Brian Friel Friel, Brian (Vol. 5)

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Friel, Brian (Vol. 5)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Friel, Brian 1929–

Friel is an Irish dramatist and short story writer. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-22.)

The "real" world of Brian Friel's short stories reaches from Kincasslagh in the west of Donegal through Strabane, Derry City, and Coleraine to Omagh and County Tyrone. Alongside, at times superimposed on, these actual places are the imagined towns, villages, and country districts—Beannafreaghan, Glennafuiseog, Corradinna, Mullaghduff. These are composites and extensions of reality, given substance by an intense receptiveness to the atmosphere of a day or season, to the run of landscape, the play of light and shade, all the tangibles that localize a time and place. The vibrant solidity of the settings is perhaps the strongest single impression left by the world of these stories, memorable because never merely a background décor. (p. 31)

[The] protagonists of [Friel's] stories often have very strongly the feeling that they are of a piece with a place. They are, however, anything but creatures of circumstance. The kinship between man and place may satisfy because it has the assurance of familiarity. But the familiarity may be harsh, demanding; and it is inexhaustible, liable always to disclose unsuspected outlines. There is a process of learning and readjustment. The individual remains his own man. (p. 33)

Friel's regional background and his period give him a quite different point of departure from that of O'Faolain's squireens and peasants. Yet [he] produces similar perceptions of past working into present, of waning life, and the prospect of new growth. For all its melancholy, "Foundry House," like "Among the Ruins," leaves as its final impression, "continuance, life repeating itself and surviving."

It is an arduous survival. Adversity, self-deception, illusion, are the constant challenges in the homogeneous world that knits together … from the stories. We are not in the stereotyped Ireland of holy peasants and farcical roisterers. Defeated, or clinging to reality, the characters have the perplexed humanity that earns them Friel's compassion. Though they will not confess, they may recognize, their own illusions, which do not supplant reality but make it tolerable. (p. 42)

The realities of … life are subsistence farming and parish horizons, romantic to the tourist, but for the locals meaning drudgery and, often, little-minded parochialism. This parochialism figures in the Ireland of these stories, along with its aging bachelors and outnumbered women. It has its share of stifling respectability, ever ready to be outraged or titillated. (pp. 43-4)

The environment of his stories is a Catholic one. He is not an artist of the whole community, Protestant and Catholic. It is likely impossible that he could be. So widely are the two groups set apart by different school systems, by divergent historical loyalties, by sectarian government, that neither has any real and natural intimacy with the other…. [None] of the Northern Writers, of either persuasion, has been able to "transcend the divisions of the region," where sectarian politics thrive on the archaic enmities it is their business to foster. Yet it is also true that Friel's stories betray no least hint of rancor in their author, and, though not "political," irradiate political correspondences, in their recurring motifs of flight and exile, and the whole complex medley of the shifting alliances between man and place.

Friel's settings are mostly rural and the people he writes about poor…. [Although] the characters are often hardy, spirited, and their presentation lighthearted, the tone of the stories seems to me predominantly elegiac: for loves, friendships, observances, past or fated to pass. They establish a transient but crucial mood, generated by the traffic between past and present, place and person. The moments to cherish are those that isolate the quality of a life, of a relationship with one's fellows or one's region. The participants sense rather than define...

(The entire section is 2,274 words.)