Presence

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Written in October 2013 at the 24th Charles Macklin Autumn School

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 84 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 Anne, listening to the speeches.
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 a 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, the new 2013 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 an earlier speaker telling a young publisher that she knew Friel well and would he like her to introduce him to the playwright.


Video from Section 3 of the Bluestack Way audio tour that we’ve produced.

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 Dublin 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 couldn’t bring himself to talk about it that day, but he did make it to the burial in Bellaghy that Monday afternoon. Heaney’s death was a reminder of just how much we treasure those who can deftly articulate the heartbeat of Ireland. We’d lost the poet so suddenly and the grief felt was genuine – no more Mr. ‘There There’, the avuncular figure who we all felt we knew and who was happy to talk to anyone and everyone. Not so with Friel. He has admitted to being a proud curmudgeon, one who prefers to let his plays do the talking for the most part. Few get to have a one-on-one with Irish literature’s most reluctant hero. For years to come however, we will be able to enjoy nights in the very intimate company of Friel and his words of solace and truth as the public Friel meant them to be – on stage with actors bringing his vision to life.
A woman awkwardly stopped Friel to get her photo taken with him and he obliged – a stoney demeanour to her thumbs ups glee. The publisher of course never got to meet him. I managed to see his stick sway around the door as he made his way out of the room. As quietly as he’d come in, he was off into the night with his beloved Anne; his work was done and he was gone. ‘Elvis has left the building’ I said to my gossiping friend as I nodded towards the door. Where Macklin nearly saw 107, Friel probably won’t see 87. His time will come soon and the tributes and praise will come thick and fast about his legacy. I’ll remember the grace of an old man with a sore leg and a stick keeping up a tradition, but time and again in years to come, I’ll remember the numerous moments where his words held me spellbound in their sublime elegance:-
“[d]ancing, as if language had surrendered to movement…as if this ritual, this wordless ceremony, was now the way…to be in touch with some otherness. Dancing as if the very heart of life and all its hopes might be found in…those…movements. Dancing as if words were no longer necessary.”

Dance
Henri Matisse. The Dance, 1909-1910. Oil on canvas, 8’6″ by 12’10″. Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia.

Find more about the Mundy’s/McLoone’s house from Dancing at Lughnasa at Tour Point #7 ‘The Laurels’ from our Donegal’s Greatest Shrines tour on our free Donegal App.

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