Brian Friel Essay - Friel, Brian (Short Story Criticism)

Friel, Brian (Short Story Criticism)


Brian Friel 1929–-

(Born Bernard Patrick Friel) Irish dramatist and short-story writer.

The following entry presents criticism on Friel's short fiction from 1973 through 1999.

Although primarily recognized as a playwright, Friel is also known for his short stories set in the border region between Northern Ireland and the Irish republic that explore the lives of characters who struggle with strict social, religious, and moral conventions. Critics note that the themes of his short stories—such as poverty, disillusionment, the role of childhood memories, and man's connection to nature—reappear in his drama. Despite his limited short fiction oeuvre, commentators contend that his stories are a vital part of his literary output and should be considered independently of his better-known dramas.

Biographical Information

Friel was born outside Omagh, County Tyrone, in Northern Ireland, on January 9, 1929. At the age of ten, his family moved to Londonderry. In 1941 he began attending St. Columb's College, a secondary school, and then entered a seminary, St. Patrick's College, in preparation to enter the priesthood. After receiving his B.A. in 1948, he left the seminary and entered St. Joseph's Teacher Training School in Belfast. Upon graduating in 1950, he became a teacher in primary and secondary schools around Derry City. Around this time, his short stories started appearing in the The New Yorker, and, in 1960, his steady success prompted him to quit teaching in order to concentrate on writing full-time. Much of his early work consisted of radio plays and short stories. He began to write plays that were produced at the Abbey Theatre, renowned for its association with the prestigious Irish playwrights William Butler Yeats, J. M. Synge, and Sean O'Casey. In 1963 he began study in dramaturgy and theatre arts at the Tyrone Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The following year he completed his play Philadelphia, Here I Come! (1964), which ran for 326 performances and established his international reputation as a playwright. In 1973, Friel returned to Ireland and eventually founded the Field Day Theatre Company in London's West End with Stephen Rea in 1980. The theater company provided Irish playwrights with a platform for addressing relevant social and political issues. He has received several awards for his work, including an Olivier Award in 1991 and a Tony Award in 1992 for his successful play Dancing at Lughnasa (1990). He currently lives in County Donegal, Ireland.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Friel's short stories have been published in two collections of short fiction: The Saucer of Larks (1962) and The Gold in the Sea (1966). These stories are set in Ireland and explore the social and political struggles of the Irish Catholic rural poor. In “The Potato Gatherers,” two young boys skip school in order to make some money helping a farmer dig his potatoes. After a day of backbreaking work, both boys are reminded of their own poverty and limited prospects. Many of the stories focus on the landscape of childhood, such as “Among the Ruins,” in which a wife convinces her husband to take their family on a visit to his childhood home in Corradinna. When he finds his old house decaying, he realizes that his romantic memories of a halcyon childhood were an illusion; yet despite his disappointment, he takes comfort in the activities of his son and the idea of the cycle of life. The power of childhood memories plays a central role in one of Friel's most well-regarded stories, “Foundry House.” Now grown, Joe Brennan returns to visit Hogan's Foundry, the place where his father worked for many years and where he grew up. He is shocked to discover the toll time has taken on the owners of the business, the Hogan family. In particular, Mr. Hogan, who was once intimidating to the young Joe, has become an old man afflicted by several health problems, including violent seizures. Yet when he tells his wife about his visit later, he refuses to surrender his childhood vision of the Hogans. Critics view this story as an allegory for the changing social order in Irish society. Other stories consider the effects of encroaching technological progress and industrialization on rural areas. In an early comic story, “Kelly's Hall,” the small rural village of Beannafreaghan in County Donegal erupts in chaos upon the arrival of a gramophone machine. “Mr. Sing My Heart's Delight” chronicles a young boy's visit to his grandmother, who lives in a very isolated farmhouse on the top of a cliff. The grandmother's loneliness is assuaged by the visit of a traveling Indian merchant selling gaudy items. The exotic background of the merchant inspires the old lady's fantasies about faraway places and counteracts her own bleak and isolated existence.

