Celtic Junction Arts Review

Issue 3, Imbolc 2018

New Energy Brewing: A National Conversation About Irish Culture ·  Inaugural Meeting of Irish Cultural Centers of North America · The Eoin McKiernan Library… So Far! ·  Famous Irish Literary Visitors to Minnesota: W.B. Yeats Lectures in Saint Paul in 1904 · The Legacy of Brian Friel

Welcome to the third issue of the Celtic Junction Arts Review.

Usually midway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, Imbolc or Saint Brigid’s Day, the traditional Gaelic seasonal division and feast day has traditionally been seen in the Celtic realms of Ireland, Scotland, and the Isle of Man as the start of spring and new life. A similar theme of burgeoning energy and new formations and vitality characterizes the four articles in this issue of the online quarterly arts magazine for the Celtic Junction Arts Center.

Our Center’s Executive Director, Natalie Nugent O’Shea, provides a highly inspirational account of the inaugural gathering of representatives of Irish Cultural Centers and Irish organizations in North America in New York in January. The energy and enthusiasm at that meeting can be understood within the context of the Global Footprint 2025 project of Ireland’s Taoiseach (prime minister) Leo Varadkar who is determined to double Ireland’s global impact by 2025.

Gold knot on green cover of book

Further new life here in Saint Paul is evident in Brian Miller’s account of the rapid and impressive evolution, progress and development of the Eoin McKiernan Library which was unveiled at the second Saint Paul Irish Arts Week in April, 2017 and opened officially to the public in October. The Library, as the only completely Irish-focused Minnesota library, is now ready to permit patrons to borrow a select number of books as it simultaneously progresses with several digital archive and exhibition projects.

I give a brief sketch of the little known fact that the central figure of the Irish Literary Renaissance, W.B. Yeats (1865-1939), visited Saint Paul in January, 1904, on his first American lecture tour from November 1903-March 1904 to give a lecture on Ireland’s literary ideals at the College of Saint Thomas. The bridges between Minnesota and Ireland continue to be manifold and surprisingly rich.

Brian Friel, 2011. PC Bobbie Hanvey.

Antony Roche argues for the continued legacy and importance of the great Irish playwright Brian Friel, who passed away in September 2015 leaving an extraordinary body of work that continues to invite productions and fresh interpretations. Friel’s connection to Minnesota derives from his months observing Tyrone Guthrie during the inaugural rehearsals for the new Guthrie Theater in 1963.

Thus in this time of local, national, and international renewal and new energy, we can appreciate the deep roots that stretch into the past of both Ireland’s and Minnesota’s cultural heritages and histories.

Patrick O’Donnell
Editor/Director of Education


New Energy Brewing: A National Conversation About Irish Culture

Natalie Nugent O’Shea, Executive Director, Celtic Junction Arts Center

The Celtic Junction Arts Center is deeply honored to have been invited to New York to participate in the inaugural meeting of the Irish Cultural Centers of North America this past month. We have been so eager to share the details, but not before we recognize the incredible energies that have brought us to this point.

New York City view from airplane during sunset

We are deeply blessed to be a brick and mortar home to the vibrant Irish organizations flourishing in the Twin Cities. This long-forged and well-loved community has shared the tradition and cultivated it here for years and even decades before us. The continuing wealth of the Irish diaspora of Minnesota has been inherited and celebrated through centuries and across continents. The heritage of song, rhythm, stories & history have become the pillars of the Junction, our home away from home.

1912 photo of group of people outside, gathered.
Irish in Saint Paul, 1912.

It is on those pillars, nine years after our doors opened on May 2, 2009, that we can look back to celebrate our own small addition to that inheritance. Our newly-established Eoin McKiernan Library (opened April 2017) is a sanctuary for the legacy pioneered by Dr. McKiernan. The long history of concerts and shows in our performance space have hosted a cavalcade of established and up-and-coming Irish & Celtic artists. Educational class offerings together with our resident partners and our new education series have expanded from dance and music to include language, history, writing, and spirituality.

A “junction” by name, we have been striving from our inception to be an intersection of traditional and contemporary Irish culture and arts for Minnesota, “Weaving the Traditions of dance, music, art and language”. Without the past and its rich Minnesota soil of cultural determination and pride, we could not be where we are today with the Celtic Junction. Now, at a new juncture of our own, we are realizing there are new crossings ahead for our community, with new materials and larger parameters.

Meeting room with many around a rectangular table

It was breathtaking to step into the room at the Consulate on Park Avenue, surrounded by a brand-new gathering of like-minded leaders. We met with the avant-garde of this continent’s Irish cultural alliance: presidents and CEOs; professors and curators; artists and actors; directors and presenters. The room encompassed a breadth of accomplishment that was scintillating in its broad scope, deep knowledge and especially in its shared experience. Here we will seek to find and build new relationships in a national network of information-sharing and enthusiasm-building.

What we experienced in this larger gathering was not unlike what we already thrive in at home; people who love the Irish culture and celebrate it in varied and fascinating ways… That said, the unique gift we came away with from this association was precious because it comes with a unified and global voice:

  • Believing that camaraderie & connection are critically important.
  • Understanding that Irish culture & art relies on collaboration.
  • Connecting the mastery of older generations with new ones.
  • Conceiving that “authentic” does not necessarily mean “traditional”.
  • Creating immersive activities make for richer experiences.
  • Transposing broad, deep participation into life-long enthusiasm.

And lastly… When a community comes together in these ways, it transforms.

Thank you for being part of this transformation, together.


P.S. Below, please find my notes from the meeting. I am excited to hear your feedback. Please watch for that request soon.


