Brian Friel

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

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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 mountain of scrap metal,” by empty, echoing sheds, and “the rusted track” of the railway to the complacent suburbs. A suburban street is a challenge to them. It slopes down, “as wide as three ordinary streets,” with its vivid gardens, soft lawns, and “careful curtains,” to the river—which here “lay cool and sparkling at its feet.”

They skylark, shout, disrupt the respectable stillness. A frail old man from one of the houses buys for his grandson, a childish replica of himself, the chestnuts that Johnny and Mick have gathered. Johnny sees a prospect of wealth. The two boys collect a great pile of chestnuts to sell to the effete children of these houses. Mick, trying to jump the pile, scatters it, and the two of them frolic down the road, kicking the chestnuts in all directions. By the river they sober up and wordlessly set off for their Tintown squatters' homes, where “they said the briefest of goodbyes to one another and parted.”

Their afternoon has made them aware, inarticulately, of social division and of their own impotence. The river, as the images discreetly imply, sets apart the two worlds of town and suburb. Even its own waters alter with the viewpoint. The town is decaying, moribund; the suburban road opulent, well-groomed, secure, “a long distance from” Tintown. Johnny's life has taught him a precocious knowingness—“look the policeman or probation officer straight in the eye and smile.” He is contemptuous of “soft guys with money,” of little boys, wearing unnecessary overcoats, who can't climb their own trees. But he is vulnerable, as with his chestnut scheme, to the “chill voice” of the middle class. He and his plans exist only as a momentary convenience or a passing vexation. It is not all malice or hardheartedness. The old man is innocuous, doting. But the two worlds are worlds apart. Johnny and Mick are the losers, though there may be a resilience that will sustain them.

The author's role is unobtrusive. His words project this or that image of a setting, give the dialogue its tone and resolution, control the transitions of scene and mood. The details consolidate themselves into the story's statement. The two rivers in one, the contrasting silences of town and suburb, the chestnuts Johnny and Mick sensuously revel in and the chestnuts the old man buys, Johnny's patronage of Mick and their final shared abashment: these are left to speak for themselves. The statement they make is Friel's, but not by explicit declaration. The voice is personal, but assimilated to its material, setting up inferences in scene and action. It is the novelist's only sort of “objectivity”: “Johnny and Mick” has all the power that its reticence can confer.

The story has a strong social attachment, not narrowly political, but sensitive to the quality of individual life in a particular community. Its representativeness depends upon its realizing a distinctive, individual situation. The setting here is in fact precisely identifiable. The topography of the...

(This entire section contains 8333 words.)

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fictional town is close to that of Derry City, in Northern Ireland. There, Ferryquay Street leads to the Diamond and War Memorial, to Shipquay Street and the quays, and, across the river Foyle (unnamed in the story), there is a Browning Drive, though the “Browning Drive” of the story is in a different part of town, its model being Duncreggan Road with its Mature Detached Residences. More fundamental, the shaping of “Johnny and Mick” registers Friel's deep sense of Derry's divided community, though it is not restrictively about Derry.

This is the only one of the stories to take as its subject the town where Brian Friel lived for twenty-seven years. No doubt it may be argued that its identification has the interest mainly of autobiography or even just gossip. Change the street names and the story's effect would not diminish. It is important, though, as a fairly direct indication of the way in which Friel's work reaches back, however obliquely, into personal experience. Its roots are in observation and knowledge of his own region, the northwestern counties of Ireland.


Brian Friel now lives a few miles outside Derry, in the village of Muff, County Donegal, over the Irish Border in the Republic. He also has a cottage near Kincasslagh on the west Donegal coast, where he spends most of the summer. It is by a small, beautiful beach, and on a fine day could be the Glennafuiseog of “The Saucer of Larks.” The setting of Philadelphia, Here I Come! is a fusion of Kincasslagh and Glenties. Friel's main family associations are with Derry, the home of his grandfather and father; and, through his mother, who was born in Glenties, with Donegal. His wife too is from Derry, and the Friels both went to school there, as do their children now.

Since his success as a dramatist, Friel has traveled widely, in the United States in particular, though not for long periods. He has remained intimate with his upbringing and his locality. He shows no desire to leave them for the cosmopolitan world of international theater. Friel's reason is not any sense of superiority. He admires and likes the actors and producers who bring his plays to the stage. He enjoys conversation, company at home, and the friendship especially of many of the Irish writers who are his contemporaries Simply, he stays put for the continuing contact with the scenes, the characters, the circumstances that absorb his imagination.

Irish writers have a nomadic tradition. Friel has not shared this, though he had the additional motive for departure of being a Catholic in Northern Ireland, and understandably hostile to its Government's notion of democratic rule. He is one of the Northern minority, which in his native city is the more keenly aware of minority treatment because there it is in numbers a majority. Friel's father was a Nationalist member of the (now suspended) City Corporation, and Friel was himself brought up in the traditional Nationalist assumptions.

On the whole these did not produce much more by way of policies than the ideal of uniting Ireland. Anti-British sentiment was still a lively impulse. When, at the age of ten, he returned with his family to Derry in 1939, Friel says, “We believed that Germany was right and England was wrong, that sort of thing” (Eavan Boland, “The Northern Writer's Crisis of Conscience,” in The Irish Times, 12, 13, 14 August 1970). The Northern Nationalist Party grew out of the domestic ruptures over the 1921 Treaty (and subsequent Civil War), which established the Irish Free State and in effect ratified the separate existence of Northern Ireland. As Northern Ireland opted out of a united Ireland, so did the Nationalist Party, as a parliamentary opposition, opt out of Northern Ireland. Every election became a plebiscite on partition. The Northern government had no more to do than stage-manage the victories, which weight of numbers—and where necessary gerrymandering—had made inevitable.

In these orthodox loyalties and animosities, the politics of Northern Ireland stagnated. The normally recognized poles of Left and Right found no accommodation. Socially, the two religious groups went each its own way. Even holiday patterns were symptomatic. Derry Protestants went to the seaside towns of Portrush and Portstewart. Catholics went to Donegal or elsewhere in the South. Both would stay, if at all possible, in hotels or boarding-houses owned by someone of their own faith.

The controls exerted by these almost ritualistic observances disquieted Friel. He has been fully conscious of the dismal record of almost all clerics of all the churches, his own included. His favorite “thin book” is My Contribution to Ecumenism by—a dignitary of the Catholic Church in the North. As well as the many delinquencies of the Protestant majority, he recognizes the Catholic suspicion of any enterprise—not that many were offered—designed to bring together people of different faiths. A “little theatre” begun in Derry in the late 1940s languished, and soon foundered, at least partly on that distrust. Friel is a practicing Catholic. But he found his Maynooth experience “very disturbing,” and his writings, when they touch on the Church and its servants, are far from reverential. He has offended not only Unionist, but Nationalist and Catholic, sensibilities.

It was in the mid-1960s that the Civil Rights movement set out systematically to disturb both traditions of thought. Like all Northern writers, Friel has often been asked to pronounce on the political upheaval that has followed. Until The Freedom of the City he has never taken it, or for that matter old-style Northern politics, directly as a subject. But it is worth consideration here. It epitomizes in a particularly brutal and revealing way the division that is an inescapable part of Friel's inheritance. It has compelled him to examine his responsibilities as a writer in circumstances that increasingly drive loyalties to extremes, to riot and killing. It was exactly in the Derry of “Johnny and Mick” that these things happened.

The Civil Rights Movement in Northern Ireland has from the start been far from homogeneous. It included moderate reformers, like John Hume in Derry, who hoped to unite people on a nonsectarian basis around a few straightforward issues like religious discrimination in housing, or the undemocratic franchise for local government elections. In its early days it won some Protestant support. The first and very considerable show of unity was over the location of the second Northern Irish university, which went not to Derry but to the more generally Protestant district of Coleraine. On more overtly political issues, perhaps fifty Protestants joined the Derry Civil Rights march of 5 October 1968, which was first banned and then, when the ban was defied, used for a display of police force. The movement also undoubtedly attracted many Catholics who were anti-Unionist in a perfectly orthodox Nationalist sense. Bernadette Devlin has recalled how in Enniskillen the organizers of a Civil Rights march found their supporters more interested in singing “Papish” songs than “We shall Overcome.” She, with Michael Farrell, and Eamonn McCann of Derry, represented another district entity in the Civil Rights Association, the People's Democracy.

Their premises were specifically Marxist. They assented to the tactic of peaceful demonstration, but looked beyond particular grievances to the power structures that, in their view, kept the poor divided. Consequently they opened up terms of reference that were quite novel, though they did hark back to the United Irishmen of 1798, and more nearly to James Connolly's model of an Irish Socialist Republic.

But it was less the radical ideas of the 1916 rebels than simply their martyrdom that brought Irish independence closer. Left-wing activism is an exotic growth in Irish politics. Its hold is narrow and tenuous. In Derry in the 1970 General Election for one of the seats at Westminster, the Unionist won as usual. Of the two opposition candidates to him, Eamonn McCann ran a bad second to Eddie MacAteer, who with the support of John Hume stood as a “Unity” candidate, but had been for many years the Nationalist Party M.P. in the Belfast Parliament. The votes that in the same election returned Bernadette Devlin to Parliament were, with perhaps a few bizarre exceptions, Catholic votes.

Certainly, while the Civil Rights Association held briefly together, its People's Democracy members contributed positively to pushing a reluctant Government into either measures of reform or the promise of them. But like most small Left-wing movements, the People's Democracy proved highly fissile. Since its first successes, the Civil Rights Association has fragmented, in part at least because of leadership and doctrinal squabbles within the People's Democracy. Neither the movement as a whole nor any of its components has extinguished habits of response made almost instinctive by tradition and upbringing. Indeed, a commentator from the Republic, John Feeney, has argued that the main effect of Civil Rights activity has been to impede nonsectarian cooperation within the Labour Party and the Trade Unions (The Irish Times, 15, 16 September 1970). A moderate Northern observer, Martin Wallace, points out that, whatever the reforms, “the bulk of the power will rest with the Protestant majority,” and the prospect of beneficial results from reform legislation has dwindled because Protestant attitudes “have hardened as leadership of the Catholic minority has tended to pass from civil rights moderates to more extreme republicans intent on bringing down the government” (“Reform in the North,” Eire-Ireland, Autumn 1970).

Protestants are easily persuaded that the C.R.A. cloaked a combination of simple Republicanism and anti-Protestantism—the precise converse of their own sectarian attitudes—with some Maoist/Marxist (international) subversion thrown in for good measure. Catholics continue to distrust Protestants. Working-class unity remains an ideal, not a fact. Pointless violence continues. Inherited hatreds persist. The conventions of thought and attitude that enshrine them are as potent as ever. They begin in childhood and are then, as Seamus Heaney has put it, “solidified by adult events” (Boland). Most Northerners remain political fundamentalists, for whom the Treaty supplies, one way or the other, a satisfying theology.

Anyone venturing to pronounce on so mutable a situation will be mainly conscious of dissenting voices. For instance Owen Dudley Edwards, (in his The Sins of Our Fathers), unlike Feeney and Wallace, would support the aims and methods of Civil Rights activism, and especially of the People's Democracy, and be kinder about its achievements and prospects. For Andrew Boyd, “the Northern Ireland Labour Party has been, and still is, led by men who, because of fear, ingrained pro-British prejudice, political ignorance or plain political opportunism, are incapable of organising an effective opposition to the Unionists” (“The Guilty Men of Ulster,” Everyman, no. 3, 1970). Friel himself, though mindful of perplexed and ambiguous motives, finds the radical awakening congenial and exciting. He could conceive of no lasting resolution that did not embody a united and politically independent Ireland. At present he is more aware of the new complexities than hopeful of any settlement.

Predictably, this state of affairs has opened to contemporary Irish writers the question of their own responsibilities when politics have taken to violence and the streets. As people once demanded “war poets,” or in the 30s “communist literature,” they now in Ireland ask writers, particularly in the North, to make the political turmoil their subject. Hibernia's “News in the Arts” (28 August 1970) has hinted at the need for an even larger zeal. Recalling Brecht's procrastination in the 1953 Berlin uprising—“the rebellion went down to defeat with the artist sitting by his tape-recorder, inglorious, unbloody, uninvolved”—the columnist adds, rather enigmatically, “a clear message for the artist in Ireland today, North and South.” A month later in the same journal, Maurice Leitch urges exactly the opposite view, that such admonitions are impertinent, for the “situation … if [writers] are to be honest to themselves and to their work, must be folded away into the brain for some sort of ripening process to take place.”