Critical Reception

At the time Friel turned his attention from short fiction to drama, he was regarded as one of Ireland's leading short-story writers. Although a few critics view his stories as the apprentice work of a well-known playwright and explore the connection between his short fiction and drama, others argue that his stories should be considered separately from his drama and in their own right. They praise Friel's humor, strong sense of place, vivid characterizations, and his thoughtful treatment of sensitive themes. They note that he utilizes traditional forms to explore such thematic concerns as poverty, disillusionment, alienation, the meaning of dignity and honor, the role of memory, and man's connection to nature. Commentators identify the tension between the individual and the prevailing social order as a central theme in Friel's short fiction. They analyze his stories as a reflection of the changing social order in twentieth-century rural Ireland. Although some critics have classified his stories by setting, or other criteria, others assert that the stories resist facile categorization. Some critics have underscored the lack of thematic development in his stories and view his short fiction as derivative in tone and theme. Moreover, they perceive his fictional oeuvre limited in scope and essentially regionalist in nature. Commentators have considered the role of his short fiction in Friel's literary career and have compared his short stories to those of Seamus Heaney and Anton Chekhov. Despite his limited output of short fiction, critics commend his achievement as a short-story writer and regard his stories as enduring portraits of the Irish people during the mid-twentieth century.

Principal Works

The Saucer of Larks 1962

The Gold in the Sea 1966

Selected Stories 1979

The Diviner: Brian Friel's Best Short Stories 1983

The Enemy Within (drama) 1962

Philadelphia, Here I Come! (drama) 1964

Aristocrats (drama) 1979

Faith Healer (drama) 1979

Translations (drama) 1980

Dancing at Lughnasa (drama) 1990

Wonderful Tennessee (drama) 1993

Molly Sweeney (drama) 1994

Give Me Your Answer, Do! (drama) 1997

The Yalta Game (drama) 2002


D. E. S. Maxwell (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: Maxwell, D. E. S. “Background and Themes: The Short Stories.” In Brian Friel, pp. 15-47. Lewisburg, Penn.: Bucknell University Press, 1973.

[In the following essay, Maxwell provides a sociopolitical and historical context to Friel's short fiction and delineates the major thematic concerns in his stories.]


Brian Friel's “Johnny and Mick” (SL [The Saucer of Larks]) is a story about two boys wandering the streets of a Northern Irish town. They roam from the central Diamond, “where black soldiers of the War Memorial towered in taut menace above them,” along “the brown stagnant water” of the quays, past “a...

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Edmund J. Miner (essay date spring 1977)

SOURCE: Miner, Edmund J. “Homecoming: The Theme of Disillusionment in Brian Friel's Short Stories.” Kansas Quarterly 9, no. 2 (spring 1977): 92-9.

[In the following essay, Miner considers the theme of disillusionment in “Among the Ruins” and “Foundry House.”]

Brian Friel is probably best known to both Americans and Canadians for such commercially successful plays as The Loves of Cass McGuire and Philadelphia, Here I Come! Born in County Tyrone in 1929, he spent many years, like Bryan MacMahon, his compatriot and fellow-playwright, as a school-teacher. Since 1960, however, he has devoted himself almost exclusively to a literary career. A...

(The entire section is 4487 words.)

Seamus Deane (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: Deane, Seamus. “Introduction to The Diviner, by Brian Friel,” pp. 9-18. Dublin: The O'Brien Press, 1979.

[In the following essay, Deane explores the essential and enduring qualities of Friel's short stories.]

If a story takes its form from the author's desire, it also gives form to the desire of its reader. The reader of this selection of Brian Friel's stories will find his desire moulded into form by the pressure of that local, intimate detail which emerges out of the author's knowledge of his society's moral code. Each story is social in its setting, moral in its implication. Time and again we have the impression that the small-town or village society, no...

(The entire section is 2950 words.)

Ulf Dantanus (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: Dantanus, Ulf. “Friel's Literary Landscapes: The Short Stories.” In Brian Friel: The Growth of an Irish Dramatist, pp. 37-76. Göteborg, Sweden: Acta Universitatis Gothoburgensis, 1985.

[In the following essay, Dantanus outlines the nature of Friel's literary landscape through an examination of his short stories.]


In the Introduction and in Chapter I [of Brian Friel: The Growth of an Irish Dramatist] I have tried to map out Friel's real-life and fictional habitat and suggest ways in which its distinctive climate of thought and feeling could begin to assume a “spirit of place” that...

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George O'Brien (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: O'Brien, George. “Storyteller and Playwright.” In Brian Friel, pp. 1-29. Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1989.