Inaugural Meeting of Irish Cultural Centers of North America

Photo of skyscraper located on Park Ave in NYC

A meeting of Irish Centres of North America came together for the very first time on the 9th of January 2018 at the New York Consulate on Park Avenue. Celtic Junction Arts Center was represented by President Cormac Ó Sé, Treasurer Michael Gibbons, and Executive Director Natalie Nugent O’Shea.

This convening was planned by Culture Ireland in partnership with the Irish Embassy and Consulate General of Ireland, in the context of the Government’s Global Footprint 2025 initiative. In August, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar announced Government plans to double Ireland’s global footprint by 2025. It was stated that the initiative will involve resources for new and augmented diplomatic missions, as well as increased cultural exchanges – thus, this inaugural “bringing together” of Irish cultural centers of North America. The aim of the meeting included creating an effective network of Irish cultural centres across America which may extend to a global network. Over 53 attendees represented 38 cultural organizations in this initial gathering.

Three well dressed adults standing together,smiling.
Cormac and Natalie O’Shea with Christine Sisk, Director of Culture Ireland

Programme for Tuesday 9 January 2018 kicked off with a welcome by Consul General Ciarán Madden. He stated that the diaspora has a major role to play in enhancing Ireland’s reputation, by and large through cultural and artistic presence. He encouraged attendees to consider the concept of connecting and strengthening that presence by building networks and creating a better reach. Christine Sisk, Director of Culture Ireland (an organization that supported 450 projects in 50 countries, reaching 3.5 million audience members) followed with a presentation encouraging multi-center collaboration and greater coordination in networking – specifically including sharing of touring artists from Ireland and joint visa applications.

Mary Kennedy of Mary Kennedy Associates gave a presentation exploring the concepts of exchanged knowledge, expertise and best practice to maximise awareness and impact of Irish arts in North America. Tour de table introductions by all of the attendees followed, representing a variety of Irish organizations which included cultural centers, museums, park foundations, libraries, Irish studies programs, and theater & film organisations. A lively discussion followed, prompting ideas, feedback and sparking questions.

Mr. Micheál Ó Conaire with the department of Culture, Heritage, and the Gaeltacht in the Irish Language overseas unit spoke on the launch of Bliain na Gaeilge, the Year of the Irish language. There is a pilot program this year to take third level programs further afield and to enable first hand experiences that promote the teaching of the Irish language overseas. The closure of the formal program followed with a commitment of support and a promised “information gathering” by Culture Ireland, DFA and by the Irish Embassy, via their cultural attaché, Ms. Lillian Farrell.

Back of people watching a lecture

As attendees departed the meeting, all were offered an afternoon tour of the Irish Arts Center of New York, (IAC|NYC) where Executive Director Aidan Connelly gave a presentation on their new $50+ million capital development and on its program, referencing local partnerships, residencies, and onward touring. The evening ended at Landmark Productions groundbreaking play, Ballyturk, by Enda Walsh at St Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn.

In summary, the aims of this event was to create an effective network of Irish cultural centers in North America; to aid coordination of touring artists; to encourage exchange of best practice; to maximize awareness and the impact of Irish Arts in North America; and to explore connectivity.

Ferry stop in NYC at night, water, Brooklyn bridge, warehouses.

Old Fulton, at the Ferry stop for St. Anne’s warehouse. Natalie lived in the Eagle Warehouse, the tall building on the right, when she was Assistant Director to Julia Carey with Theater M. It was where Walt Whitman worked. We all come full circle in so many ways and at so many points in our life. She found this one quite touching.

“City of hurried and sparkling waters! city of spires and masts! City nested in bays! my city!” – Walt Whitman

Natalie and husband Cormac founded The Celtic Junction in 2009, where together they run O’Shea Irish Dance. She holds a BA in Theater from St. Olaf College. Natalie has written and produced shows since 2011, including Get Up Your Irish (Forgetting Ireland), the Celtic Christmas Hooley, and Kickin’ It Irish at Stepping Stone Theater and Chanhassen Dinner Theaters.


The Eoin McKiernan Library… So Far!

Brian Miller

The foundation of the Celtic Junction’s Eoin McKiernan Library is the personal library collection assembled by Dr. Eoin McKiernan (1915-2004). McKiernan was a hugely influential figure in promoting awareness, appreciation and deep understanding of Irish culture throughout the better part of the 20th century. He pioneered the field of Irish Studies and founded several important organizations including the Irish American Cultural Institute. McKiernan was born in New York and moved to St. Paul in 1960.

I first saw Eoin McKiernan’s private library while visiting his son and daughter-in-law Fergus and Ann McKiernan in Marshfield, Wisconsin. Eoin moved in with Fergus and Ann from 1999 to 2002 and his incredible book collection moved with him–completely taking over a large room in their house! The collection was awe-inspiring to me when I saw it in Marshfield. Little did I know I would get the opportunity to work with it up close on a daily basis years later.

People sitting, standing smiling.

The McKiernan family first contacted the Celtic Junction in late 2015 looking for a home for Eoin’s books. Celtic Junction founders Natalie and Cormac O’Shea seized this incredible opportunity to open the first library in Minnesota focused on all things Irish. The books were delivered in early 2016 and in October 2016 at the first annual Celtic Junction Arts Center fundraiser the Twin Cities community came together to support an exciting and ambitious project: the creation of the Eoin McKiernan Library.

I was hired as Library Director in January 2017 and, with the help of several volunteers, I began work assessing and cataloging the books. Fergus McKiernan guessed there were something like 1500 books in the donation. It ended up being closer to 3000 items (not to mention hundreds of scholarly journals, Irish music LPs and a fascinating assortment of ephemera such as playbills, pamphlets, newspaper clippings and tour guides).

Shelf of largely Joyce books.