Writers have in fact turned their craft to the subject. Seamus Heaney's “Docker” was published in 1966, before the violence became commonplace. Though it regards its subject with wit, it is plainly conscious of a perpetual menace:

That fist would drop a hammer on a Catholic—
Oh, yes, that kind of thing could start again;
The only Roman collar he tolerates
Smiles all round his sleek pint of porter.

John Boyd's The Assassin was produced with great impact at the 1969 Dublin Theatre Festival. It is a powerful, Brechtian treatment of the political murder of a Northern Protestant agitator, its dark causes and bloody sequel.

At a less consequential level, the Peacock Theatre presented, in September 1970, A State of Chassis, described as “a political-polemical-satirical review,” written by a Northerner, John D. Stewart, and two Southerners, Thomas MacAnna and Eugene Walters, and dealing with people and events in Northern Ireland. At the first night, Eamonn McCann demonstrated against its “trivialisation” of serious issues—players “jumping around for the delectation of the people of Dublin who can afford 17s.6d. a seat” (Irish Times report, 17 September, 1970). The Northern Opposition M.P.s who were present, though less vehement, also found the piece offensive. Two months later Mr. McCann, opening an Exhibition by a student of the Dublin College of Art, explained his view of the artist's role. He commended the student whose works were on exhibition because he was politically involved in a dispute at the College of Art, and another student for his involvement in the cement workers' strike. “No art,” he said, “is neutral.” Its only defensible function is “to contribute to the struggle of the people against exploitation” (ibid., 4 November 1970).

So rigidly doctrinaire a view is unacceptable to Friel, though he has, inevitably, considered the schism and its bitterness as a possible subject. One problem has been the form that for him would best express it. He has ceased to write short stories; he finds neither Boyd's Brechtian theatre nor Stewart's satirical revue appropriate to himself; and he is in any case suspicious of a theme or subject that does not generate its own answer to the question of form.

As long ago as 1965 (in Acorn, Magee College Derry, Spring 1965), Friel repudiated crusading art and plays designed, like Osborne's or Wesker's, to put across a social message. The writer's job is rather to present “a set of people and a situation with a certain clarity and understanding and sympathy and as a result of this one should look at them more closely; and if one is moved then that one should react accordingly. This is the responsibility of a reader or an audience, but I don't think it's the writer's.” Nevertheless, Friel recognizes fine distinctions. Though it should not be the writer's end purpose, his work may admit to an audience's mind a response, an illumination, that may, sometime, lead to action. And the writer has his arrogance. This is how things are, he is saying, with the expectation that his audience will concur.

Since then, Friel has applied these principles to his own circumstances. A basic impediment to his taking a Northern political subject is that he is “emotionally too much involved about it”; and the situation itself “is in transition at the moment.” A play on this theme “will not be written,” he hopes, “for another ten or fifteen years” (“The Future of Irish Drama,” The Irish Times, 12 February 1970). In a later interview he has elaborated, and perhaps somewhat modified, these propositions. He recalls a demonstration about housing in Derry, “before the big burst.” “I happened to be in it,” he comments, “not because I was involved, but because I was an interested spectator at that point.” Subsequently, he took up the idea of the artist as spectator:

Graham Greene has said that every writer is like a housewife who won't discard a piece of string in case she may use it. The crisis is there, and I keep wondering how it can be of use to me. I know this may seem a very selfish attitude. But it is, after all, a professional approach to the situation. On a personal level, of course, we're all terribly involved in it. But for the writer, I think his position is better as a sideline one, as against an involved one. This is against the feeling of the moment where writers everywhere are becoming more and more committed socially.


On the personal level he refers to, Friel has contributed to what little is being done to enlighten mutual incomprehension. He has persistently urged on the Northern Ireland Arts Council the need for a “National Theatre,” preferably located outside Belfast. In March 1970 he adjudicated a drama festival presented by the four Derry grammar schools, two Catholic and two Protestant. In 1970/71, he arranged and took part in a series of lectures and seminars given by distinguished Irish writers and performers at the University College in Derry—Presbyterian founded, now an appendage of the New University at Coleraine. Elsewhere, but not in Northern Ireland, these activities would not be cause for special comment.

Professionally, Friel still gives precedence to the literary craft and its autonomous ends. Friel does hold that an artist is all the better for a viewpoint, whether it be Communist, Catholic, Civil Rights, or whatever, so long as he can avoid any factional association. He has no desire, in a situation characterized by flux, to be identified with, for example, a traditional Nationalist/Catholic policy line, and was disturbed by the Hume/McAteer electoral alliance in Derry. But Friel quite rightly believes that his opinions, and the very fact of having opinions, place no obligation on him to import them directly into his work. “People keep insisting,” he has said to the present writer,

why don't you write a play about Civil Rights, Biafra, the Bomb, the Arms Trial … the Disappearance of the Small Family Grocer, Smoking and Lung Cancer, etc. etc. And when I explain that it seems to me that such a request implies a confusion of the artist's and the journalist's function I'm told I'm not “of my time.” (May I exclude the Small Family Grocer. He sounds minutely interesting.) In other words I know of no Irish writer who is not passionately engaged in our current problems. But he must maintain a perspective as a writer, and—equally important—he will write about the situation in terms that may not relate even remotely to the squalor of here and now.

Other writers have made a similar point.

Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley and Derek Mahon have all spoken of how the Northern situation may have a kind of subterranean presence in works that ostensibly have nothing to do with it. Mahon recognizes even in some love poems “metaphors for the Northern situation” taken from quite private dilemmas. More particularly, Heaney cites his poem, “The Last Mummer.” It portrays this representative of a dying art parading the suburbs, angry with frustration, and throwing stones at the houses. “I didn't,” Heaney comments, “mean this to be a poem about Northern Ireland, but in some way I think it is” (Boland).

Some such formula accounts for Friel's assimilation to his work of the social and political strain in his background. He is not out to convey a social message, still less to incite political action. “Johnny and Mick” is unusual in allowing that sort of inference. Even there it is, so to speak, the emotional premises, not a political conclusion, that the story states.

“The Potato Gatherers” (SL) is perhaps rather the same. Early on a freezing November morning two young boys set out to help a farmer dig his potatoes. But despite the day off from school—which will be paid for in punishment—and the prospect of spending what they earn, their excitement stales in the bitter cold: “… their bodies shuddered with pain and the tall trees reeled and the hedges rose to the sky.” At the end of the day they are left the one forlornly clinging to his hopes, the other sullen in exhaustion.

The point is not that the story acquires political substance because it is about the children of a poor family. But it unquestionably embodies social comment. It is in the sense of loss, of humble pleasures flawed, so intimately bound in with the images: of the tractor's sound broken off against the cold air and “drumming at the back of [Philly's] eyes,” of the hard clay, encaging landscape, motionless sky—images of constriction and inflexibility, which are an image of one disposition in a society, and of a response to it. The stories uncover other dispositions too, and of a kinder sort. They create a variety of relationships between their fictional world and its counterparts in reality. In their themes and images is the spirit of the place, the quality of experience that led to confrontation in the streets. Friel's stories of the people and the places he knows remark the whole of which this is a part.


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.

In “The Saucer of Larks” (SL), the scene is the story's impulse. Landscape, mood, and human feeling are inseparably mixed. The place is Donegal. Two men from the German War Graves Commission, guided by the local Sergeant and Guard, have come to remove the body of a wartime pilot, buried where he crashed on an Atlantic promontory, to the official graveyard.

It is a spring morning, “with the sea spreading out and away into a warm sky and a high, fresh sun taking winking lights out of the granite-covered countryside.” The grave is in Glennafuiseog, where a hill cuts off the sea breeze and “they heard the larks, not a couple or a dozen or a score, but hundreds of them, all invisible against the blue heat of the sky, an umbrella of music over this tiny world below.” Under this Arcadian colour and tranquility, the land's harsher foundation remains: “obdurate, peaty, rocky earth,” “barren bogland,” “an occasional gnarled tree.”

Something in the scene and their errand precipitates in the Sergeant recognition of an elegiac appropriateness in “being buried out here in the wilds.” Shocking himself, he suggests that they leave the dead airman where he lies, but the Germans go methodically about their business, while “the emptiness was filled again by the larks, slowly at first, then more and more of them until the saucer-valley shimmered with their singing.”

The party returns to the police station. The Sergeant cautions Guard Burke to keep his mouth shut about this aberration and walks to his office, “for a man of his years and shape … with considerable dignity.”

Glennafuiseog combines three or four real places and a particular kind of day. As the story fuses them, they move beyond reality to express what the Sergeant cannot quite find words for—he “was not too sure that he had made himself clear.” But it is not only the description—so economically evocative of heat, of an indomitable solitude, of rest—that works to this end. The Sergeant's lamer words have their own colloquial eloquence. They counterpoint the lyrical descriptive passages, the Germans' matter-of-fact orderliness, Guard Burke's stolidity. The Sergeant is the focus; it is the scene that most fully voices his half-apprehended feelings of loss and sanctuary.

Like the Sergeant, the protagonists of these 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.

In “The Flower of Kiltymore” (GS [The Gold in the Sea]), old Sergeant Burke, having one day neglected his duty more through the fault of others than himself, is saddled with the blame for a local disaster. Oddly, the disgrace gets rid of an emptiness in his recent life. Since the death of his thwarted, scoffing wife he had been ignored by his village tormentors, the “Blue Boys,” a wild set of rapscallions, who played vicious enough tricks on him. Now in his humiliation they hound him again—he has killed “the flower of Kiltymore.”

Their renewed attentions are not unwelcome. They are part of the life ended by his wife's death, the life of courtship, marriage, hopes, childlessness and modest ambitions disappointed, of the Blue Boys' mindless abuse. It might seem a life fitly represented by the lone tree in Burke's garden, “a frail trunk, and agonized leafless branches that leaned away from the barracks … as if they were appealing for comfort.” But on the day of the disaster Sergeant Burke welcomes its renewal of “so many familiar things.” He knows he can endure. His “life had suddenly, happily, slipped back into its old groove.”

The Sergeant is a “failure,” certainly a butt. No one takes him seriously. Yet through all his humiliations, like his exchanges with his gleefully mocking Guard, he keeps within himself a dignity that nothing can violate. The story achieves the difficult transitions from comic to tragic. “Mr. Sing My Heart's Delight,” (SL) with a more purely comic emphasis, exuberantly displays another facet of the will to endure, in circumstances that seem likelier to extinguish it.

The narrator recalls his annual winter visits as a child to his Grandmother's one-room house, deep in Donegal, while his Grandfather worked in Scotland. The story has links with the Rabelaisian tradition of Irish writing. Granny's daughter, the narrator's mother, was not the child of Grandfather. Now, secluded in the wilds by a possessive husband, Granny's prodigal spirit survives in a free but innocent swearing and a boisterous vitality, singing, dancing, running the moor, romancing about the liners that pass the coast: “Lords and Ladies,” she would say. “The men of them handsome and straight as heroes and the women of them in bright silks down to their toes and all of them laughing and dancing and drinking wine and singing.”

The cheap wares brought one day by an Indian packman, whom she christens “Mr. Sing my heart's delight,” stimulate her dreams of exotic lands and people. She gives him food and lodging for the night, and when he leaves he presents her with his ring, “now black, now blood red, now blue, now the colour of sloes in the August sun.” She thinks compassionately of his life on this alien soil, “rocky, barren, uneven, covered by a brown heather that never blooms”; and of her own life too. She is in a way an alien spirit herself, in her extravagant fancies unlike the region. Yet she is also of the place and its stark beauty, like the “wild geese spearing through the icy air high above the ocean.” Her imagination and her generosity are part of it.

