoke was a real treat. My same friend had met him up in Malin Head the day after Heaney had died. Friel ...