The initial McKiernan Library book donation was a miscellaneous “Irish Studies collection,” partially assembled by McKiernan personally and partially consisting of books sent to McKiernan as review copies in his role as director of the Irish-American Cultural Institute, as founder of bookstore and publishing house Irish Books and Media and as the founding editor of the scholarly journal Éire-Ireland. McKiernan had a keen interest in Irish history, politics, and religion (emphasizing topics related to Irish political unity), the Irish language, Irish folklore, and the arts in Ireland. McKiernan’s passionate life-long study of these areas is evident in the books he collected.

Stack of CDs of Irish trad music.

In addition to the McKiernan donation, the library has accepted donations of materials from Lar Burke, Celtic Collaborative, John Davenport, Jane Fallender, Barry Foy, Kathie Luby, David McKenna, Casey and Marty Ochs, Mary O’Driscoll (MacEachron), Thomas Redshaw, Jim Rogers, Ross Sutter, Suin Swann and other generous anonymous donors including the recent gift of over 460 Irish traditional music CDs. Our collection is fast approaching 4000 items. Much of the past year has been committed to cataloging and preparing the above for public use.

The McKiernan Library opened its doors in October with a trial schedule of open hours staffed by volunteer library monitors. This month (February 2018) we are starting a new schedule of open hours meant to better accommodate the classes that also use the library space and to make visiting the library easier for our community. Starting this month we are open:

  • Mondays 5:00pm – 7:00pm
  • Tuesdays 5:00pm – 7:00pm
  • Wednesdays 4:30pm – 8:00pm
  • Thursdays 3:00 – 7:00pm

Most of the McKiernan Library’s collection is currently available for in-house use only. However, we recently launched a lending library of over 400 books (to the right of the fireplace) that are available for checkout.

Three shelves of books on wooden shelves.

In addition, the McKiernan Library has its own subscription to genealogy website ancestry.com and this service is free to all library visitors. We currently have a set of Chromebook laptops (on loan from O’Shea Productions) that visitors can use to access ancestry.com. Our website is in its infancy but will soon be the home of a variety of digital archives (photos, oral histories, etc) documenting the Irish arts community in Minnesota.

Embossed and gold image from book cover

In fact, the McKiernan Library is currently engaged in several digital content-building and infrastructure projects that will help us create and provide access to exciting new resources in 2018. Tim and Kim Scanlan contributed funds for a full set of library computers as well as a book security system. A grant from Ireland’s Department of Foreign Affairs is helping to fund the creation of digital exhibitions celebrating local community history. A Minnesota State Arts Board grant will support the creation of an audio archive of past Traditional Singers Club concerts. The Minnesota Historical Society’s Oral History project grant is funding (in part) an oral history project focused on musicians and community members active in the Twin Cities Irish music scene from 1950-1990. A recent gift from the O’Shaughnessy Foundation also recently pledged funds toward the growth of the McKiernan Library (along with the broader endeavors of the Celtic Junction Arts Center).

Like most libraries, the McKiernan Library’s growth relies on generous community and institutional support. Our goal is to reflect that generosity back to the community with rich and inspiring resources available in a beautiful free public space here at the Celtic Junction Arts Center and, eventually, through a state of the art website and digital collection. Please consider paying us a visit, offering suggestions or getting involved yourself as a volunteer or donor!

To learn more about the Eoin McKiernan Library, visit here.

Head and shoulders of Brian Miller.

Brian Miller is the Director of the Celtic Junction Arts Center’s Eoin McKiernan Library. Brian was a 2014 recipient of the Parsons Fund Award from the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress for his research into the history of Irish-influenced folk song in Minnesota. He writes the blog “Northwoods Songs” and has released two CDs of traditional songs from the Great Lakes region. He is also the creator of the Minnesota Folksong Collection website—a digital library of previously unpublished field recordings of northern Minnesotan singers  recorded in 1924. Brian performs with the Irish band Bua as well as with The Lost Forty and the Two Tap Trio. He is also a teacher at the Center for Irish Music.


Famous Irish Literary Visitors to Minnesota: W.B. Yeats Lectures in Saint Paul in 1904

Patrick O’Donnell

Walter Butler residence, 1345 Summit and Pierce Butler residence, 1347 Summit, St. Paul circa 1898

Arguably the greatest English language poet of the twentieth century and the chief architect, publicist, polemicist, and moving force behind the Irish Literary Renaissance of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (indeed he is so omnipresent in terms of his rivalries, friendships, estrangements and feuds that he could be imaged as the orchestral conductor of its many geniuses from John Millington Synge, to Lady Gregory to James Joyce), the Nobel Prize winning William Butler Yeats (1865-1939), visited Saint Paul, Minnesota, to deliver a lecture on the intellectual revival and literary ideals in Ireland at the then College of Saint Thomas on January 20, 1904. He stayed at the imposing and elegant double red brick mansion of the Butler family on Summit Avenue on an evening that was bitterly cold with temperatures well below freezing.

Yeats. Black and white of head and shoulders. Glasses.
W. B. Yeats, December of 1903

He was praised for enduring the fatigue of his American travels with grace, cheerfulness, and professional diligence. His first biographer Joseph Hone described how American audiences were swayed by the poet’s “natural distinction of bearing, his gravity of utterance and his rhythm.” This tour would confirm Yeats’s standing as the central genius and spokesperson for the cultural nationalism that would later culminate – partly to his surprise – in the Easter Rising of 1916 and the founding of the Irish Free State in 1922.While his autobiographical writings indicate that Yeats was very shy as a young man, by the time he embarked at almost forty years of age on his first American lecture tour from November, 1903 to March 1904, he had trained himself through membership in many debating societies such as Dublin’s Contemporary Club (which gathered intellectuals and artists together in meetings that Yeats began attending in 1885) and literary societies such as the Irish Literary Society (which he founded in London in 1892) to articulate his opinions on creating a genuine national literature rooted in the ancient mythological sagas (that had been retold and rediscovered through the vigorous prose retellings of Standish James O’Grady as early as 1878 with his volume History of Ireland: Heroic Period) with confidence and force.