It is a complex story, full of images of flight, passage and the home, exile and communion. It is also about experience recalled, the adult now seeing fully what had eluded the child. Many of the stories turn upon reminiscences of childhood, and in a variety of ways. “Among the Ruins” (SL) returns a family for a day to Corradinna, where the father spent his childhood holidays. Tempers fray; the day goes sour, reducing his past to illusion. But finally, after the day's fluidly shifting moods and alliances, his memories are reasserted as in the tender conclusion he recalls his own son's fancies that day, “donging the tower”:

magic and sustenance in the brief, quickly destroyed happiness of their children. The past did have meaning. It was neither reality nor dreams, neither today's patchy oaks nor the great woods of his boyhood. It was simply continuance, life repeating itself and surviving.

Past and present interact here, each endorsing the truth of the other, which it had threatened to deny.

Elsewhere, more like “Mr. Sing,” the past takes shape within a present that makes no real entrance into the story. Such are “The Illusionists” (GS) and “My Father and the Sergeant” (SL). Both narrators look back to a boyhood as the son of the Principal of an insignificant primary school in County Tyrone, the first some miles from Omagh, the second in “Knockenagh.” Though some of the detail does overlap, their histories are distinct.

M. L'Estrange, an itinerant conjurer, makes a yearly visit to the school where Mr. Boyle is Principal. Each visit follows a pattern of oddly capricious emotion, conveyed early in the story by a narrative montage of the habitual events. To the children, L'Estrange is “the most wonderful man in the world.” Boyle is the impresario, genial, enthusiastic, but growing morose and in the end insulting the conjurer, both of them by then half drunk. To Mrs. Boyle, L'Estrange is “that old trickster.” During his performance the class is rapt, the father “relaxed and smooth with content,” L'Estrange seedily elegant, enacting his routine with “soft, sad eyes” and “tired smile.”

The story describes his last visit, when young Boyle had secretly decided to run off as an assistant magician with L'Estrange. In a marvelously comic scene the two men pursue their antiphonal monologues. Each is his own hero in a world where wishing has made it so. L'Estrange has been the darling of cosmopolitan audiences, Boyle's integrity has held him loyal, against a thousand temptations, to his ramshackle school. Around them, mother and son go about the work of the home.

In their conclusive quarrel the two mock each other's self-deceptions. The boy's final disillusionment is to find L'Estrange grandiloquently drunk in the bleak night, lying beside his bicycle, his gimcrack props, his torpid rabbit. The mother comforts her son with memories of their summer pastimes. In her conviction of happiness he recognizes truth. It is the truth of hard knocks, tedious chores, and their easement in living pleasures, against the vexatious dreams of the two illusionists. The story's opening phase formulates the pattern and glances at its eventual disintegration in the second. Its structure precisely reflects the boy's own movement into clearer recognition of the world he really lives in, which does not exclude compassion for the two old losers.

Mr. Hargan, Principal of Knockenagh Elementary School, is both “my father” and “the Sergeant” (his nickname) of the title. His career resembles Mr. Boyle's—early success and then a career in the same deteriorating backwater school, “served by one dry toilet whose stale odour lay heavy on our playground.”

Hargan has hung onto reality more tenaciously than Boyle. Instead of celebrating imaginary triumphs he sets himself to coaching four pupils, among them his son, to win regional scholarships, “troubled by an ambition I never understood until years later.” We never learn the outcome of this, nor is it important. The story's issue is the critical turns in human relationships, not just contrived narrative suspense.

Joe sees his father as two quite distinct people—the kindly, taciturn parent, and the rigid, autocratic “Sergeant.” Though in a way confusing, keeping the two isolated each in his own sphere is a practical working arrangement. Here too, events disrupt the pattern. Hargan has the minor victory of being needed in and answering to a crisis. The pattern is restored, at least in its externals. The school is its drab self, the instruction dry as ever. Hargan is unchanged. But, however briefly, Joe has seen his father and “the Sergeant” as one, and perhaps, in this new perspective, begun the process, consummated “years later,” of understanding him.

This story, unlike the almost claustrophobic “The Illusionists,” places the family situation firmly out in the surrounding life of Knockenagh. For Joe, his father is one concern among a myriad others that the story keeps before us. It does not finish with any neat reckoning of an isolated experience. The reader's strongest impression is of interlocked circumstances working their untidy way to open up fresh views of accepted and familiar associations.

Both these are stories of crisis recollected from childhood, of a moment or a sequence of events that refashioned attitudes and feelings, though acquiring definition only in much later retrospect. In “Foundry House” (SL), “a vague deference to something long ago”—certain childhood relationships—impregnates and influences the present, in which the main action takes place.

Derry City, remotely, furnishes the scene. Outside the town is Victoria Park, a residential area, wooded, stretching from a hillside to the main Derry-Strabane road and the river, in the story “a million momentary flashes of light that danced and died in the vegetation.” On the riverbank stood an attractive little railway station (now a spirit warehouse), which becomes the foundry of the story. It is a place that can be quite evocative of “something long ago.” In a setting like this, Joe Brennan encounters the sadness of old age, separation, and decay.

He has come back with his family to the gate lodge, where his father had lived as an employee, then a pensioner, of Hogan's foundry. Mrs. Hogan of Foundry House remembers Joe from the youth of her children, Declan and Claire, both now in religious orders. Mr. Hogan, whom Joe recalls as “a large, stern-faced man with a long white beard and a heavy step and a walking stick,” is a useful bogeyman for the Brennan children, though he is never seen. In this situation, on an October evening “uneasy with cold breezes,” Mrs. Hogan calls to ask if Joe will bring a tape-recorder to play a message from Claire, who will never come back from her mission in Africa.

At the door of the Hogan house, Joe remembers taking messages there from the foundry in his boyhood. This is his first time to enter. Father Declan, professionally effusive, welcomes him and, when the recorder is installed in the dilapidated breakfast room, brings down his father. He is a great ruin of a man, a “huge, monolithic figure that inched its way across the faded carpet … his face, fleshy, trembling, coloured in dead purple and gray-black … the eyes, wide and staring and quick with the terror of stumbling.”

Claire's recorded message, grotesquely ironic, is addressed to the house she knew, imagining her parents as they were in the now-abandoned drawing room. In her memory they still go about affairs long beyond their powers or interest. Finally she plays an old tune on her violin. Wordless since his entrance, Mr. Hogan, “the veins in his neck dilating, the mouth shaping in preparation for speech,” calls out his daughter's name and collapses in his chair. Having helped put Mr. Hogan to bed, Joe is left alone downstairs and goes home without either farewell or the tape-recorder.

A brief sequel, with Joe back at home, returns to the framework opened at the beginning. It avoids interpretation. We have impersonal stage directions, dialogue, no more. Quizzed by his wife, Joe is unresponsive. Claire's message was “lovely,” and “they loved it”; Father Declan is “a fine man. A fine priest”; Mr. Hogan, though older, “unchanged”; the house “lovely,” “beautiful.” Caressing the newest baby, Joe “crooned into the child's ear, “A great family. A grand family.” He means the Hogans. The reader, undistracted by the stirred-up sediment of memories, is aware of more intricate responses than Joe will utter.

There is a theatrical quality in the story's main scene, with the ritualized family gathering, the disembodied voice of the tape-recorder, the old man's gruesome entrance, and his seizure bringing about the collective exit. These histrionic effects embody the highly charged emotions that flicker through the scene. We are seeing it as it strikes Joe, responsive to his memories and the accumulating tensions of past and present coming together.

Friel is speaking almost entirely through the events. We have only what we see and hear to go by. There is no commentary on what the characters think and feel, and in this way too the mode of presentation has the character of drama. Friel has himself spoken of underwriting as a fault in his work. He means a reluctance to clinch by express comment a motive or a conclusion. “Foundry House” is one of the stories in which the “omniscient author” is wariest of declaring his access to the unspoken.

In a way, the story transplants a familiar tradition in Irish writing, tales of “the Big House,” especially in its decline. The priest in Sean O'Faolain's “A Broken World,” all his life hostile to the planter gentry, feels in their departure almost a bereavement, private and communal: “they in their octagon and we in our lighted cabins, I mean to say, it was two halves of a world.” Even the narrator, impatient of Irish lethargy, cannot “deny to the wintry moment its own truth.” Similarly in “Lord and Master,” also by O'Faolain, the old schoolteacher finally recognizes between himself and Lord Carew, within their conflict, a sympathy of interest. In these two stories the Big House, envied, detested, is yet in its decay an object of regret, a relic of the Anglo-Irish achievement, uneasily detached from and intimate with Irish life. There is perhaps a hint of the relationship in Friel's “Everything Neat and Tidy” (GS), set in County Tyrone, where, although people of substance, the “MacMenamins never had the wealth or the position of Lady Hartnell of Killard.”

But “Foundry House” does not grow out of the long and complex traffic between Gaelic Ireland and Anglo Ireland. The afflictions of its Big House are more personal than social and historical. The Hogans are Northern Catholic bourgeois; Joe Brennan is an artisan. Though their lives are separate, they have a more homogeneous world in common.

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 the story 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 even from this selection 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.

Con, in “The Gold in the Sea” (GS), knows the rough life and meager rewards of a Donegal small farmer/part-time fisherman. Voluble, ebullient, he sets off with his partners, Philly his nephew, and Lispy, on the fishing trip the story describes. The main sequence is antiphonal dialogue, authentic and inventively comic, the idiom unfaked. Con recounts legends of his travels, and of the bullion in the sea under their boat, left when the Boniface was sunk there in 1917. From time to time Philly corrects him, without conviction. Lispy throws in his inconsequential proverbs. They net six fish. Now tired, old-looking, Con admits to the narrator that the gold in the sea, if it was ever there, has long been salvaged. He keeps up the pretense for the sake of Philly and Lispy—“they never got much out of life. Not like me.”

It is as much if not more his own pretense, though not cherished like the travels he so embroiders. Sensing his need for assurance, the narrator affirms Con's eminence as a traveled man. The lies are harmless ones, necessary to Con. They are his release from hard work and poverty. More important, they represent a vigor and an imaginative vitality whose truth he can speak only through his tall tales. Con is not a refugee from facts. At the end, a new story is clearly flowering in his mind. With it, his strength for life is returning, and as he has asserted earlier, “By God, there'll be another day,” and “The fish is there.”

The realities of Con's 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. At the end of “The Diviner” (GS), Nelly Doherty weeps because she has not lived down her first husband's drunken escapades and established “a foothold on respectability.”

Nelly's second husband, apparently “the acme of respectability,” has lived quietly with her for three months. They keep themselves to themselves. Then, before the whole village, he is found drowned in the lake, with two whiskey bottles in his pockets, and the masquerade collapses. The diviner, brought from outside the county, in locating the body also brings its secret to light. The story is not, as many scenes in Philadelphia are, corrosively satirical of village life. It does not lampoon the villagers. All of them act generously; and they see the reason for Nelly's tears—not only because of “twenty-five years of humility and mortification but, more bitter still, tears for the past three months, when appearances had almost won.” Yet, within the conditions of “respectability” imposed by the village, Nelly's “happiness” (keeping up appearances) is not much preferable to her misery.

“The Highwayman and the Saint” (GS), set in Omagh, is more mordant about small-town prudery and sanctimoniousness. Madge Wilson's invalided mother has two interests in life. The first is her reverence for St. Philomena, whose shrine dominates her bedroom. The second is ringing her hand-bell to interrupt the courting on the living-room couch between her daughter and Andy, the narrator. To avoid suspicious silences, Andy recites “The Highwayman,” while Madge throws in occasional snatches of small talk. But the tactic has no great success. The courting is less regular than nightly prayers in Mrs. Wilson's bedroom.

Eventually they marry, but go to live in the Wilson home, not the house Andy has bought. Madge's resentment against her mother mysteriously diminishes. The crisis is Andy's discovery that the Vatican has forbidden devotions to St. Philomena, who may never have existed. He gets drunk and gives the news to Mrs. Wilson. Madge becomes her mother's ally and Mrs. Wilson—“her face was white and sad and holy looking”—selects a new (and secret) saint for her devotions. Andy ends up like the late Mr. Wilson, defeated, spending his leisure sheltered behind the old man's unnecessary binoculars, bird-watching in the tiny garden of the Wilson house.

