#LoveIrishResearch celebrates the legacy of Brian Friel and the MacGill Summer School

In a special addition to their scheduled programme of events, the MacGill Summer School in Glenties, Co Donegal will celebrate the legacy of Brian Friel, who died in October, 2015. To mark this celebration, we have asked two of our current postgraduate scholars to share their reflections on Friel’s work. The #LoveIrishResearch campaign will also have a stand at the MacGill Summer School (18-22 July) and we invite attendees to stop by and find out more about the Council and our researchers.

Zosia Kuczynska is an Irish Research Council Government of Ireland Postgraduate Scholar in the School of English, Trinity College, Dublin. She is preparing her doctoral thesis, “Time and Space in the Plays of Brian Friel."

‘Don’t embalm me in pieties’: Brian Friel’s Legacy

Brian Friel’s legacy is changing. Or rather, it ought to be changing. One of the great challenges facing a scholarly community upon the death of a literary giant is to resist the urge to fossilise even as we eulogise—that impulse to dispense with ‘the Necessary Uncertainty’ (Friel, Give Me Your Answer, Do!, p.80) that is characteristic of the life of the artist in favour of a coherent narrative of ‘the overall thing’(Friel, Plays Two, p.299). by which the iconic and the dead are ‘embalm[ed] [. . .] in pieties’ (330). The Brian Friel Papers at the National Library of Ireland are beginning to reveal Friel’s importance as a playwright not just of ideas, but of big ideas.

Indeed, possibly the greatest of Friel’s many achievements is to have consistently found new and subtly experimental forms that allowed him to stage as theatre what he thought of as the ‘core’ of each of his plays. Deceptively simple devices such as the splitting of the protagonist of Philadelphia, Here I Come! into a Public and a Private version of the same character, or the monolingual staging of a bilingual play in Translations, allowed Friel to stage ‘core’ ideas. Consequently, he was able to do so not by lecturing his audience or by abandoning any semblance of naturalism, but (to paraphrase Friel’s notes during the composition process for Translations) by telling a story through people.

This was no mean feat: as the archives show, those core ideas were based on Friel’s own research into fields as diverse and intellectually challenging as linguistics, neuroscience, historiography, and several dense syntheses of a range of philosophical thought. Friel may be famous for his use of George Steiner’s signature work After Babel in Translations, but this is just one example among many largely undiscovered instances of Friel’s intellectual preoccupations informing not only the thematic content but also the form and staging of his work.

What is emerging is a picture of Friel’s composition process that shows him to be as much a Frank Sweeney as a Frank Hardy. That is to say, he was as much a keen autodidact with what might be termed a ‘quirky mind’ (488) as he was an artist in search of a faith. The Brian Friel Papers have the potential to transform the way we think about Friel’s legacy without seeking to impose a dominant critical narrative upon a body of work strong enough and flexible enough to withstand fresh interpretation and increasingly inventive staging. Like Hugh O’Neill in Making History, the Brian Friel Papers are a way of saying ‘don’t embalm me in pieties’ (330).

Martin McConigley is an Irish Research Council Government of Ireland Postgraduate Scholar in the School of English, University College Cork. He is preparing his doctoral thesis “The Border in Contemporary Irish Fiction: 1970-2014, Interrogating the Lines that Continue to Separate.”

Contemplating Division: Brian Friel’s Making History

Brian Friel was not afraid to confront contentious issues in his drama, and Making History is no exception. In the play, the viewer follows legendary Hugh O’Neill from the battle of Kinsale, through the flight of the earls, to his eventual exile in Rome. However, this is not a typical biopic, because Friel, suspicious of the ways both history and the nation are constructed, refuses to glorify the brave defeated Gael. Friel seeks to complicate the past, understanding that contemporary divisions often rely on the notion that historical accounts contain the “truth”. Making History is not the work of an historical biographer claiming to uncover the “real” O’Neill, but of an artist using this contentious character to examine the myriad ways that divisions and partitions are established and solidified.

Friel spent a lifetime writing on the Irish border, in Tyrone, Derry, and Donegal, and partition is a key issue in Making History. Hugh O’Donnell (Aodh Ruadh as he is known in Donegal), the boisterous chief of Tyrconnell, invokes the very real spectre of the Irish border: “Do you know what the hoors are at? They’re going to build a line of forts right across the country from Dundalk to Sligo. That’ll cut us off from the south (He illustrates by tearing a sheet of paper in two.) The second stage is to build a huge fort at Derry so that you and I will be cut off from each other. (He illustrates this by cutting the half-page into quarters.)” Here Friel is public, O’Donnell using the piece of paper he tears asunder to emphasise the English strategy of divide and rule.

This is a very grand gesture to witness on stage, but Friel is less interested in the public display and more in the complicated private impact of division. So, in true Chekhovian manner, the most important conversation in the play takes place between two “unimportant” women speaking about the setting out of an herb garden. Mary Bagenal, visiting her sister Mabel (recently married to their enemy O’Neill) comments:  “Don’t plant fennel near the Dill or the two will cross-fertilize.” Mabel asks: “Is that bad?” Her sister responds simply: “You’ll end up with a seed that’s neither one thing or the other.”

This warning is at the heart of the play, the fear that proximity could lead to hybridity, to seed that cannot be clearly defined as “us” or “them.”  Friel is cognisant of the imperial ideology of “difference” that guaranteed the partition of Ireland, but moves to show that the very same corrupt vision underpinned the early nationalism of the southern Irish state. Peter Lombard, the Catholic bishop chronicling the life of O’Neill, asks: “How can fragmented and warring tribes be any use to us?” He is quite right. Part of creating a national people is guaranteed by the eradication of difference, making it clear that “we” are united, the same. Lombard emphasises this before the battle of Kinsale: “We are no longer a casual grouping of tribes but a nation state united under the Papal colours.”

Mabel, O’Neill’s “upstart” wife, has feared this throughout the play, viewing Lombard as an agent of Rome simply using Ireland to fight a counter-revolution against Protestant England. Friel digs deep here, perceiving that the unquestioned conception of Ireland as Catholic and Gaelic created a nation state that despised difference, constantly seeking deadening uniformity to challenge the “old” Protestant enemy. The ideology of partition relies on such essentialist certainty, seeking to build walls between people that are simply too different to live side by side.

At the end of the play, O’Neill, now broken and defeated, cries and apologises to the ghost of Mabel, as Peter Lombard reads aloud his hyperbolic “history”. He is not crying because he went to war, or because he was defeated, not even because Ireland remains part of the empire. O’Neill breaks down because he knows Lombard will use his name to glorify the Irish nation. He will give “Gaelic Ireland … a national hero.” Lombard will forget about O’Neill’s faults, he will ignore an English accent and an English wife, and will remove anything that does not add to the myth of the heroic Gael. Friel is not only highlighting the bias involved when making “history”, but lamenting the creation of heroes in the service of a nationalism that emphasises difference and that fears and persecutes any sign of Otherness. It is this fear of the Other, of mixing seed, that guarantees the continued divisions in Ireland and elsewhere.

Picutred: original production of Brian Friel's "Making History" with Niall Tobín (centre) as Peter Lombard. (Field Day)