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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 breadth of understanding.”

In a phone interview, O’Reilly said that “if there was such a thing as a poet laureate of the Irish Rep, it would be Brian Friel”: an intellectually curious, deeply empathetic playwright who probed the makeup of Irish identity. As profoundly as Friel fathomed small-town Irish life, he also recognized the urge to escape it — or in O’Reilly’s words: “Let me get the hell out.”

“In so many of his plays, it’s about the departure from it and the need to break beyond it,” said O’Reilly, who was 19 when he left his hometown, even tinier than Glenties, in County Cavan.

Of course, the true Ballybeg — whose name in Irish, Baile Beag, means “small town” — exists only in Friel’s plays. Still, you can hear echoes of Glenties in those plays, and echoes of those plays in Glenties.

And if you go there looking for him, as I did in late September, you will find him — even if the post office where his mother is said to have worked is long gone, succeeded by a branch tucked efficiently inside the Costcutter supermarket, on an unbusy Main Street pocked with vacant storefronts.

I stayed in a bed-and-breakfast at one end of the road, near the electric vehicle charging point that communicates loud and clear that Glenties is a 21st-century town. At the other is a hotel whose website commemorates the occasion, 25 years ago, when Meryl Streep, star of the film adaptation of “Dancing at Lughnasa,” slept there “on the night of the local premiere.” In between, a creative arts center and a gift shop both have Lughnasa — “the feast day of the pagan god, Lugh,” as the narrator of Friel’s play explains, and a harvest festival — in their names.

With a dozen Broadway productions in his lifetime, most of them Ballybeg plays (including “Faith Healer,” from 1979, in which a pivotal, sinister event occurs on the outskirts of town), Friel was not given to sentimentalizing rusticity.

But outsiders have a tendency in that direction, as a Ballybeg woman says in Friel’s comedy “The Communication Cord” (1982): “You know the way strangers get queer notions about a place like this; and foreigners is the worst.”

Yet when a visitor remarks, in “Give Me Your Answer, Do!” (1997), “The view up that valley is breathtaking,” he could easily be talking about Glenties, whose name in Irish, Na Gleannta, means “the glens.”

The town has stunning vistas of the Blue Stack Mountains that hem it in — and make driving there from Dublin, as I did, an adventure, fraught with the risk of toppling off some narrow, winding road into a patch of gorgeous scenery.

FOR MORE THAN 50 YEARS, starting in the 1890s, a railway stopped in Glenties. I learned that at St. Connell’s Museum, a homely repository of area history just around the corner from Main Street. Its collection of Friel material tends toward news clippings (more Meryl) and old show posters (like the one that informs you that both Liam Neeson and Stephen Rea were in the original cast of “Translations,” in Derry).

There is also the text of a cheeky piece that Friel wrote for The Irish Times in 1959, ribbing Glenties for its second consecutive win of the national Tidy Towns contest. “My mother’s people were MacLoones,” he notes, wryly claiming “direct descent” from that “mecca of tidiness.”

The cottage where the family lived, the home of the impecunious sisters who inspired “Dancing at Lughnasa,” is in Glenties — close to where the railway station used to be, where Friel’s grandfather had been the station master. The Brian Friel Trust, which reportedly has plans for a cultural center elsewhere in town, owns the house.

From the road, the path to the old family home passes under a low canopy of branches. Then, in a clearing, there it is, looking grimy and forlorn, with moss-carpeted stairs and a gold-lettered plaque beside the door. “‘The Laurels,’” it says, which is the house’s name. “Unveiled by Brian Friel, Meryl Streep and Sophie Thompson. 24th September 1998.”

And this is where the soft glow of “Dancing at Lughnasa,” a memory play set in imaginary Ballybeg in 1936, collides hard with a reality that is too earthbound, too bleak, too untouched by poetry. But also — maybe because of the plaque, and the gloom — more like an exhibit than a remnant of history.

“Translations” (in which, somewhat mind-bendingly, a character from Ballybeg mentions Glenties in conversation) takes place a century earlier, in 1833, as the British are mapping all of Ireland and rewriting every Irish place name into English. It’s more than a decade before the Great Famine, but jobs are scarce — a theme that runs through Friel’s plays — and a fear of blighted crops is making some locals nervous.

“Sweet God,” another scoffs in response, “did the potatoes ever fail in Baile Beag? Well, did they ever — ever? Never!”

If you go simply by the sign on Main Street in Glenties, with its arrow pointing vaguely north, you will never find the town’s famine graveyard. If you consult Google Maps, it will tell you that the place is “temporarily closed.” Not so.

When I pulled up behind the group of houses where my GPS said it was, a man in a purple sweater instantly emerged to find out why I was there. Then he moved a metal barricade away from the graveyard entrance — “It’s just a makeshift thing,” he said — and let me in. The bright green grass was so soft under my feet that I said so, and the man said it probably should have been farmland all those years ago. Down the hill, sheep were grazing.

The graveyard has only a single marker, inscribed in Irish: a 20th-century monument to the dead buried there beginning in 1846. That’s the year after the failure of potato crops started the Great Famine, making poverty a scourge in rural Ireland. Sickness spread among the desperate poor at the Glenties workhouse. Inmates who perished were interred out back.

So much covered-over misery, such an alluringly pastoral setting: This felt like Friel to me.

I got back in the car and headed to the Atlantic Ocean, about eight miles away, where the island of Inishkeel and its medieval monastic ruins lie not far across the water from Narin/Portnoo Beach. At low tide, you can walk to it on an exposed sandbar, but you will need to keep careful watch of the time if you don’t want to get trapped there, and heed a sign, fixed to a gate on the island, that warns, surreally: “Beware of the bull.” (I saw no bull.)

There is a wildness and a timelessness to Inishkeel. A rugged desolation, too, even though all you have to do is face the far shore to see the houses on the mainland, and wind turbines spinning in the hills beyond: a side-by-side coexistence of the eerie ancient and the unsettled now that is very Friel.

Glenties doesn’t have a coastline, but Ballybeg does, with at least one island off it: in “The Gentle Island” (1971), called Inishkeen; in “Wonderful Tennessee” (1993), called Oilean Draiochta, which is translated in the play as Island of Mystery. Neither island is tidal like Inishkeel — you need a boat to get to them — but each shares a bit of the real island’s past.

In those plays, Friel taps into the primal, the mythic, the spiritual. And maybe it was just the gray and chill the day I was there, and the tiny needles of rain that stung my face. But on that marvelous, rock-strewn island, all of those forces seemed entirely conjurable — somewhere off beautiful Ballybeg, County Donegal.