Brian Friel’s mother in the spotlight

By Brian McLaughlin

A research project is to be carried out on the Donegal home of the mother of award-winning Irish playwright and short story writer Brian Friel once described as the Irish Chekhov!

Donegal Co. Council has commissioned the research with co-funding from Creative Ireland and the Heritage Council as part of the County Donegal Heritage Plan.

‘The Laurels’ in Glenties was the playwrights’ mothers’ ancestral home and which inspired him to write his play ‘Dancing at Lughnasa’ which later became a film starring Meryl Streep who came to live in Donegal to perfect the Donegal accent. The film was scripted by Donegal playwright and author Frank McGuinness, a native of Buncrana.

When the film version of the play was released in 1998, Brian Friel along with actresses Meryl Streep and Sophie Thompson unveiled a plaque on ‘The Laurels’ and in 2016 The Brian Friel Trust purchased the house with the intention of conserving and restoring it. It is now a protected structure. Ballybeg the fictional Donegal town in which Friel set his works such as ‘Philadelphia Here I Come’, ‘Translations’, ‘The Home Place’ and ‘Dancing at Lughnasa’ is based in Glenties. ‘The Laurels’ was the home of his mother Christina Mc Loone’s family and they were frequent visitors there during the summer holidays. Friel’s grandfather was the stationmaster in Glenties and the house was the original station house.

When he got off the train at the rail terminus in Glenties he just walked across the road to ‘The Laurels’. His mother and his four aunts grew up there and they were immortalised as the Mundy sisters in ‘Dancing at Lughnasa’. His uncle Barney Mc Loone was the inspiration for the missionary priest in the play who returned home from Africa. The last Mc Loone sister Maggie lived in ‘The Laurels’ until her death in the late 1950s when the house was bought by a local family.

Referring to his mother’s birthplace Friel declared “because of my own close connections with Glenties it occupies a large portion of my affections and permanently shaped my imagination.”

The best-known Irish playwright of his generation and an accomplished short story writer, Friel was born in 1929 in Knockmoyle near Omagh in Co Tyrone. The family moved to Derry when he was ten years old. Educated at St Columb’s College in the city the same school as notables such as poet Seamus Heeney, Seamus Deane, poet and novelist, politician John Hume, composer-musician Phil Coulter and songwriter musician Paul Brady. Friel won numerous awards and his plays were staged on the New York stage in Broadway and The U.K.

Before he pursued a career as a writer he graduated with a B.A from Maynooth and trained as a teacher in Belfast. He then taught in Derry for ten years. He co-founded the Field Day Theatre Company in Derry with actor Stephen Rea and was a member of Aosdana and Seanad Eireann for two years.

The National Library of Ireland now houses two collections of Brian Friel’s papers, the County Library Service holds an extensive collection of his works and St Connell’s Museum in Glenties holds a small display devoted to Friel. Since 2016 the annual cross-border Lughnasa International Friel Fest produced by Arts Over Borders pays homage to Friel’s life and works.

Donegal County Council’s Heritage Officer Joseph Gallagher said the research project would be used to outline Friel’s life and career and set ‘The Laurels’ in its social, cultural and historic context.

It would also be used to compile a history of the Friel and the McLoone families. Donegal County Councils Culture Division revealed that the research project has to be completed by Friday October 2, 2020 – the anniversary of Friel’s death and the maximum budget for the commission is €7,000.

In the late 1960s the Friel family moved over the border from Derry to Muff in Inishowen in Donegal before settling near Greencastle also on the Inishowen Peninsula and adjacent to Lough Foyle. He died on October 2, 2015 and was laid to rest in the graveyard in his beloved Glenties. Friel’s funeral according to one writer made its way across Donegal from the writer’s home and people turned out along the route to show their respect, pride and affection for the modest genius who had lived amongst them.

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