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Searching for Brian Friel, and His Mythical Ballybeg

Searching for Brian Friel, and His Mythical Ballybeg

Up a steep and grassy windblown hill, in the top row of what’s known as the new graveyard, the playwright Brian Friel lies buried under a dark, glossy slab etched with an image of a St. Brigid’s cross, a traditional Irish symbol woven from rushes.

This little cemetery in a remote northwest corner of Ireland has a sweeping view of valley, hills and tiny town: Glenties, County Donegal, which in a way is a curious choice for Friel’s final resting place. It isn’t where he was born, in 1929; that was Omagh, across the nearby border with Northern Ireland. It isn’t where he died, in 2015; that was Greencastle, quite a bit farther north in County Donegal, on the sea.

But it is, arguably, a place he spent a lot of time in his head. Glenties (population 927 in 2022) is his mother’s hometown, where he would go during childhood summers. Not a son of the town but a grandson, he became, as the New York Times critic Mel Gussow asserted in a 1991 profile, “a writer on a level with Sean O’Casey and John Millington Synge,” two of the most esteemed Irish playwrights in the canon.

What claim to fame Glenties has, and what brush with Hollywood, is because of Friel. In his writing, he transformed it into a place called Ballybeg: the site of many of his plays, including the most famous, “Dancing at Lughnasa” (1990), which is inspired by his mother and aunts, and dedicated “In memory of those five brave Glenties women.”

Off Broadway this season, Irish Repertory Theater’s Friel Project will revive three of his Ballybeg plays, starting with “Translations” (1980), about a 19th-century British colonialist project to Anglicize Ireland, directed by the Tony Award winner Doug Hughes and running through Dec. 3. It will be followed in January by “Aristocrats” (1979), set amid a once-grand Catholic family in Chekhovian decline, directed by Charlotte Moore, Irish Rep’s artistic director; and in March by “Philadelphia, Here I Come!” (1964), in which a young man prepares to leave Ballybeg for the United States, directed by Ciaran O’Reilly, Irish Rep’s producing director.

After Friel died, the critic Michael Billington called him “the finest Irish dramatist of his generation,” citing a body of work that examined “exile and emigration, the political Troubles of Northern Ireland [and] the subjective nature of memory.” All of it, he pronounced, was “bound together by his passion for language, his belief in the ritualistic nature of theater and his…

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