[In the following essay, O'Brien underscores the unifying aspects of Friel's stories and traces his transition from short fiction to drama.]

Brian Friel was born near Omagh, County Tyrone, Northern Ireland on 9 January 1929. His father, a native of Derry, taught at a local primary school. Friel's mother was from Donegal, where the author-to-be frequently spent holidays that were to have a formative effect on his imagination, as his stories in particular suggest, and that no doubt influenced his view of himself as “a sort of peasant at...

(The entire section is 14384 words.)

Richard Pine (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: Pine, Richard. “The Short Stories.” In Brian Friel and Ireland's Drama, pp. 50-66. London: Routledge, 1990.

[In the following essay, Pine elucidates the defining thematic concerns of Friel's short stories.]

Silence once broken will never again be whole

—Samuel Beckett1


Friel conveys the immediacy of ‘our’ world. It is not just the quotidian, workaday continuity of people's actions, but, as Seamus Deane observes, ‘that local intimate detail which emerges out of the author's knowledge of his society's moral code’.2 Deane...

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Richard Bonaccorso (essay date December 1991)

SOURCE: Bonaccorso, Richard. “Back to ‘Foundry House’: Brian Friel and the Short Story.” The Canadian Journal of Irish Studies 17, no. 2 (December 1991): 72-7.

[In the following essay, Bonaccorso deems “Foundry House” Friel's best-known story, and asserts that is one of his most impressive achievements “given its cultural interest, quiet intensity, and subtle characterization of its protagonist.”]

Considering the emerging power of Brian Friel's plays since the mid-Sixties, one looks back to the stories (mostly published in A Saucer of Larks, 1962, and The Gold in the Sea, 1966) with fascination. A close reading reveals their considerable...

(The entire section is 2536 words.)

John Cronin (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: Cronin, John. “‘Donging the Tower–The Past Did Have Meaning’: The Short Stories of Brian Friel.” In The Achievement of Brian Friel, edited by Alan J. Peacock, pp. 1-13. Gerrards Cross, England: Colin Smythe, 1992.

[In the following essay, Cronin unfavorably compares Friel's short stories to his drama and accentuates the significance of the past in his work.]

The great short story writers tend, naturally enough, to be associated with their most masterly tales: Joyce and ‘The Dead’; Lawrence and ‘Odour of Chrysanthemums’; Sean O'Faolain and ‘A Broken World’; Frank O'Connor and ‘Guests of the Nation’. It may not be entirely without...

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Richard Bonaccorso (essay date June 1996)

SOURCE: Bonaccorso, Richard. “Personal Devices: Two Representative Stories by Brian Friel.” Colby Quarterly 22, no. 2 (June 1996): 93-9.

[In the following essay, Bonaccorso explores the dynamics between society and the individual in “The Flower of Kiltymore” and “The Saucer of Larks.”]

Between 1964 and 1967, with the productions of Philadelphia, Here I Come! in Dublin, London, and New York, Brian Friel began to commit his talents fully to drama. This was about ten years into his public career as a writer of short stories and radio plays and following a half-year of study at the Tyrone Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis. In 1967, in an essay entitled...

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Honor O'Connor (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: O'Connor, Honor. “Divining Stories: Underground Water in the Short Stories of Brian Friel.” Hungarian Journal of English and American Studies 5, no. 1 (1999): 7-23.

[In the following essay, O'Connor argues that Friel's stories are radical in the way they provoke thought about the social, moral, and political problems that face his characters.]

The short stories of Brian Friel are to be enjoyed in their own right, not merely seen as apprentice work of a playwright and therefore interesting as a means of understanding his development as one of Ireland's leading literary figures. Some of the stories may be viewed as trial pieces not for public scrutiny but...

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Further Reading


Adams, Phoebe. Review of The Saucer of Larks, by Brian Friel. The Atlantic Monthly 210, no. 3 (September 1962): 124.

Brief positive review of The Saucer of Larks.

Andrews, Elmer. Introduction to The Art of Brian Friel, pp. 8-44. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire, England: St. Martin's Press, 1995.

Discusses the defining characteristics of Friel's short stories, maintaining he “is both inside and outside his society, the respectful and affectionate delineator of a recognizable landscape and community that he writes about from deep down in his environment and, at the same time, the critically...

(The entire section is 243 words.)