Maud Gonne, 1865?-1953, three-quarter length portrait, facing slightly left]
Maud Gonne

Beneath the gravitas and professionalism of Yeats the lecturer there beat as ever a troubled heart. His lodestar and muse, the fervently nationalistic Dublin beauty, Maud Gonne (whom Yeats had first met and become instantly besotted with in January 1889 when she visited his family in London) had refused all his offers of matrimony and had in February, 1903, married the Boer War veteran, Major John MacBride who had set up the Irish Transvaal Brigade to combat the British in 1899 in South Africa. She had always contended that the dreamy ethereal youth who proclaimed his love for her needed her to remain unattainable to feed his creative fire. Yeats saw in MacBride the very type of the man of action that he needed to be in order to have a hope for her hand. On one level, this first American tour was Yeats showing himself to be both a man of letters and a man of action.

It was not an insubstantial tour. He began in Yale in November, 1903, and concluded with a commemorative lecture on the Irish patriot, Robert Emmett in New York in February 28, 1904, and in between he traversed both the intellectual hubs of both Canada and America with talks in Harvard, Bryn Mawr, McGill University (Montreal), with a lunch held with President Theodore Roosevelt at the White House on December 28, 1903. Within days before coming to Saint Paul in January, he spoke at both Notre Dame and Indiana University in Indiana. After Minnesota, he went on to speak at Berkeley in San Francisco before swinging back through Chicago on his way up to Toronto in early February. Yeats at this point in his career was more than a poet. He was now a man of the theatre. After returning from this American tour, he would finish out the year with the opening of Ireland’s national theatre in Dublin, the Abbey, with performances of his Cuchulainn play, On Baile’s Strand on 27 December, 1904.

Summit Avenue, Saint Paul circa 1902

W.B. Yeats embarked on three subsequent American lecture tours in 1914, 1920, and 1932-33, but he never again returned to Saint Paul or observed again the wintry and elegant vistas of its mansion-lined Summit Avenue.

Black and white head shot.

Dr. Patrick O’Donnell is a professor of English at Normandale Community College. He is director/ founder of the St. Paul Irish Arts Week, Artistic Director of the literary arts nonprofit, Celtic Collaborative, and an Irish literary historian who co-edited The Harp and the Loon: Literary Bridges between Ireland and Minnesota. Since June 2017, he has joined the Celtic Junction team as its Director of Education.


The Legacy of Brian Friel

Anthony Roche (University College Dublin)

A lecture delivered for Dr. Joe Mulholland at the Patrick MacGill Summer School in Glenties, County Donegal, in July of 2016. 

Older gentleman sitting beside a bright yellow door.
Brian Friel at his home, 1999.

When a well-known or acclaimed playwright dies, their reputation never remains static. More often, there is a period of uncertainty stretching over a number of years in which that reputation becomes unstable or uncertain – a vacuum in which it seems as if everyone is holding their breath. The one certain development is that in the vacuum caused by a great playwright’s death all of the others move up a notch or place. Finally, years after the playwright’s death, a retrospective gaze usually reveals that the writer’s reputation has gone from strength to strength or has lapsed; it rarely remains unchanged. Brian Friel is to my mind incontestably Ireland’s greatest playwright of the last fifty years, acclaimed not only in Ireland but around the world – his position, surely, is secure. But nobody’s reputation is ever secure, especially in the world of the theatre where acclaimed productions leave no record behind and vanish once that production ceases. We have now entered that period of flux and uncertainty with the plays of Brian Friel. What I would like to outline are the key ways in which Brian Friel’s legacy can be secured and sustained into the posthumous future. 

Friel’s hands, 2011.

The first key issue is publication and the widespread availability of the plays. For a playwright of Brian Friel’s stature the issue has been far from satisfactory up to now when it came to Collected Plays. Normally, a playwright as prolific and acclaimed as Friel would have four or five volumes in a Collected Plays published by the time they reached their fifties and sixties. By the late 1990s, Friel had precisely one such volume where, say, Tom Murphy had five or six. Volume One of Friel’s Collected Plays from Faber and Faber appeared in 1996 and contained six of his plays. It lazily reprinted the Selected Plays of 1984, introduced and presumably selected by Seamus Deane, then Professor of Modern English and American Literature at UCD and an active member of the board of Field Day. In his choice, Deane leaned heavily towards Friel’s more recent output; only one of the six plays, Philadelphia, Here I Come!, dated from the 1960s. Deane is perfectly entitled to make his selection; but retaining his choice as Collected Plays one seriously distorted the shape of Brian Friel’s career. Now, with a proper Collected Plays in five volumes, chronologically proceeding from The Enemy Within in 1962 to Friel’s version of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler in 2008, students and theatre practitioners can come to a much fuller appreciation of how much Brian Friel’s plays of the 1960s and early 1970s in particular have to offer. When these plays are restored, the landscape of Friel’s drama alters. It is no longer possible to sustain the cherished notion that all of his plays are set in the mythical Donegal location of Ballybeg. This is true only of Philadelphia, Here I Come!. The play about St. Columba, The Enemy Within, is set on the island of Iona, off the coast of Scotland. The location of The Loves of Cass McGuire is not given, but the unnamed city is clearly in the Republic of Ireland and Cork seems most likely. Both of the one-act plays comprising Lovers are, most unusually for a Friel play, set in Northern Ireland. Crystal and Fox travel all over the island with their theatrical troupe, with the stage its one true setting; at the close Fox is on an open road with ‘a signpost pointing in four directions’. The Mundy Scheme is set in Dublin, in the Taoiseach F.X. Ryan’s house. The Gentle Island takes place on the small ‘island of Inniskeen, off the west coast of County Donegal’. These are followed in Collected Plays Two by The Freedom of the City, which is set in Derry, and Volunteers, based on the archaelogical dig at Wood Quay in Dublin. The gender mix looks a good deal more balanced with the restored plays, as the twenty-five year-old Gar O’Donnell leaving for Philadelphia is followed in The Loves of Cass McGuire by a dramatic emphasis on a seventy-year-old woman returning to Ireland after fifty years in the U.S.A.. 