Some of the comedy is broad and boisterous. Andy accompanies his denunciation of St. Philomena by the fifteenth verse of “The Highwayman,” a kind of secular replacement for the Rosary normally recited in the bedroom. “The family that prays together stays together” becomes for him, “The family that thinks together drinks together.” Friel is devastating in his observation of ready-made devotional platitudes. Here they happen to be Catholic, but they have their dour counterparts in any religion practiced in the North of Ireland. Friel's target is not faith, but a faith whose observance is mechanical, outward, self-righteous.

The one-act play “Losers,” based on the story, makes hilarious use of this lifeless canting in the really hair-raising unctuousness of Mrs. Wilson and her neighbor. But despite the comedy, the events are ultimately depressing, and even more so in the story, where humor, however astringent, has a less conspicuous part. Andy is a victim of the war, Irish style, between the sexes and between the aged and the middle-aged; of the genteel pretensions of an old-maidish religion. It is a situation commonly enough taken up by Irish writers, from Joyce's “The Boarding House” to O'Faolain's “Childybawn” and Brian Moore's The Feast of Lupercal. The subject does not, then, have a peculiarly regional origin. But the place of religion in Friel's writings does have regional implications.

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. As John Cronin has argued (“Ulster's Alarming Novels,” Eire-Ireland [Winter 1969]), 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. The discussion of the stories referred to here, only about a third of the total in the two collections, undoubtedly makes too little of their humor. However, 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 their significance; and the stories' purpose is not only to state the moment but to preserve that indeterminateness. As Bernard feels at the end of “Aunt Maggie, the Strong One” (SL), knowledge “of all he had witnessed could no longer be contained in the intellect alone but was dissolving already and overflowing into the emotions.” The stories too retain within themselves a core of meaning that resists paraphrase.


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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.

Edmund J. Miner (essay date spring 1977)

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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 shareholder in the Abbey Theatre, he has been prominent in the field of contemporary Irish drama; he has also, however, earned an enviable reputation as a writer of short stories, many of which have appeared in The New Yorker. Two collections of short stories, The Saucer of Larks (1956) and The Gold in the Sea (1966) are deeply rooted in his beloved Tyrone as well as in Donegal, where he now lives. The earlier book contains some of Friel's finest and most representative writing, in both the serious and the comic vein; not all the stories are masterpieces, but the collection as a whole is worth reading and a few individual pieces are eminently entertaining. Irish commentators have singled out “Among the Ruins” and “Foundry House” as especially memorable, and these stories serve to illustrate as well as any Brian Friel's pervasive theme of disillusionment, a subject which characterizes both his short fiction and his drama.1

“Among the Ruins” is a brief recounting of a special outing which a young wife organizes to Corradinna in Donegal so that her reluctant husband may revisit his old homestead and afford his two young children the opportunity to see where their father had lived and played at their age. Neither child is actually interested—Peter prefers the seaside to a lot of ruins—but Margo forces the issue and eventually persuades her husband with the argument: “Even if it's only to see if you have lost the feel of the place” (7). Ironically, Joe's enthusiasm increases as the trip progresses, while Margo's diminishes as a result of the children's constant bickering and her husband's obvious relish.

Despite its simplicity, this is not a story for or about children. Brian Friel expects the reader to identify immediately with Joe, who, for a sentimental day, is to relive his own childhood by the remembrance of things past that cling to his old ruined house. The hero of a nostalgic tale is usually solitary so that he may give himself up wholly and undistractedly to his memories. The violation of this canon is what makes “Among the Ruins” different. Joe's wife, his son Peter, and his daughter Mary are painfully present on this pilgrimage and viewing all they see by the mere light of common day in flat images, while Joe, with the double vision of then and now, revels in poignant contrasts or in mystical resemblances not noted by the others. For the day at least Joe alone views the world by stereopticon. Joe and Margo are Walter and Mrs. Mitty but in a minor mode, for Joe's trips into his fantasized past do not span such a vast valley of tears and laughter as do those of the timid little prototypal dreamer. This day is for Joe, however, one of successive disillusionments. True it is that the sight of his old home reminds him of his most vital years: chasing foxes with his dogs to the point of exhaustion, daring his sister to jump with him a veritable Mississippi of a river, rambling through a dense forest, inventorying the treasures of the old barn, glorying in the exhilarating freedom of their hideout in the garden bower. Epic days.

This romantic theme, though, is challenged by Margo's unimaginative scrutiny of facts. Beautiful golden hillocks inhabited by fairies in the moonlight of Joe's sentiment—even his grand mountains with their poetic names, Altanure, Glenmakennif, and Meenalaragan—become mere dungheaps when exposed under the harsh noon sunlight of Margo's inspection. Joe remembers that at that age he was overcome with gales of laughter by the words he and his sister Susan had made up—words like “sligalog” and “skookalook.” But Margo insists upon a law-court reply to her barrister's question: “Susan and you in the bower. Once you got in there together, you laughed your heads off. And I want to know what you laughed at” (13). The “infinite moments” of Joe's childhood are reduced to mere instances of childish silliness under his wife's inquisition: “‘Skookalook.’ What's funny about that?” And later: “Poor silly, simple Joe” (13).

The range of the story may be limited, the mood at times curiously uneven. Even the theme of disillusionment falls occasionally below the threshold of visibility. Competing themes rear their heads now and again to produce a multiplicity which threatens—but only threatens—the unity and strength of the story. Of these competing themes the most interesting may be Proust's—that we do not correctly evaluate nor do we appreciate direct experiences, that it is only in the second-told tale of recollection that we can really understand their import. Hence Joe does not insist upon explanations. When his nostalgic activity renders him oblivious to the fact that Peter has disappeared at departure-time, he finds the boy playing at a rabbit-hole, “donging the tower” he explains. Margo may demand explanations, but Joe knows that the heart of childhood—and the funny-bone—have reasons which the reasoning mind cannot begin to understand. If he did not consciously realize it before, Margo has brought it home to him this very day. “Donging the tower” takes its place, together with “sligalog” and “skookalook,” in the hallowed and unapproachable recesses of the mind of childhood.

It is the same nostalgic comprehension that impels Joe to sympathize with his son on the way home when the boy is reduced to tears first by Mary, then by his mother. Is not Peter Joe himself some years earlier? And when Margo slaps the boy for calling Mary a “liar,” it is significant that the father has not cast the first stone: hasn't he too behaved like that to his own sister? For Joe has learned this day that despite his enthusiastic memories of childhood, the river and the forest have proven to be shockingly small. Even more, he recalls now that he and Susan did not spend all their times laughing in the bower; they had fought, too, and Susan had reported him and brought him many a punishment. Peter and Mary are Joe and Susan to the life. Strangely enough, this somewhat unsuccessful visit to ancient beloved ruins, with all the disillusionment, the squabbling of the children, and his wife's insistent and belittling cross-examination, has furnished Joe with a deeper understanding of his own young boy and girl. Reliving one's own life in one's children, Joe finds, makes for sympathetic insight.

Joe's education, encompassing but a few hours of one day, is best expressed in Brian Friel's two closing paragraphs:

Silence filled the car. Through the mesmerism of motor, fleeing hedges, shadows flying from the headlights, three words swam into Joe's head. ‘Donging the tower.’ What did Peter mean, he wondered dreamily; what game was he playing, donging the tower? He recalled the child's face engrossed, earnest with happiness, as he squatted on the ground by the rabbit hole. A made-up game, Joe supposed, already forgotten. He would ask him in the morning, but Peter would not know. Just out of curiosity, he would ask him, not that it mattered … And then a flutter of excitement stirred in him. Yes, yes, it did matter. Not the words, not the game, but the fact that he had seen his son, on the first good day of summer, busily, intently happy in solitude, donging the tower. The fact that Peter would never remember it was of no importance; it was his own possession now, his own happiness, this knowledge of a child's private joy.

Then, as he turned the car into the road that led to their house, a strange, extravagant thought struck him. He must have had moments of his own like Peter's, alone, back in Corradinna, donging his own towers. And, just as surely, his own father must have stumbled on him, and must have recognized himself in his son. And his father before that, and his before that. Generations of fathers stretching back and back, all finding magic and sustenance in the brief, quickly destroyed happiness of their children. The past did have meaning. It was neither reality nor dreams, neither today's patchy oaks nor the great woods of his boyhood. It was simply continuance, life repeating itself and surviving.


There is a difference, Joe realizes, between matter and spirit. Matter has no future: homes turn to ruins, rivers become trickles, giant forests are reduced to clumps of trees. Disillusionment with material things is of little consequence. What matters is that futurity is in the ensouled child and the continuity of the race.

It is tempting, as admittedly it often is in the case of Irish plays and short stories, to interpret “Foundry House” in terms of the political and religious conflicts which have plagued that unfortunate nation for so many years. For some readers with a traditional sense of what constitutes a short story, “Foundry House” lacks, perhaps, the clash of motive against obstacle, thus offering little suspense or intense interest. As a tableau vivant, it may be more intelligible, but it can be argued that it is scarcely vivant. When submitted on one occasion to an undergraduate English class, the story was rejected as anemic with regard to character, action, and atmosphere. The story does make good sense if viewed as a sociological palimpsest sounding the depths of politics, religion, and general culture by a succession of heavily-weighted symbols. The drama then shifts from the story itself to the reader's competence to read the symbols and judge their truth. Naturally, it would take an Ulsterman's background to prepare one for this difficult task.

The situation of “Foundry House” is simplicity itself. Joe Brennan, a radio and television mechanic, upon his parents' deaths, applies for their house, the gate lodge to Foundry House. Mrs. Hogan, the wife of the wealthy foundry owner, for whom Joe's father had worked for half a century, is quite content to let him move into the place of his birth. Most of the story concerns a family reunion at Foundry House itself, to which Joe Brennan is invited in order to operate a tape recorder so that the Brennans' daughter, a missionary nun in Africa, may participate by means of a tape which she has mailed to her family. Like his namesake in “Among the Ruins,” Joe experiences in the course of the afternoon a shattering of several of his childhood illusions.

In recent years the world's news media have regaled us with tales of the Ulster class struggle between unionist and nationalist, Protestant and Catholic, and the modern equivalents of the big house feudal lord and the peasant fief, the British-supported patron and the native suppliant. Now, “Foundry House” does not exactly symbolize this struggle and its accompanying atrocities, but it does help to define the cultural foundation and social background from which the conflict arises. If Brian Friel had written a story of the strife itself—and even in the fifties today's animosities were bitterly present—the result would have been a slight measure of history or a piece of propaganda for grim viewing by partisan or committed readers. And undoubtedly disillusionment would have been a strong ingredient of such a portrait: do we not find O'Casey's disillusionment with 1916 and its aftermath reflected in the ironies of so many of the characters and situations of his Dublin plays? But by making all the characters of “Foundry House” Catholic, the author has disburdened himself of an ugly and seemingly insoluble reality and has cleared the way for the pure exercise of the story art. Here that art deals only with the common culture of the North, whether for Catholic or Protestant; it presents the tilled field without pursuing the subsequent harvest of weeds and flowers.

The two families represent the polarized classes within Ulster itself. The Hogans are revered still as the inheritors of wealth and power in the county, a form of Catholic Ascendancy, the descendants of conquerors and entrenched greed. They have always owned the factory, the true source of their wealth, have used people like the Brennans for years, and now patronize them. Their home is desolate, except for dying oldsters. But where such Ulster diehards are decadent and dying out, the underling Celtic element, the Brennans, have a family of nine vigorous, fighting offspring. This contrast moves Mrs. Hogan to a regretful—if, indeed, not to a jealous and even insincere—utterance of praise: “I've seen them playing on the avenue. And so … so healthy.” (78) Here she echoes the fear of the decadent unionists, her own house decimated by emigration, palsy, and age.

“Foundry House,” a shockingly inartistic name for a “big house,” lays stress on the feature that distinguishes the North from the South: they are industrial, materialist, eager beavers at doing and making as contrasted with the more artistic dreamers of the South. The title also symbolizes who is possessor of privilege and patronage, who moulds life to his own pattern or, will. The gatekeeping Brennans, tenants at will, are prisoners of Hogan demands. The two families know their distance from each other. When old Mrs. Hogan, in the course of the curious and pathetic reunion at Foundry House, says commandingly, “Quiet, boy,” she reminds Joe Brennan of his place: “Croppies, lie down.”

