“Through the most difficult terrain Brian has been a steady and a demanding Sherpa, a skilled leader" - former President Mary McAleese on Brian Friel
Because of Storm Ophelia and the cancellation of the original Donegal Person of the Year ceremony, when Stephen McCahill hands over his crown to Shay Given on April 21st, he will have been the longest serving Donegal Person of the Year ever!
When Brian Friel received the award in 2010, he confessed he experienced a "flush of pride" that lasted for three days. It was also the first time that someone not born in the county received the honour and it was appropriate that the rules were changed for such a wonderful writer.
Two years before his award, and ahead of the celebration of Friel at the MacGill Summer School in Glenties, I was reminded of what President McAleese said when she conferred Brian as a ‘Saoi’ earlier in the year.
She said: “The gold Torc is an emblem of honour so appropriate for this most honourable of men whose quiet scholarly forensic genius has, in a world of cut and paste, of easy epithets and instant analysis, drawn us confidently back to more studied reflection, a more stringent probing of things which masquerade as sole truths and realities.
“Through the most difficult terrain Brian has been a steady and a demanding Sherpa, a skilled leader, whose contribution to his art and to Ireland has been utterly outstanding. I now proclaim Brian Friel a ‘Saoi’ and I confer on him this golden Torc, the seal and sign of his golden achievements and the distinction, the hope, they have brought to his native home.”
She added that: "The Irish playwright Brian Friel is known to be quiet and an infamous recluse….If you Google the name Brian Friel you get 662,000 references within ten seconds – not exactly evidence of a life lived anonymously! But maybe it is proof positive that it is, after all, the quiet ones you have to watch.”
I loved Brian’s reaction to all the fuss: “I asked one of them what was it about us that made us so special, so unique and indeed so magnificent. And to be a Saoi, he told me you have got to be very old, your career is as good as washed up and the end is just around the next bend in the road.
“In fact,” he said, “you pulled a great trick, you went and had a stroke, so they probably felt safer to fast-track you to the top of the queue. Then I knew that being made a Saoi, really getting this award is extreme unction, it is a final anointment. Aosdana’s last rites.”
“So if the President has done her job properly today, if she has got me well oiled in others words, after this I hope to give up those boring physio exercises that I do, throw away my stick and maybe even try to tap into that washed up creative life again.”
Friel moved to Inishowen in 1969, "partly to get into the countryside and partly to get into the Republic", and “The sense of frustration which I felt under the tight and immovable Unionist regime became distasteful."
Many of his plays are set in Ballybeg, in "that borderland of Derry, Donegal and Tyrone in which a largely Catholic community leads a reduced existence under the pressure of political and economic oppression", to quote Seamus Deane.
I recall sitting in the Gate Theatre in Dublin in 1980, utterly absorbed by ‘Translations’ – starring a young Liam Neeson, amongst others - and as a consequence of being in a sort of ‘exile’ myself, realising for the first time, who I was and where I had come from. It remains my favourite play.
In Friel’s "Self Portrait" he says: “I am married, have five children, live in the country, smoke too much, fish a bit, read a lot, worry a lot, get involved in sporadic causes and invariably regret the involvement, and hope that between now and my death I will have acquired a religion, a philosophy, a sense of life that will make the end less frightening than it appears to me at this moment”
In another interview he says: “The interviewer's chestnut: When did you know you were going to be a writer? The answer is, I've no idea. What other writers influenced you most strongly? I've no idea. Which of your plays is your favourite? None of them. So you think the atmosphere in Ireland is hostile or friendly to the artist? I'm thinking of my lunch.
Charles McGlinchey’s ‘The Last of the Name’
Back in 1986, he edited and wrote the introduction for a book which I dip into with great frequency - Charles McGlinchey’s ‘The Last of the Name’. A few centuries ago, the McGlincheys moved from the Finn Valley to the Clonmany area of Inishowen.
When Charles McGlinchey – born in 1861 and dying at the ripe old age of 93 in 1954 – was in his eighties, local teacher Patrick Kavanagh started visiting the old man twice weekly and recording his stories.
Charles was a weaver, had never married and had outlived all his family – hence the book’s title. Kavanagh’s great feat was to actually faithfully transcribe McGlinchey's autobiography in his own colloquial speech, a mixture of English and Irish with an odd Latin phrase thrown in.
As McGlinchey recalls, the Irish melted away like “snow on a riverbank”.
The manuscripts detailing his stories lay in storage for many years until Desmond, son of the late Patrick Kavanagh, gave them to Brian Friel to edit into what became the much hailed ‘The Last of the Name’.
There are stories about women walking the thirty miles from Clonmany parish to the market in Derry and back again in time to do more chores before nightfall; of the ‘ceilidhing’; of a blaggard of a Scottish landlord named McNeill from whom no young woman in the parish was safe; of an Irish schoolmaster overly fond of the drink and of his eager young Latin hedgerow scholars; of a drunken Irish landowner who drank away his inheritance at the local pub; and of the great yearly fair at Pollan, a festive event attended by the entire community with occasional tragic consequences for the unlucky.
Books were almost unknown to the plain people of Donegal. The few books McGlinchey mentions were mainly religious tracts, in Irish and Latin. He mentions offhandedly that a man of his acquaintance owned a book by someone named Aristotle. Tragically he also relates that many of the old Irish manuscripts were burned to prevent the spreading of disease in the community.
Even if they had had books it's doubtful anyone could have spent much time reading them. The cabins were dark at night and if anyone entered the cabin after dark the fire had to be stirred to raise enough light to see who it was. Homemade candles flickered in the windows on religious holidays.
The locals supplemented their diets with what they called "kitchen", which included everything from fresh fish to watercress from the ocean strands. Each family had a measure of corn for the winter, and most had at least a cow, perhaps a pig and a few chickens, although eggs were a cash crop reserved for the market at Derry.
Red meat, as we know it today, was a rarity in their diet. Every farm had its rack of potatoes in the fields. The ploughs were wooden and drawn by horses.
McGlinchey mentions a local farmer, one of whose horses took sick one day, and he took its place in the harness pulling the ploughs alongside the remaining horse for the rest of the day.
McGlinchey did indeed overlook major world events ‘in a manner that is almost Olympian’, to quote Brian Friel. Charles wanted to share his memories of what Friel calls “a rural community in the process of shedding the last vestiges of a Gaelic past and of an old Christianity that still cohabited with an older paganism, and of that community coming to uneasy accommodation with the world of today, ‘the buses, the cars, the silk stockings’.”
The colloquial speech which Kavanagh so lovingly preserved contains such McGlinchey gems as ''There's nobody living now has the song but myself,'' and in the book he recites poems in both Irish and English.
In the epilogue, he talks about himself, the deaths of family members and of why he never married, noting ''I'm the last of the name.'' But, he says, ''I got a long life and have a lot to be thankful for.''