The new Collected Plays is a landmark publication, initiated and seen through by editor/publisher Peter Fallon and the Gallery Press and jointly published with Faber and Faber which sees all but all of Brian Friel’s plays in print worldwide for the foreseeable future. I will shortly discuss the implications for future productions; but I would want before that to stress that plays are not just to be seen but read. The current orthodoxy is that plays can only fully be experienced and understood in production; it is one which I too have propounded. But increasingly I think it is a case of both/and rather than either/or when it comes to publication and performance of drama. Not everybody is in a position to see productions of Brian Friel plays. But they are now in a position to read them, and to read them in sequence; and Brian Friel’s plays read terribly well. W.B. Yeats wrote when he met Oscar Wilde for the first time that ‘I never before heard a man talking with perfect sentences, as if he had written them all overnight with labour, and yet all spontaneous.’ Brian Friel’s lines (as his manuscripts reveal) have also been written with labour. His characters speak in complete sentences that are as arresting as Wilde’s must have been; and yet the effect of the dialogue in the plays is not labored but ‘all spontaneous’. We do not insist on having to see a play by Shakespeare; there are many that we will read for the pleasures of their text, as people did with King Lear in the nineteenth century, when the play went unproduced; so too with the published complete plays of master playwright Brian Friel. 

Brian Friel in his home, 2011, looking at some of the many production posters that line his walls.

My other great hope is that the greater availability of a wide range of Brian’s plays will stimulate fresh productions. No playwright can endure without regular productions of their plays and that has been the case with Brian Friel, both in Ireland at the Abbey, the Gate and the Lyric and in England at the National Theatre, the Old Vic and more recently at the Donmar Warehouse. Brian Friel is one of only three contemporary Irish playwrights whose work shows up regularly on the London stage: the other two are Conor McPherson and another great Donegal playwright, Frank McGuinness. Brian’s works have been regularly honored in England too, with not only Dancing at Lughnasa but Aristocrats and The Home Place receiving the Evening Standard Award for Best Play; and of course Dancing at Lughnasa was garlanded with Olivier awards. The problem that attends these regular productions of Friel’s plays in Ireland and England is that the choices for production have not ranged across the entire span of Brian Friel’s productive fifty years of playwriting, a total of twenty-four original works and at least six versions. Rather, they have reached repeatedly for the same five or six plays for production: Philadelphia, Here I Come!, Aristocrats, Faith Healer, Translations, Dancing at Lughnasa and occasionally Molly Sweeney. As a result, these works have grown over-familiar to Irish and English audiences, both because they are regularly produced but also because the style of production has itself become over familiar. Very little freshness of approach has been brought to bear on their interpretation, for the most part. In my view Irish productions of Friel (in particular) have now stalled on choice of play and style of production; and for the Friel legacy to thrive in the future revisions in both are urgently required. 

Theater poster from Gaeity, advertising Crystal and Fox.
Poster from the 1967 production of Crystal and Fox, hanging in Brian Friel’s home, 2011.

The opportunity is now ripe to examine some of the insufficiently regarded plays in productions. To the best of my knowledge there has been no subsequent production since its premiere in 1967 of the black comedy, Crystal and Fox, a fascinating play which anticipates and resonates off Faith Healer. The Gate premiere at the Gaiety Theatre in Dublin was directed by Hilton Edwards and starred Cyril Cusack as the Fox Melarkey and Maureen Toal as his wife and theatrical partner, Crystal. There is at least an RTE production of Crystal and Fox from the 1970s which Joe Mulholland screened here at the MacGill Summer School in Glenties in 2008 in which the same cast is reassembled and Cyril Cusack absolutely nails the part of the Fox in one of his greatest screen performances. It would be wonderful to see a new production of this play, with Stephen Rea as the Fox – Stephen could ably manage the surface wit and penetrate through to the darkness and sadness at the heart of the character – and Sinead Cusack (Cyril’s daughter) as Crystal. The first play produced by Galway’s Druid Theatre Company in 1975, while Garry Hynes and Marie Mullen were still young undergraduates at University College Galway, was The Loves of Cass McGuire; Garry has directed two productions of the play since with Marie playing Cass. Marie Mullen is now a good deal closer to the age of Cass McGuire than she was when she first undertook the role and, given the combined theatrical experience of Garry Hynes and Marie Mullen, a new production of The Loves of Cass McGuire would truly be something to see. I understand that Brian had reservations about a number of his own plays and that this may have influenced the choices of which of his plays were the most regularly produced. But if so the time has come to lift that restriction. This is more the case of a Shakespeare than a Sean O’Casey, where Cymbeline gets produced as well as Hamlet, albeit less frequently; and Brian Friel is our master playwright, with all of his plays meriting and rewarding theatrical production. 

So, new productions of lesser seen Friel plays, then. But also productions of the more frequently produced Friel plays which find ways to remove the veil of overfamiliarity and look at these great plays anew. Which is where we come to Lyndsey Turner, who in recent years has done this with Brian’s work to a greater extent than any other theatre director. This young award-winning English woman has revealed a commitment to the plays of Brian Friel over the past six years in the three plays of his she has directed in the intimate space of the Donmar Warehouse theatre in Covent Garden, London: Philadelphia, Here Come! in 2012; Friel’s version of Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons in 2014; and Faith Healer in 2016. Turner’s work on Friel has been hugely acclaimed; one of her greatest admirers was Brian Friel himself. As he wrote to me in a letter of 30 May 2014 when Fathers and Sons was going into production: ‘I have great confidence in Lyndsey Turner. I think she’s the business. I get a progress report from her every week and it is a lesson in accuracy, awareness, enthusiasm. She believes she has a good cast and I suspect she is very pleased with the way things are going. After much persuasion I’ve agreed to go over for the first night. I really don’t think I’m fit for the journey […]. But I feel obligated to Lyndsey and indeed to the Donmar. So I’ll struggle across.’