These are the broad lines of the story's meaning, of its latent conflict, if we tend to regard Irish literature as almost invariably an expression of religious and political differences. When we start interpreting the shading of “Foundry House” from this viewpoint, we touch on the more sacred inhumanities of the Ulsterman, his intransigence, his silences, his taboos, his shibboleths and formulas—all indelibly preserved in mummifying juices; his mechanical ways of thinking, speaking, and acting; his aversion for talk or discussion of an open nature; his solemn taking of himself and his neighbor's rights and property for granted; his ipse dixit dogmatism; his constant fear in the silences that make ambushes for every conspirator; his dearth of spontaneity or modernity, committed as he is to ancient formulas of hate and intolerance.

But “Foundry House,” in addition to its social and political implications, is an illustration of Brian Friel's preoccupation with the theme of life's disillusionments. Joe Brennan, like the hero of “Among the Ruins,” has come home again only to find that his memories of childhood fall short of the reality. He is visibly frightened by the grandeur of the big house; he is even paralyzed into silence by the first visit of Her Eminence, Mrs. Hogan, to his humble gate-house abode, with its nine unruly children. Joe is still living in a past where Foundry House, inhabited by a Heathcliff of a master, accompanied by a fearsome Great Dane, had filled him with awe and dread. As he approaches the house on the day of the reunion, the knocker displays an evil, leering face, reminiscent of Marley's apparition to the unnerved Ebenezer Scrooge. His introduction to his boyhood acquaintance, Declan Hogan, now a Jesuit, is not impressive and becomes a presage of the disillusionments in store for him in the Great Hall itself.

The passage of time has produced a general ugliness, an atmosphere of decay, even a condition of penury in the once proud Foundry House of Joe Brennan's youthful memories. Mrs. Hogan is a pitiful semblance of what she once was; Declan is a nervous, ill-at-ease caricature of a Jesuit; Sister Claire, fat and unlovely in her childhood, is shrill and artificial in her taped message; and more startlingly, Mr. Hogan, the awesome figure of bygone days, is now a stroke victim, unkempt, powerless, and incapable of even the most basic kind of communication:

It took them five minutes to get from the door to the leather armchair beside the fire, and Joe was reminded of a baby being taught to walk. Father Declan came in first, backward, crouching slightly, his eyes on his father's feet, and his arms outstretched and beckoning. ‘Slow-ly. Slow-ly, he said in a hypnotist's voice. ‘Slow-ly. Slow-ly. Then his father appeared. First a stick, then a hand, an arm, the curve of his stomach, then the beard, yellow and untidy, then the whole man. Since his return to the gate lodge, Joe had not thought of Mr. Bernard beyond the fact that he was there. In his mind there was a twenty-year-old image that had never been adjusted, a picture which was so familiar to him that he had long ceased to look at it. But this was not the image, this giant who had grown in height and swollen in girth instead of shrinking, this huge, monolithic figure that inched its way across the faded carpet, one mechanical step after the other, in response to a word from the black, weaving figure before him. Joe looked at his face, fleshy, trembling, coloured in dead purple and grey-black, and at the eyes, wide and staring and quick with the terror of stumbling or of falling or even of missing a syllable of the instructions from the priest. ‘Lift again. Lift it. Lift it. Good. Good. Now down, down. And the right, up and up and up—yes—and now down.’ The old man wore an overcoat streaked down the front with food stains, and the hands, one clutching the head of the stick, the other limp and lifeless by his side, were so big they had no contour. His breathing was a succession of rapid sighs.


Joe Brennan had not been to the Great House for two decades and was ill prepared for the startling transformation. Like Joe in “Among the Ruins,” his homecoming has been fraught with disillusionment and the disquieting realization that in his childhood rivers and forests and mansions were oversize; now they appear undeniably undersize. There is a general ugliness that embraces not only the decaying grandeur of life associated with Foundry House, but also with the building itself. The furnishings now seem hard and decrepit: the ceilings are unwarrantably high, the marble forbiddingly black, the place itself cold and cheerless—a far cry from the crowded but cozy gatehouse with its noise of nine tumbling children and sense of life being lived. But what gives Joe some measure of assurance in his afternoon at Foundry House is his realization that, while time and events have passed the Hogans by, he, an electronic engineer, exercises a mastery in the house that once filled him with awe.

There is one sense in which the story may be viewed as a contrast between mechanism and humanism. The description of the characters deals almost solely with their physical, anatomical, and physiological qualities and motions; as moral beings they are not presented: whether they are human beings at all or the repositories of moral or religious beliefs, there is nothing. When she first induces her husband to write away to apply for the gatehouse, Rita insists on his mentioning their nine children, for ‘Aren't they [the Hogans] supposed to be one of the best Catholic families in the North of Ireland?’ (72) But there is no indication of this fact in Joe's afternoon at Foundry House. Even Father Declan appears more in the guise of a male nurse going through his daily formalities than a religious priest and son possessed of spiritual consolation for his aged parents. Likewise, he is utterly oblivious to the true nature of his sister's missionary work among the African natives and the motives that inspired her to devote her life to such a cause. Joe Brennan himself finds it strange that both Hogan children have turned their backs on the potential wealth of Foundry House and left it as a mausoleum for their incompetent parents.

The Hogans, are, in fact, machines rather than living people. Sister Claire in her taped message notes that the “machines” are in need of parts: “… I hope you have found a good maid at last … “she says to her mother (84), and “… why don't you get yourself a third [dog] … ? “she asks her father, a man unable to rise from his bed without assistance (85). Actually, the tape reveals that Sister Claire does not know a thing about her parents' condition and is not in communication with them or her brother regularly enough to find out. There is a “family reunion” on this bleak Sunday afternoon, mainly to hear Sister Claire's message and presumably digest it, but the discussion of the assembled characters is almost entirely limited to the mechanics of the whole venture. The fact that Sister Claire, instead of writing her parents in pen and ink, has used a taped recording, reduces communication to a problem in mechanics, finding a tape-recorder, locating an expert who can explain it—and even Declan has to turn mechanic and run the machine despite the expert's presence—learning to use the unfamiliar buttons and knobs, and trying to find an electric power plug in a house still dependent mainly on gas. As a communication the message itself becomes completely secondary to the opportunity for a display of a mechanical device; mechanism affords Sister Claire a chance to use her violin—not for the beauty of the music which is tinny and often out of tune—but to reveal her acquaintance with the latest instrument for communication. As it turns out, Sister Claire is largely forgotten in a “reunion” that deals unconscionably with knobs, volume, power plugs, electricity, and a toneless violin, as well as a quality of voice which Joe Brennan himself mentally likens to “a teacher reading a story to a class of infants, making her voice go up and down in pretended interest” (84). Admittedly, in these times when more and more people are using tapes to transmit family messages, it may seem harsh to denigrate Sister Claire's use of a tape, but the circumstance does appear to indicate her lack of knowledge of her parents' physical condition and the unavailability of modern contrivances at Foundry House. Nevertheless, the use of the taped message does produce one very dramatic moment: it puts a sudden end to the family reunion. At the height of the violin concert, the partially paralyzed old man realizes that it is his daughter on the tape, something that a written letter could probably not have accomplished:

… Then, even as Joe watched, he suddenly levered himself upright in the chair, his face pulsating with uncontrollable emotion, the veins in his neck dilating, the mouth shaping in preparation for speech. He leaned forward, half pointing toward the recorder with one huge hand.


The terrible cry—hoarse, breathy, almost lost in his asthmatic snortings—released Father Declan and Mrs. Hogan from their concentration on the tape. They ran to him as he fell back into the chair.


An hour later, without seeing any of his hosts again, Joe Brennan switches off the machine and leaves Foundry House for the last time. His greatest disillusionment of the day has not been merely the onset of age and palsy, but the reduction of Foundry House itself as the grand old mansion of his childhood. It has been a shock to learn that the drawing room is used no longer—“too large and too expensive to heat” (78)—that the parents occupy now only the breakfast room, that they subsist on snacks, like milk and bananas, that the house is too cold for human habitation, and that the grounds are shamefully neglected. Joe Brennan, too, has spent an afternoon “among the ruins” and returns home to his inquisitive, sharp-tongued wife a soberer man. But Joe keeps his illusions to himself; he has been fortunate to have visited the past in solitary. During his wife's insistent questioning, he remains loyal to his childhood memories: the house inside is “very nice”, Mr. Bernard is “the same as ever. Older, of course, but the same Mr. Bernard”, Father Declan is “a fine man. A fine priest. Yes, very fine”, “The tape was lovely. … They loved it, loved it. It was a lovely recording”, “The breakfast room? Oh, lovely, lovely. … Glass handle on the door and a beautiful carpet and beautiful pictures … everything. Just lovely.” (87-88):

‘So that's Foundry House,’ said Rita, knowing that she was going to hear no gossipy details.

‘That's Foundry House,’ Joe echoed ‘The same as ever—no different.’

She put out her cigarette and stuck the butt behind her ear.

‘They're a great family, Rita,’ he said ‘A great, grand family.’


And with unconscious irony Rita casually agrees with her husband's assessment.

In the stories of these two homecomings with their accompanying disillusionments—and note that neither character plans nor organizes his return: he is anything but an active agent—there is no doubt that the protagonist of “Among the Ruins” attains a deeper awareness and insight as the reward of his experience. At least his realization of each generation's variations on “donging the tower” presumably is going to have an appreciable effect upon his future relationships with his growing children. His discovery that the past does have meaning—“… simply continuance, life repeating itself and surviving” (18)—is in stark contrast to Joe Brennan's disheartening but only partially perceived notions of the mortality of life and the ephemeral nature of bricks and mortar and even prestigious wealth. But the main difference between the two disillusioned individuals is that Joe Brennan, much more than his counterpart, must fight to retain his childhood illusions in order to sustain himself. Neither man, of course, has a sympathetic or understanding wife: their husbands' boyhoods, in the final analysis, provide both women with some measure of amused contempt. What Joe has learned at Corradinna he will probably one day share with his children; certainly, it is beyond Margo's comprehension. Joe Brennan is more fortunate; if his nine unruly children fail to share his boyish awe of the Hogans in Foundry House, at least he is astute enough to conceal his disillusionments from his shrewish wife and at the same time honor his family's half-century of loyalty to the Hogan clan. Perhaps the saddest disillusionment and irony in both stories is Brian Friel's acute grasp of the gulf that exists between both pairs of husbands and wives and their inability to sit together at the close of the day to establish a bond of understanding of a pathetically shared experience that is common to so much of humanity.


  1. Brian Friel, The Saucer of Larks: Stories of Ireland (London: Arrow Books Ltd., 1969). All quotations will be from this edition.

Principal Works

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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

Seamus Deane (essay date 1979)

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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 matter how sharply it may be observed in its conformity to the powers of Church or class, has a moral code that belongs elsewhere. The narrowness of the social life is bitter, but the complexity of the moral life within is generous. Yet Brian Friel does not counterpose the two for the sake of contrast. Instead, he illustrates their interdependence, eliciting from us the recognition that the formal structures of social life are what we live by, not what we live for. Yet what we live for is clarified only by the insufficiency of what we live by. This may be no more than glimpsed in these stories; it receives a more sustained and indeed harsher treatment in the author's plays. But the co-existence of two realms, one clearly etched and social, the other amorphous and imaginative, which constitute together the one and the only world is insistently asserted. The separation of these realms, often threatened by sudden disaster, farce or illumination, is never permitted in the stories. In the plays, especially the more recent, it is enforced. But here, the author's insistence on the actuality of event and on the reality of imagination is quite impartial. His linguistic diplomacy is directed towards gaining recognition for both sides. This must be conceded by the reader when it is achieved by the writer.

The concession can only be willingly made when the language has a suasion that disguises its coercive aim, when the modesty of tone and approach is such that we feel persuaded we have discovered what we have just been shown. The syntax and vocabulary of these stories present no apparent problems. Brian Friel is, technically speaking, a traditional writer. The dislocations and the nuanced egoism of many modern texts are sternly avoided, even rejected, here. Yet each paragraph has the tension of writing that demands unremitting care from the reader. Nothing wilful, nothing willed, the workaday words, only slightly coloured by figure or weighted by pronounced rhythm, manage to be so informative, so quickly and easily blended into a narrative medium that we are at first aware only of the story, not the teller. Take, for example, the following passage from the opening paragraph of “The Widowhood System”:

The very day his mother was buried, Harry Quinn set about converting the two attic rooms, from which she had ruled the house for the last nineteen years of her impossible dotage, into a model pigeon loft, so that he could transfer his precious racing birds from the cold, corrugated-iron structure in the back garden. The house, at 16 Distillery Lane, in chaotic condition, already consisted of Harry's ramshackle grocery shop on the ground floor and the flat of Handme Levy, a tailor, on the second.