Brian with wife Anne at 2011 event at The Abbey Theatre in Dublin.

On the 15th August Brian wrote again to confirm that ‘I did get to London and saw a really top-rate production of Father and Sons at the Donmar directed by a talented young woman called Lyndsey Turner.’ This is something one rarely heard from the lips, the pen or the typewriter of Brian Friel: unstinted praise for a theatre director, certainly of his own work. Brian used to say regularly that when things went wrong with the production of one of his plays, he tended to blame the director. Friel revered his early mentor, the director Sir Tyrone Guthrie. As his playwriting career developed and he learned more about its mechanics, there was measured praise for Joe Dowling and Patrick Mason but strong criticism for just about everybody else and for the job of theatre director as a whole. In 1999, clearly stung by criticism of his recent direction of his own work in Molly Sweeney and Give Me Your Answer, Do!, Friel famously wrote that theatre directors were as useful and necessary as bus conductors and that, rather than serving the text, they ‘attempt to usurp the intrinsic power of the text itself’. In recent years, Brian’s attitude seemed to have mellowed; or at least there were turning out to be several exceptions to the negative rule: with Northern Irish director, Mick Gordon, for example of whose work on his plays he declared himself ‘a fan’. And this new positivity reached an all-time high with Lyndsey Turner. So much so that with his wife Anne, Brian managed the herculean physical task of getting to London to see first-hand her productions of Philadelphia in 2012 and Father and Sons in 2014. And he gave her the go-ahead for the 2016 production of Faith Healer in the face of other offers. Brian wrote to me about this agreement on January 13th 2015: ‘I do hope you get to see Faith Healer at the Donmar, whenever it happens. And I hope, without much confidence, I’ll see it myself.’ In the end, he was simpy too ill to travel. But his wife Anne and daughter Mary attended and were able to report back to the ailing playwright how wonderful was Turner’s production of Faith Healer

Donmar Warehouse, London. 2012.

I was unable to attend the production, which was sold out in advance of its opening. I did, however, manage to snare an equally elusive ticket for Turner’s 2012 production of Philadelphia, Here I Come! It turned out to be just as revelatory a perspective on this classic Friel play as I’d been led to expect. There are two aspects of her production I would like to discuss briefly. The first is the relationship between Gar Public and Gar Private, a delicate balance on which the success of the whole play depends. It might seem at first glance as if there is an absolute contrast between Gar Private, taciturn and withdrawn, and the extrovert theatrical antics of Gar Private, singing, dancing and making jokes. This is the line of absolute distinction and contrast that most productions of the play have tended to follow. But Gar Private is only tongue-tied and stammering in front of his father or his potential father-in-law, Senator Dugan. With the housekeeper Madge, the one centre of reciprocated affection in his life, he is warm and funny. But I had never noticed until Turner’s production how much to the fore Gar Public is in the scene with the boys, how open he is with them and how unnecessary Private is. It may seem the latter is there to puncture their sexual bravado with the unflattering truth; but even in that regard Public gets in first: ‘You were never out with Big Annie McFadden in your puff, man.’ The result was that in the Donmar production the two Gars really did seem like two halves of the one whole rather than a bizarre double act. Another of Turner’s revisions, more marked because it went against the text, was to cast Master Boyle as a man in his early forties rather than ‘around sixty’. And yet how likely is the latter? Gar is 25, his father in his late sixties. When S.B.O’Donnell married Maire, she was in her late teens and, had she lived, would now be in her early forties. Before S.B., she had gone out with Boyle, who clearly should be the same age as she was”: a young man with no prospects rather than the older ‘guy with a store’, as the Americanised Aunt Lizzie puts it. The younger casting of Boyle made him more like an older brother to Gar and a less pathetic figure, one who has enough youthful idealism left to still consider following his literary ambitions and going to the U.S. And yet the hair is beginning to recede, the drinking to take hold, and Boyle is on the decline, offering advice to Gar he wishes he could take himself. 

The Donmar production of Faith Healer generally garnered excellent reviews, mostly four and five star. The most positive (‘Lindsey Turner’s beautiful revival’) was by Michael Billington in The Guardian, one of the few London critics who appears to have an informed knowledge of Friel’s writing: ‘More than ever, the play struck me as a masterpiece: one in which Friel wrestles with the artist’s dependence on the unpredictability of inspiration.’ The production had an innovative design by Es Devlin, described by Susannah Clapp in her Observer review (another rave) as follows: ‘You walk into the auditorium and see a gleaming grey cage. The stage is encased in ramrods of rain, the Irish element, lit by white spotlights. It falls like translucent spears. You expect to see through it but you can’t. It lifts to reveal a few modest props: ironing board, drinks cabinet, a chair stacked with costumes. Through a glass darkly: this surely is exactly what Friel meant.’ The one absolutely negative review of the Donmar Faith Healer was by Christopher Hart in The Sunday Times, not only run in the Irish edition but strongly flagged on the Contents page. Hart reveals that he has absolutely no truck with the monologue play: Faith Healer is undramatic, ‘a crashing bore’. Hart’s critique is extended beyond Brian Friel and his play to Irish drama in general, tolerable when limited to a pub setting and hitting a comic note; but increasingly unbearable when it gives in to the more lyrical tendencies of the Irish: “But there has also been a strong tendency towards […] the overlong and overly lyrical soliloquy so much more poetic than dramatic. Even Playboy has them. In Faith Healer, that tendency takes over completely. It’s a bold experiment, but it’s also a failure.’ This is the backlash that so frequently follows a major writer’s death. Hart nowhere mentions that Friel died in the past year. All of the other reviews do, with Susannah Clapp accurately divining that the overall question of Brian Friel’s importance as a playwright, in the wake of his demise, is ‘all the more pressing’. This will be even more the case in the years ahead, where the productions of Friel’s plays will need to be as ‘luminescent’ and newly minted as Lyndsey Turner’s clearly is. 