The language is given over to event. The circumstantial detail, none of it irrelevant, creates both intimacy and a sense of relaxation between reader and author. The latter's personality is never foregrounded, not even in those stories told in the first person. ‘Writing,’ said Freud, ‘is the record of an absent person.’ Few writers manage to be intimate and yet absent to the degree that Brian Friel does. Alienation of the teller from the tale for the sake of the telling, this is his style. Such a style gives greater prominence to tone than to trope or figure. The most persistently identifiable tone in these stories is that of gossip and reminiscence, a peculiar blend of circumstantiality and nostalgia perfectly appropriate to a form in which there is an exact and welcome relationship already established between the teller and the listener, the author and the reader.

The prominence of the short story in modern Irish writing since Moore and Joyce has not been an entirely unmixed blessing. Yet at its best this form, more than any other, acknowledges and even exploits the existence of an audience. Although there are many radical differences between a folk-tale and a short story (most of them described by Walter Benjamin in his essay on Leskov) they at least share the conviction that the audience and the teller have a common cultural identity. In Ireland, this is intensified by the further appeal to a regional familiarity, recognisable in Joyce's evocation of Dublin, O'Connor's of Cork, and Friel's of Donegal-Derry. The tone subsequently produced has a great charm for the reader, since it allows him entry to the story on the ground of an assumed common knowledge and experience. Such a tone defines the distance between writer and reader by the pretence of abolishing it. Listen, for example, to the opening of “Ginger Hero”:

At the time I'm thinking about, the year Billy Brogan and I bought our own fighting-cock and matched him against the best birds in Ireland, you would never have suspected that Annie and Min were sisters. Ten years earlier, when Billy married Annie and I married Min, they were as alike as two peas, although, strangely enough, it was Min who was the softer of the two then.

The phrases ‘At the time I'm thinking about,’ ‘you would never have suspected’ and ‘strangely enough’ (with its nicely proleptic assumption) do not merely presume an audience. They also create one that is flatteringly granted the knowingness of the narrator who is observing his past self and history. The skill of the writing is such that we are eased into a world that is actually much stranger than it initially seems. Because of his manipulation of tone, because of the normative detail of his descriptions the author retards or defers our recognition of its oddity. Such a deferment is quite in keeping, for most of the stories in this selection are concerned with the ways in which people defer the vital existence for the neurotic or the joyless one. Life in these towns and villages is lived vicariously. The illusions of gold in the sea, of champion racing-pigeons or fighting cocks, of ultimate success or respectability do not simply disappear when their surrogate quality is acknowledged. Instead, they seem to exemplify the necessity of illusion in a society which so severely distorts the psychic life, most especially in its sexual aspect. We are not reduced by this to the banal observation that Irish social life is limited, hamstrung by convention and authority. Brian Friel's people live in a state of permanent and alert disappointment. What they are is never fulfilled by what they do. Yet the very discrepancy from which they suffer sharpens their sense of what they are. Because the society is defective their need for imaginative compensation is fostered and still it is not a blind but a conscious use of compensation. In these stories, Brian Friel explores that passage in modern Irish experience which has produced a great deal of our most memorable literature. It is the passage from a declining communal life to one in which the cult of the individual flourishes. The cult of the individual does not, paradoxically, lead to personal fulfilment. With its emphasis on internal freedom and its repudiation of the absorptive effects of a settled community, it most often makes a virtue of alienation and a fetish of integrity. This is the world of Moore and Joyce. Its preoccupations manifest themselves in a conscious experimentalism of technique and an almost ideological aggression towards the shabby Irish community. But another Ireland remained, its communal sense imperfect, but still intact. Synge explored it in drama, Mary Lavin, Sean O'Faolain, Frank O'Connor and Brian Friel explored it in the short story. In it, the failure to wholly be oneself is seen differently. It is not simply the place's fault or the individual's. It is a failure in the transaction between individual and society. It is one in which the awareness of individual distance from social intimacy has been born but in which it has not reached an extreme degree of dislocation. The strained connections of this tenderly understood relationship are probably best exemplified here in the title story.

The catastrophe which befell Nellie Doherty in her long struggle for respectability gives the community of the village of Drumeen an opportunity to behave with impeccable sympathy and also in accordance with the tacit assumptions of class and caste distinction. In such a society to become respectable is to attain selfhood. Vertically imposed upon the horizontals of class is the system of authority officially represented by the priest and unofficially by the diviner. It is a form of authority which does not derive from class although it operates within and has effects upon the class system. After science (the divers from the British naval base), and religion (Father Curran with his rosaries) and society (the organised efforts of the professional classes) have all failed, the diviner's magic takes over. Authority in its most basic form grows out of a sense of mystery but in its more quotidian form out of an awareness of status. The two aspects are epitomised in Nellie herself, who is devoted to status, and her drunken husband, whose mysterious past and unexplained drunkenness belong to the same world as the diviner—socially shabby yet indicative of forces beyond the merely social. The account of the dredging for the body, the swathes of light and darkness through which it is conducted, the sympathetic behaviour of the various groups which make up the community, is a fine example of Brian Friel's tact. The search for the body is an exploration of the community itself and of the individual's relation to it. It has the force of analysis but the tenor of description. It does not enunciate a moral, yet a morality is implied, one which colours the conduct of all concerned, bearing witness to the fact that the differences between individuals are not so pronounced as to deprive the community of a unified temperament. In this story, individuality is shown to be a social achievement; society is shown to be the home of individuality. Yet it is also a story in which the attempt to achieve selfhood fails and in which society's compensatory gesture of sympathy is not quite enough. In the end, only Nellie and the diviner are the outsiders. The crisis of the night has passed and the community's weakness is as manifest as her vulnerability. In this instance, Brian Friel has written a story which gains in significance as our historical retrospect upon it lengthens.

Since he is best known as a dramatist, it is only just that we should also give especial notice here to “Foundry House,” the story on which the play Aristocrats is obviously based. In the story, Joe Brennan refuses to surrender his ideal childhood vision of the Hogans—‘A great family. A grand family’. Between the squalor of his own existence and the remembered splendour of theirs he has created a contrast which is both illusory and necessary. His imagination needs to believe in an alternative existence and thus the actual decrepitude of the Hogans cannot be admitted or articulated by him. It is a fine story, in which the only true aristocrat is the imagination. In the play, however, the illusions are broken and given up. Failure and collapse are publicly articulated after the catastrophic death of Justice O'Donnell. The disarray, emotional and financial, of his family allow no protection to myths or fantasies of the sort cherished by Casimir in Aristocrats. The imagery and the enactment on stage of speech stifled, speech electronically reproduced, speech rupturing silence (as in the case of Uncle George), demonstrate clearly how far Brian Friel the dramatist has moved beyond the world of Brian Friel the short-story writer. For in this and in other plays (Living Quarters and The Freedom of the City prominent among them) the relationship between community, familial and social, and the individual, alienated and stricken, has finally crumbled. Interaction between the two leads only to mutual destruction. In so far as a society depends upon the alliance between status and responsibility, it has become entirely defunct in the Ballybeg of Justice O'Donnell and in the Derry of British Law and Order. The friction between individual and group, between the demand for internal freedom and the system of embodied values is now intolerable. Here, in the development from stories to plays, Brian Friel's work registers a characteristic and irreversible development in modern Ireland.

The last sentence in “The Saucer of Larks” gives a pointer to the kind of morality with which these stories are suffused. The sergeant, somewhat embarrassed at having resisted the blank efficiency of the Germans who had come over to take away the remains of the German airman, turns away from the mock innocence of Guard Burke:

For a man of his years and shape, he carried himself with considerable dignity.

‘Dignity’ is the word to fasten upon here. However relentless Brian Friel may be in his exposure of cowardice or illusion, he never forsakes the notion that human need, however artificially expressed, is rooted in the natural inclination towards dignity. To recognise the squalor and insufficiency of one's life by the creation of an alternative fiction is itself an expression of dignity, not simply a flight from reality. In these stories, moral qualities are the final reality. Circumstance may determine human choice in one respect, but choice governs the role of circumstance in another. The resource to go on living in the light of convictions that are too deeply instinctive to be fully articulated in speech and can only be partially articulated in action is denied to none of his people. They have to assume responsibility even as they lose hope, like Johnny in “Everything Neat and Tidy,” a story that would deserve inclusion on the strength of its final sentence alone:

Chilled by this sudden personal disaster, he drove faster and faster, as if he could escape the moment when he would take up the lonely burden of recollections that the dead had fled from and the living had forgotten.

The nostalgic cadence of the sentence does not quite disguise the tonic effect of that moment when Johnny discovers he has to emerge from the world of behavioural role-playing into the world of adult conduct.

Although it is probably truer of Brian Friel's plays, it also illuminates something about the stories to say that they situate themselves upon a moment of crisis. The danger here is that the crisis may seem voulu, not quite congruent with the observed situation. However, what could be misunderstood as a taste for a melodramatic closure, seems to me something quite different. Even the quietest story here, “The Potato Gatherers,” shows the world to be a much harsher place than hope or fantasy could ever wish it. The brutal fact of money is more prominent here than in most of the others; but it is an undeniable pressure. More limiting than religion, more pressing than class distinction, work is something which the people in these stories attempt to convert into vocation or into a preliminary to the real life. This is, perhaps, the greatest seduction of all. The crisis in these stories and plays is brought about by the failure of work, the failure of long and unremitting effort to achieve a desired end. The crisis is not an exaggeration unless we allow to these stories what Adorno allowed to psycho-analysis when he said: ‘In psycho-analysis nothing is true except the exaggerations.’ Surely the decline of a traditional community, the assumption of a lonely individual burden, is mirrored most clearly in the disjunction between work and living? As Skinner in “The Freedom of the City” shows us, only the unemployed escape that dilemma, although they do so by exchanging it for another. The teachers and policemen, the shopkeepers and widows, the unemployed with their hobbies who populate these stories belong to a period of economic decline and exposure from which they inevitably receive psychological wounds. Perhaps their tragedy is that they feel these wounds as manifestations of their own personal incompetence; and perhaps on that account the illusions they breed are necessary to them.

So the enduring quality of these stories has nothing to do with an isolated moral quality, like dignity; nor has it to do with a general social decline and dilapidation. The quality resides in the tact and sympathy with which the interaction of these things is explored. It is a world of discriminations, not of decisions. When the narrator in “The Gold in the Sea” realises that Con, the creator of the fantasy, was asking him ‘for something more important than money’ we need not be at pains to decide what that something is. We see it as in a photographic negative, fully registered. It is the obverse of what hard, relentless work, old age and the need for money mean. It exists, as do they. To ratify its existence with such power is characteristic of Brian Friel's achievement. Con has given form to his desire and to that of the reader of his story. The actual has become real. This story and its companions enact that rare transmutation.

Ulf Dantanus (essay date 1985)

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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 would work on individual human beings exposed to it. The physical landscape itself provides the first fundamental (some people would say the most fundamental) element in the formation of the mental landscape of a locality. It is only, however, when this inanimate nature is activated by the existence of human nature that historical, intellectual, cultural, racial, social, economic, and religious factors begin their play. And even so, these circumstances exist, so to speak, in abeyance, until they are given expression by some witness who has experienced them. The result is a creative and highly individual interplay between what is expressed and the individual who expresses. Therefore, literature deals with people in more than one sense. The characters in a work of fiction are an expression not only of a particular place but also of a particular imagination. In this sense the mental landscape of a place becomes the literary landscape of the writer. The example of Synge might again be worth mentioning. He found his material and characters in the Aran Islands and in the mountains and glens of Wicklow. But, as Corkery has remarked, he came there, not naturally as one of the native inhabitants, but carrying with him the conditioning of an alien culture and, more importantly, his own personality. It was this clash or interplay of one with the other that produced Synge's characteristic genius. For Friel, the West or North-west of Ireland was nothing like the discovery that the Aran Islands were to Synge. The nature of the interplay between place and writer was different in Friel's case. His literary landscape therefore looks different from that of Synge. Synge immersed himself as much as possible in the daily life of the natives of the Aran Islands while still remaining an outsider. He dealt in his prose and plays directly with these people, trying to describe them as they appeared to him. They are the farmers, fishermen, and tinkers that he had actually met on his travels. Friel's contact with his fictional habitat is at once more natural and close and yet one step removed. In the stories set in Omagh and County Tyrone there is a stable background full of autobiographical detail with the teacher/father frequently being in the narrative focus. In stories set in Donegal Friel's description is more indirect, incorporating in the fiction an element of strangeness, a visitor or newcomer to Donegal, that Synge cut out, containing in himself this distancing effect. In most of the Donegal stories there is some sort of intrusion into the community, either in the shape of human beings, the young boy in “A Man's World”, the German officials in “The Saucer of Larks”, the Indian packman in “Mr. Sing My Heart's Delight”, the diviner in “The Diviner”, the newcomer in “The Skelper” and the holidaying fishermen in “The Gold in the Sea” and “The Wee Lake Beyond”, or in the shape of an inanimate object like the gramophone in “Kelly's Hall”. This intrusion sets up a contrast and reveals the basic qualities of the landscape described.

In order that we may get a clearer idea of the exact nature of Friel's literary landscape we must first establish for ourselves some general view of the mental landscape of the region Friel took as his fictional habitat, and here, in their descriptions of the West of Ireland (or rural Ireland) as opposed to the East of Ireland (or urban Dublin), both writers describe, in some important respects, the same mental landscape but at different times. The principal characteristics of this community are the same as those of any pre-industrial society: traditional, rural, homogeneous, with strong communal interests, and where the dependence on the land was almost total, its population existing in close contact with nature, and where spiritual values were expressed in a need for religion. The Industrial Revolution, of course, changed all that. The post-industrial society is associated with strongly disparate values: modern, urban, secular, heterogeneous, individual, industrial, materialistic, a society characterized by flux rather than stability. But in Ireland, superimposed on these developments, there are further complications and divisions, with mainly racial and religious overtones. The simple opposition of Irish (or Gaelic) and English hides a wealth of underlying and contrasting values. It is true, of course, that England went through the normal phases of pre- to post-industrial society. The fundamental and tragic complication for Ireland has been the confusion about “the national question.” In his preface to John Bull's Other Island Shaw observed that: “A healthy nation is as unconscious of its nationality as a healthy man of his bones.”1 In Ireland the broken bones have not been allowed to heal. In Ireland, furthermore, the loss of the traditional Gaelic community was not the simple outcome of the Industrial Revolution. The whole process was aggravated and complicated in its early stages by the fact that it was officially engineered by the English Government.

The basic structure and values of rural Ireland and the tremendous changes that have taken place, the confrontation between the old order and the slow infiltration of modern 20th century urban civilisation play a significant part in Friel's literary landscape. The impact of this transformation receives a comic treatment in an early story, “Kelly's Hall”, where the coming of the first gramophone to Beannafreaghan in Co. Donegal suggests the initial onslaught of modern times. The machine comes, significantly, from Dublin, where it was picked up by the narrator's grandfather, Clarence Parnell Kelly. The attraction of this novelty is at first enormous, and despite some preliminary opposition from the Church in the guise of the Canon and the narrator's grandmother—the people had “given themselves over completely to the devil”—there is a distinct prospect of success.2 “Concerts” are organised, and the people who come to listen to the new invention sense that they are “pioneers, innovators, the first witnesses of a new era.”3 In the early stages the concerts were free, but the organisers soon realise the financial rewards open to them. The Canon lends his support (the roof of the parish hall needed mending) and large audiences are tempted from the surrounding areas. But it all goes terribly wrong. Neither the community nor the Canon can control the situation, and when the gramophone cannot achieve the expected feat of producing the popular “Poor Blind Boy” himself, the meeting breaks up in chaos. Afterwards, with the gramophone destroyed and the records broken, everyone involved in the venture realises their mistake. “‘Sure hadn't we far better fun the way it was,’ Maggie Square is supposed to have said to him [the Canon].”4 The gramophone and records, insignia of modernity, cannot immediately be accommodated into the settled pattern of life in Beannafreaghan. They cause havoc, not only to practical life, but also in the imagination of the simple people of the West. They are set out to become an addition and enrichment to life there, but the West is not quite ready for these modern luxuries. The story is told with the benefit of hindsight, from a modern point of view, and at a time when the gramophone would cause little fuss. The suggestion is not so much that the process has been going on for some considerable time, but that it has been (or is) changing traditional rural Irish conditions and values. The emphasis of the story is on the comic possibilities of the situation described. Any suggestion of nostalgia for the innocence of a lost paradise would be extrinsic to the purpose of the story, but it is nevertheless there. The same inability to deal with mechanical modernity is symbolised by “the gargling meter” in “Downstairs No Upstairs”.5 In this comic and lighthearted story “the limiter system” disrupts the life of the narrator's family. For a fixed amount of money a fixed amount of electricity was channelled into the house. If too much voltage was taken out the meter started gargling, and if nothing was done (one bulb has to be turned off before another is turned on) the whole house goes black. As expected, the worst happens and a visiting Inspector of Schools falls downstairs and fractures his kneecap. This put paid to the father/teacher's hope of promotion and forces the family to switch to “the silent, sneaky extravagance of the regular system.”6 The new system changes family habits and makes life in general much easier but the narrator finds that the “whole thing made me permanently suspicious of progress and efficiency.”7 At the end of the story, no doubt with a humorous intent, he sums up his experience:

I often think I would barter all—television, refrigerator, washing machine, tape recorder, and the other electric luxuries that have invaded our house—for the pleasant, dangerous gargle of the old limiter and for the family concord with which we fought him. And certainly I would trade them all for that honest £1/10/0 bill that used to come every quarter.8

Here, any hint of a serious conclusion is completely reversed in the final sentence. To deduce anything at all from these and other comic stories regarding the emotional leanings of the imagination behind them would be extremely hazardous. It seems to me, however, that there are certain qualities represented in the two stories discussed so far that indicate a creative sensibility that is at least prepared to attempt a more serious treatment of the problem of the past, and in particular, the Irish past. The repeated mention of traditional and distinctly nonmodern aspects of this question versus new and modern ones would point to this. The reference in the second story to the family and “the family concord” may be more significant than the mood of the story suggests. In its entirety Friel's work has always concerned itself with the family as one of the binding forces of society. In his Irish context it is part of the chain that unites concepts like ‘roots’ and ‘place’, which together originate ‘community’, and which in turn gives rise to societal and communal values like ‘home’ and ‘family’.

The expression of “the old order” is perhaps at its strongest and most consistent in “Mr. Sing My Heart's Delight”. The setting is solidly West of Ireland, and its isolation is established in the first sentence of the story. “On the first day of every new year, I made the forty-five-mile journey by train, mail car, and foot across County Donegal to my granny's house which sat at the top of a cliff above the raging Atlantic at the very end of the parish of Mullaghduff” (p. 58). This, no doubt, is the sort of place where you would be likely to find at least some vestiges of Gaelic civilisation. The barren desolation of the area is stressed by Friel and the precariousness of existence unavoidably felt. Again, Friel's technique of using the narrative point of view of grandson and grandmother establishes the time-scheme for the thematic development of the story and grants the reader the awareness of witnessing the remnants of a passing culture at play. The grandfather has had to accept economic reality and has joined thousands of other seasonal labourers in Scotland “to earn enough money to tide them over the rest of the year” (p. 58). The cottage is the traditional one—the window, the open door and the fire providing the only light—sparsely equipped and furnished. Grandmother was illiterate and a Gaelic speaker. “A constant source of fun was Granny's English. Gaelic was her first tongue and she never felt at ease in English which she shouted and spat out as if it were getting in her way” (p. 60).9 Her love of story-telling and delight in verbal exaggeration, “Christ, it's a calf I have under my foot and not a fluke at all!” (p. 61), are a vital part of her personality. The Irish-Gaelic atmosphere is further developed when exposed by the visit to the cottage of an Indian packman peddling a variety of “gaudy knick-knacks” (p. 62). His wares, like the simple and crude objects of beauty on the mantelpiece, engage grandmother's energetic imagination in an effort to counteract the bleak surroundings of the place. This mental compensation for material dearth and hardship frequently occurs in Irish literature, and I shall examine later the way that Friel handles it. In “Mr. Sing My Heart's Delight” the real insight of the story must arise in the reader himself. The implicit comparison between the place where the events of the story take place and the background of the visitor from the Punjab nicely suggests individual attitudes to one's own place. The packman first tries to convey to the grandmother the essential poverty of his own country. “Very warm. Very warm and very poor” (p. 68). But her idea of his place does not admit the reality of poverty, and it becomes “the Garden of Eden”. It is necessary to quote at some length here, not only to describe the way the grandmother transposes her own fantasies to the Indian background, but more importantly to suggest Friel's manner of using counterpoint to relate directly the two experiences.

‘And the women, strolling about in the sun under the orange trees and the sun taking lights out of their hair and the gallant men raising their feathered hats to them and stepping off the road to let them pass … in the sun … in the Punjab … in the Garden of Eden …’ She was away from us as she spoke, leaving us in the drafty, flagged-floor kitchen, listening to the wind ripping up the ocean below us and trying the weaker parts of the thatched roof. The packman's eyes were closed and his head nodded.

(p. 68)

The real insight of the story, it seems to me, lies in the suggested extension of the packman's reactions. Far away from his own country he seems to be prepared to forget the reality in favour of a more sentimental and nostalgic memory. Here, and elsewhere, Friel's characters sense the pull of the home-land or their own place. This attachment is difficult to define, it is emotional rather than intellectual, and it is difficult if not impossible to escape from it. In “Aunt Maggie, the Strong One”, the protagonist is taken from her home in Donegal to an old people's home in Dublin. As she is leaving the house where she had lived for over seventy years, she tries to shake off the emotional attachment. “‘Coming, Bernard. Coming.’ Then she laughed out. ‘Damn it all anyhow! What is it but bricks and mortar!’” (p. 187) In reality, though, Aunt Maggie goes to the city to die. She soon experiences the loss of dignity and independence that comes as a result of the move, and the inappropriateness of the name ‘home’ as applied to the Refuge becomes all too evident. In “Aunt Maggie, the Strong One” the East-West dichotomy forms an integral part of the story's thematic concerns without assuming total control. The central incident comes instead to rest with the narrator, and it happens on a purely individual level with no direct East-West relevance. This is true of many of the other stories as well. In some of them it is just mentioned briefly, in others it is only understood. But it always expresses a fundamental presence in the stories, an indispensable part of the background. Friel often uses a young narrator to suggest the difficult initiation into adult life of an innocent and immature child. The same technique is used to great advantage in a story which deals also with the possibility of the loss in young people of an awareness and knowledge of local culture and lore. After much fear and trepidation the young boy in “My True Kinsman” is ‘caught’ by the terrible grandfather. For years the boy's mother, “the eldest of a cautious, well-to-do family from County Louth,” has been warning her children about the depravity of her husband's father, “Aw, the dirty thing! The dirty thing!” (p. 113) The old man took a second wife when he was nearly seventy years old, “this time a flighty woman of forty-five from the village of Mullaghduff” (p. 113), and when she died “he took to the wild living” (p. 113). The puritanically inclined sensibilities of the narrator's mother are strongly offended and she takes every care to make sure the children will not meet the old man. On one occasion, however, without the protection of his mother who is out of action as a result of a fall from a ladder, the young boy has to venture into the village for some iodine. As expected, the grandfather descends on him. “This is an occasion! An unescorted Burke roaming the big, bad world all alone!” (p. 117) After the initial fear, the pent-up fascination for the old man felt by the grandchildren is soon richly rewarded. The boy is treated to a historical tour of the village. The exact verisimilitude of the account may leave much to be desired but to the young boy grandfather “spoke like a grand judge with wonderful words flowing out of him and he made the one main street that was Mullaghduff into the most romantic place in the whole of Ireland” (p. 118). There is an imaginative quality about grandfather's sense of history, but the more outrageous inventions are always balanced by and anchored in elements of recognisable and true events and names of Irish history. In between “Cromwell's troops,” “The Druid temple” and “Cathair Mor, King of Leinster,” there is “the silver river whose singing could be heard on Midsummer night only” and “a calf that had been born with two heads (one had been removed the week before we saw it)” (p. 119). In one sentence the reality of that spectre of Irish history, emigration, is hinted at, and yet fantastically exploded. “And we went to the harbour and looked across the Atlantic at New York where a hundred million lights burned day and night and where volcanoes threw whole streets sky high” (p. 119). The suggestion that the boy had been introduced to a previously unknown culture in which legend and the romantic imagination blend without restraint with the true facts of history, is pointedly brought out in his attitude to his mother. “I had forgotten completely about my mother. Indeed, had Grandfather kept on talking, I might never have remembered her” (p. 119). Later the boy subconsciously pays tribute to the experience bequeathed him by the grandfather. When the old man is refused “tick” in a public house the boy hands over the ten-shilling note intended for the iodine, thus cementing his relationship with previous generations. The contrast between mother and grandfather also incorporates an element of religious differences. “One other place I forgot,” said grandfather after the tour. “The chapel. But I think you have been there once or twice before” (p. 119). There is no place in grandfather's sense of his own background and locality for the kind of obsequious and puritanical devotion exhibited by the boy's mother. His own religion would be closer to that of the pagan pre-Christian Celtic population of Ireland. When they stood on the ground where the Druid temple had been, he “got down on his knees on the ground to demonstrate how those holy men worshipped the sun” (p. 119). The day's experience had liberated the young boy from the restraints of a dull, formal, unimaginative and begrudging existence, and the temptation of the romantic Irish past has become a reality. At the end of the story he can return home without fear of facing the mother, and in the final sentence “Grandfather” becomes synonymous with various aspects of Corkery's ‘hidden Ireland’. Walking home in the rain, protected by the old man's jacket, he feels safe in his new awareness.