In 2001, the Brian Friel Papers were deposited in the National Library of Ireland. They comprised 130 boxes, covering the writing and production of 30 stage and radio plays and his early days as a short story writer. The archive includes manuscripts of the plays and correspondence with actors, directors, producers, agents and academics. Since then, the archive has been valuably supplemented by another 13 years of material and by a separate archive on the Field Day Theatre Company which Seamus Deane has deposited in the National Library. Most interesting of all are the painstaking and multiple drafts of all the plays, showing lines and scenes added, deleted and altered, and the notes which Brian kept with his ideas for the various plays. But usage of the archive was initially rather limited, displaying a characteristic reticence on Friel’s part. Thomas Kilroy’s chapter on ‘The Early Plays’ in The Cambridge Companion to Brian Friel (which I edited and which appeared in 2006) drew on notes and quotations from the two early and unpublished plays, The Francophile and The Blind Mice. Tom later told me that Brian, although he gave permission, subsequently had some misgivings on that score. In 2006 I went to Brian Friel and told him I wanted to write a book on his plays; his response was affable and positive. I then told him that in the book I wished to draw throughout on the material in the archive. His eyebrows shot up, his face darkened and he muttered about restrictions and limited access. Then suddenly his expression lightened and (as I’ll never forget) he said: ‘Oh, okay, that’s all right, you go ahead.’ He then added: ‘I would make one request – that, when you finish your book, you run it past me.’ I was happy to agree; he would need to give his permission for my quotations from the archive. And so began five years of regular visits to the National Library in Kildare Street and an engrossing study of the riches it contained. To cut a long story short, I sent the finished book to Brian in late November of 2010 and went through an apprehensive number of days. The reply was rapid – he must have sat right down and read it from cover to cover – but was also detailed in its response; he had obviously read the book with great care. That lengthy reply – several single-spaced typed pages – went into his varied and trenchant views and responses to the material in the book. But I will never forget its opening line: ‘I am of course the last person in the world to respond to your book with any calm or objectivity. But allowing for those disabilities I thought your book masterly.’ At which point, my knees went and I poured myself a stiff whiskey. He concluded with the wish that my book on his work have many readers. He made a valuable correction: ‘My mother’s name was Chris or Christina’ – I had referred to her as Mary. But what a revelation to those of us interested in the autobiographical origins of Dancing at Lugnasa.

Anthony Roche and Brian Friel on July 14, 2011. At the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, for the launch of Anthony Roche’s book “Brian Friel: Theatre and Politics”

Brian did not request the removal of a single line from the archive material I had quoted. And so Brian Friel: Theatre and Politics was published by Palgrave Macmillan in April of 2011 and launched at the Abbey Theatre that summer by Diarmuid Ferriter and Denis Conway, with Brian and Anne Friel in attendance. My book is the first to draw on the rich archive of his work but it has not been nor will it be the last; and Brian Friel in seeing his life’s work was well archived and giving such permission as I was granted was clearly making sure that it would aid in the understanding of his work well beyond his lifetime. The study of the drama and fiction of Samuel Beckett is even more advanced than it was while Beckett was alive and a significant part of this is fuelled by the Beckett archive at Reading. I have no doubt the same will be the case in the future with Brian Friel and the papers of his which are lodged in the National Library of Ireland. 

Poster in Friel’s home from the 1980 Abbey Theatre. production by Joe Dowling.

Time only permits mention of one of the many discoveries I made in my five years of research in the archive, but it is a significant one. It pertains to the evolution of Faith Healer, arguably Friel’s masterpiece and one of his most formally perfect plays, with its symmetries and careful interweaving of the four monologues by faith healer Frank Hardy, his loyal wife Grace and his cockney manager, Teddy. But as has been observed the creation of a work of art is rarely an immaculate conception, and Faith Healer proves no different. Far from springing full blown from the head of Brian Friel in something akin to its formal, final perfection, the manuscripts of the play appear to reveal the arbitrary, the contingent and the downright messy operating in relation to this most fastidious of craftsmen. Originally (in November of 1975) Faith Healer comprised a single monologue by Frank Hardy, scarcely long enough (at 14 pages) to make a one-act play. The next thing that suggested itself was a complementary play entitled The Game, a sub-Pinteresque piece about a dysfunctional marriage. The combined two one-act plays were to be collectively entitled Bannermen along the lines of Friel’s 1967 play, Lovers, with its ‘Winners’ and ‘Losers’. The dramatist next decided to give the wife Grace her own monologue. The complementary relationship between the Frank and Grace monologues created a strong gravitational pull that left The Game (always the weaker text) stranded and exposed. This was suggested mildly by the few close and trusted associates to whom Friel showed the play. But it took the actor Niall Toibin to point out that if a third piece was required to fill out the evening it should be a third ‘Faith Healer’ monologue rather than the increasingly anomalous Game. Where, Toibin asked, was the missing monologue from the third member of the trio, the stage manager Teddy, a fast-talking hustler rather like some of the film parts Toibin himself has played? Friel responded positively to the suggestion, dropped The Game and rapidly drafted the comic tour-de-force that is Teddy’s monologue – the object of much praise in Ron Cook’s performance for Lyndsey Turner at the Donmar. Friel had been in contact with his old friend, producer Oscar Lewenstein, throughout; and when the latter read the three Faith Healer monologues the producer cannily pointed out ro Friel that it would be difficult to secure a big-name actor for the part of Frank Hardy if he did not make a return after the first monologue; and so Friel agreed to supply a fourth and final monologue for the faith healer himself. In doing so he held over material from and somewhat shortened the first three monologues to have Frank Hardy return to the stage, give a second monologue and deliver the new closing line: ‘At long last I was renouncing chance.’ The line accrues considerable irony in the light of the knowledge we now have of the play’s complex gestation and the role chance had played in it. 

Mr. Friel in 1962, a year before he decided on a career as a dramatist.

There is one other important area of Brian Friel’s legacy to touch on before I conclude and that is the short stories. His success as a dramatist has rather occluded the fact that in the 1950s through to the mid 1960s Brian Friel’s greatest success was as a writer of short stories. Starting with The Bell, he graduated to The New Yorker and joined that rare group of writers whose short stories were destined for the magazine and the top rates it paid for the work. A high proportion of these were Irish: Maeve Brennan, Frank O’Connor, Sean O’Faolain, Mary Lavin, Edna O’Brien, William Trevor and Brian Friel. Two well-received collections of short stories by Friel were published in the US and the UK, The Saucer of Larks in 1962 and The Gold in the Sea in 1966. In August 2015, at his lecture in Derry’s Guild Hall for the Lughnasa International Friel Festival, Fintan O’Toole said that even if Brian Friel had never written a single play his short stories would have gained him a high and enduring reputation. In rereading them since Brian died, I have been convinced by Fintan O’Toole’s claim that they constitute a considerable achievement in their own right rather than merely, as I had previously tended to see them, as pre-texts for the plays. Naturally, the short stories share settings and themes with the plays, none more so than ‘A Man’s World’, whose opening two lines – ‘I had five maiden aunts and they doted on me. I was their only nephew, the child of their youngest sister, Christina’ – immediately establishes its close kinship with Dancing at Lughnasa and Brian’s own biography. Memory plays an even stronger role in the short stories than in the plays – Gar’s memory of the blue boat in Philadelphia, Here I Come! gives the flavour and the intensity. In ‘Among the Ruins’, Joe’s memory of his childhood in the now-ruined home place takes over temporarily until his wife’s voice brings him back reluctantly to the present.

Friel, at home in 2011.

And yet there are subtle and fascinating distinctions and differences between the short stories and the plays. The family unit is intact in the short stories where it is usually fragmented and broken in the plays. Joe has a wife and two children in ‘Among the Ruins’; Christina in ‘A Man’s World’ lives with the narrator’s father, to whom she is married, in Strabane; Joe in ‘Foundry House, is married with nine children when he returns to live in the gate lodge where he was raised. In Aristocrats, the play which Brian developed from that short story at Tyrone Guthrie’s suggestion, neither of the two outsiders from the village, Willie Diver and Eamon, has any children. In many of the early plays the mother figure is usually absent, a figure who has been dead for many years but who haunts the narrative, whether it is Gar’s mother Maire in Philadelphia or the judge’s wife in Aristocrats, whereas her equivalent in ‘Foundry House’ – Mrs. Hogan – is old but still capable, unlike her invalided husband. There is also a subtle and fascinating reorientation of place between the short stories and the plays, best illuminated by contrasting ‘Foundry House’ and Aristocrats. We are told that in regard to the Big House in the short story, ‘The main Derry-Belfast road ran parallel to the house’. Its location within the jurisdiction of Northern Ireland adds point to the comment on the first page of the short story that the Hogans are ‘supposed to be one of the best Catholic families in the North of Ireland’. What, precisely, in that context does ‘best’ mean? The Catholic Big House in Aristocrats is set in Ballybeg in Donegal in the Republic of Ireland. When one of the daughters is asked by the visiting American academic about her father Judge O’Donnell’s attitude to the civil rights campaign, she replies: ‘He opposed it. No, that’s not accurate. He was indifferent – that was across the Border – away in the North.’ To which Tom Hoffnung pointedly replies: ‘Only twenty miles away.’

The final fascinating difference between the short stories and the plays is the much greater emphasis on the dispersal of the characters in the latter: from Gar O’Donnell leaving for Philadelphia in the morning onward. The shared family situation of the narrator of both ‘A Man’s World’ and Dancing at Lughnasa of being fussed over by his five unmarried aunts is cut across in the play by Michael’s brutal disruption of chronology to tell of how Agnes and Rose were to leave Ballybeg within the month and of the devastation they were to suffer in England. The one other point to emphasise about the short stories is their extraordinary economy; they really are short. But they are rich in content, packed with detail and reveal more with each subsequent reading. In the Irish context, one thinks of Joyce; but in the European the inevitable comparison is with Chekhov. Both Friel and Chekhov wrote plays and short stories; the comparison illuminates both careers. 

Gold knot on green cover of book

Anthony Roche is Professor Emeritus in the School of English, Drama and Film at University College Dublin. He is the author of Brian Friel: Theatre and Politics (2011) and editor of The Cambridge Companion to Brian Friel (2006).

Special thanks to the Bobbie Hanvey Photographic Archives, from which most of the images of Brian Friel were provided. Bobbie Hanvey is an award winning photographer living and working in Northern Ireland. The John J. Burns Library acquired the first part of the Bobbie Hanvey Photographic Archives in 2001, with major additions to the collection made in 2008 and 2009, bringing the total number of negatives in the Hanvey Archives to more than 50,000. Boston College Libraries, in order to create access for scholars and any interested parties, has initiated a project to digitize, describe, and host the photographs.