And then, as I ambled along, I became aware again of the smell, the smell of Grandfather. It filled my cavern and floated around my nose and eyes. I raised my arm and smelt it. Now my arm was permeated with it and my chest and my whole body. The smell was through me and all about me. And I knew that as long as it lasted, I would have the courage to meet my mother and tell her the terrible news—that I had no iodine and no money and that Grandfather had got me.

(p. 121)

But Friel is no innocent believer in the virtues of ‘Irish Ireland’. In his work he has always been interested in the application and manifestations of these ideas, especially in their modern forms, and they were to receive their own mythic treatment in Translations (1980). There are no simple solutions or conclusions in Friel's work. Each statement automatically permits its own opposite. (As we shall see, Translations as a play was qualified by The Communication Cord two years later.) In the short stories, however, the attitude seems to be pitched in favour of a more romantic view of the past. Its attractions are obvious in “My True Kinsman”, but the reader must also be prepared to look critically at the proffered alternative, to see both the bleak reality of poverty and hardship, and the dangers of unbridled fantasy.

In another story, “The Saucer of Larks”, the East-West dichotomy is expressed in similar and different terms. The setting, in its wild, dramatic beauty, resembles that of “Mr. Sing My Heart's Delight”. Again, we are in the West of Donegal, but here the landscape seems to be more in unison with human life, and even possessing and expressing a life of its own. The physical qualities are insisted upon,“obdurate, peaty, rocky earth,” … “[b]arren bogland” and “an occasional gnarled tree” (p. 197). The central character, a police sergeant, had moved to Donegal from Cavan twenty-six years earlier, “but there were times when its beauty still shocked him” (p. 196). He has responded to the spirit of the place and sets it off against the Dublin he knew when he was stationed there. On the day on which the events of the story take place the Sergeant and his assistant, Guard Burke, are guiding two German visitors to the improvised grave of a young German airman whose plane had crashed on the tip of a Donegal promontory. The grave is to be opened and the remains, on the order of the German War Graves Commission, taken to a special cemetery in County Wicklow where there are already over fifty other German war dead. The contrast between being laid to rest in an isolated, solitary grave in the West or dumped in a more organised and formal manner in Wicklow, triggers off the main conflict of the story. The views of the Sergeant are clear. “D'you know, only that the missus is buried away down in the midlands, I wouldn't mind being laid to rest anywhere along the coast here myself” (p. 196). With nice ‘double-entendre’ he condemns all Dublin cemeteries. “I'm telling you: everything's dead in them places. Once they put you in them big cemeteries, you're finished, all right” (p. 197). The West is different, he claims, whether you are living or dead. “Out here, man, you still have life all around you. Dammit, there's so much good life around you, you haven't a chance to be really dead!” (p. 197) The main impetus of the argument here is, of course, comic. But just to make sure that the suggestions also have a serious edge, Friel extends the East-West conflict. The Sergeant has seen the ravages of modern times in Dublin, and issues a warning about prospectors and developers. But ‘the valley of the larks’ (Glennafuiseog) cannot be bought for money. What would they do if they could lay their hands on a place like that?

They would destroy it! That's what they would do! Dig it up and flatten it out and build houses on it and ring it round with cement. Kill it. That's what they would do. Kill it. Didn't I see them myself when I was stationed in Dublin years ago, making an arse of places like Malahide and Skerries and Bray. That's what I mean. Kill it! Slaughter it!

(p. 200)

The Sergeant tries in vain to persuade the efficient Germans to leave the young pilot in his Western grave. They are deaf to his pleas. “Let him lie here where he has all that's good in God's earth around about him. He has been here for the past eighteen years; he's part of the place by now” (p. 201). A fundamental rift opens between the Sergeant and the Germans in their differing attitudes to the situation. The Germans are not prepared to disobey and they carry out their orders with speed and energy. At this stage the story threatens to turn into an examination of the various merits of German versus Irish attitudes to efficiency, death, and place, but in his usual discreet and unobtrusive manner, Friel returns the focus of the story to the level of the individual. The Sergeant has given in to impulses that he felt but cannot explain or define. He has exposed himself to others by allowing deeply personal and individual feelings to come out in what should have been an impersonal formality, a situation where nothing but a strictly official attitude was necessary. “What in hell came over me? I never did the like of it in my life before. Never in all my years in the force. And then before foreigners too” (p. 204). But with the foreigners gone, his one fear is now that his own local community will get wind of his lapse. Guard Burke receives a strong warning to keep quiet about the incident, or “I'll have you sent to the wildest outpost in the country” (p. 205). There is probably a considerable amount of unconscious irony in that final remark. It would be difficult to imagine a more feral area than that described in the story.

Even though the German-Irish contrast must not be exaggerated, and its purpose, where it comes at the end of the story, is largely comic, the comparison may nevertheless serve to point out a few notorious traits in the Western Irishman. There are suggestions of a sentimental attachment to the land and one's own place, a basically religious respect for death, and there is an almost pathetic attempt at German-like efficiency which is quickly forgotten. The Sergeant's willingness to forge the German documents is close to the traditional inclination of the rural Irishman to resist the workings of the official arm of the law, which is seen to be of English and therefore hostile execution. (A curious but telling effect of this can also be seen in the informal nomenclature of Sir Robert Peel's policemen, ‘peelers’ in Ireland, and ‘bobbies’ in England.) In this story, the fact that the disrespect for formal law emanates from one of its own representatives (albeit an Irish one) makes the presentation even keener. Similar attitudes are revealed in many of the other stories, stressing the difficulties of strict law enforcement among the free spirits of the West. In “The Skelper” poaching is “one of the few privacies that the village respected” (p. 236), and here the community stand united against what they see as unnecessary meddling in their own affairs by officialdom. In “The Gold in the Sea” the visitor to the West asks silly questions about the absence of lights on the fishing boats until he realises that most of them do not have one, and consequently no licence to fish.

As modern times move in the loss of many aspects of traditional Gaelic and Western ways becomes more and more obvious. In spite of the ravages of earlier centuries it is probably true to say that it is the twentieth century that has caused the greatest and speediest changes. In “Kelly's Hall” Friel seems to be curiously interested in documenting the timing of these mutations. The coming of the first gramophone to Co. Donegal happens in May 1901, and Friel places the birth of the boy/narrator in the same month. At the end of the story almost half a century has been taken into consideration, and the passing of time is emphasised. “I left Beannafreaghan during World War I and I was not back again until 1945. They have a fine new harbor there now with motorboats hitting up against its side. The old house has gone and the herring shed but the hall still stands four-square on top of its hillock.”10 The hall has become known among the locals as ‘Kelly's hall’, and is now used for showing films in three nights a week, a suitably contemporary use for the old parish hall. “I have been emphatic about the dates,” the narrator assures us, presumably because of their direct relevance for his own life, but also, one would think, for a more general purpose.11 “I have before me now press cuttings from newspapers of that time” he goes on to establish, as if to lend more credibility to his story, in itself a modern concept since the story by itself would have been enough in the story-telling Gaelic civilisation.12


So far, the attack of modernity has been seen as a facet of the old East-West dichotomy. This is also where it receives its most frequent and most eloquent expression, and the fact that the conditions in the West had to undergo more drastic and dramatic changes than anywhere else made them more dramatic as literary material. In “Foundry House” the issues become at once much more complex and much more comprehensive. It is still the passing of time and the changes in traditional ways that constitute the outlines of the thematic landscape, and it is still the personal perspective that dominates the story. In some ways at least, “Foundry House” can be seen as a key story when it comes to a final estimation of Friel's craft. (To judge by the critical interest taken in this story it would also merit attention.) It contains one of the best examples of an extended thematic exploration conducted on a high level of accumulated meanings in all of Friel's prose works, and it points forward to several of the plays both in relation to form and content. It is in fact typical Friel in the way it avoids clear-cut and definitive explanations or statements about the themes that are dealt with. His early dictum, as expressed in Acorn, can now be said to be one of the main artistic principles in his work.

All any writer does, whether he's a dramatist or a short-story writer, is to spotlight a situation. In other words, he presents a set of people and a situation with a certain clarity and understanding and sympathy and as a result of this one should look at them more closely; and if one is moved then that one should react accordingly. This is the responsibility of a reader or an audience, but I don't think it's the writer's.13

Inherent in this attitude lie the dangers of ‘underwriting’. If the story is too ‘underwritten’ the reader is left with too much work to do. The fundamental purpose of any creative writing, the communication between writer and reader, becomes difficult or even impossible. The critical reactions to “Foundry House” are interesting in the way that they relate to this question in varying ways. Friel himself is very much aware of his own tendencies towards ‘underwriting’. The editor of the New Yorker, he has said, “always maintains that I understate stories, that I am always underwriting. I agree thoroughly with this because I think there's nothing as annoying as an overstated story.”14 But first we must establish the vital distinction between the expression in a story of the themes a writer is dealing with, and something that many readers are expecting at the end of the story, the writer's own explanation (or expression) of its meaning, which can, of course, be done in many different ways. This becomes a question of literary technique, of arranging the material in a well-organised package. In literature the ending is important as a result of this arrangement, in life the ending is not important. Again, Friel is reluctant to say too much by way of explaining the motivation behind a character's actions or words. He hopes instead that they will provide this insight in themselves.

The simple theme of “Foundry House” is the complete destruction of a social class. The time scheme set up by Friel in this story again puts the developments described into proper perspective. The changes that have taken place are seen through the succession of different generations, caught at one particular moment, but suggesting extensions backwards and forwards in time. The main character, Joe Brennan, looks backwards to his own childhood and the position held by his father in the service of Mr. Bernard Hogan, the owner of the local foundry, and he is, in the course of the story, made strongly aware of revolutionary shifts in the old social order. For Joe the first step into childhood memories is occasioned by the move made by him and his family back to his old home, the gate lodge of Foundry House where he had been born and reared. This presents Friel with a symbolic point of departure, and puts Joe in a position where he cannot avoid the past. Immediately Joe is reminded of his father's subservient station vis-à-vis the Big House, the obsequious respect and fear come out in his behaviour towards his own children. He does not want them to play in the grounds of the Big House—“Why can't you play down below near your own house?” (p. 74)—but they are not likely to feel the same regard for the Hogans as he himself did as a child. The social link has been broken, Joe is a radio-and-television mechanic and the gate lodge is becoming like any ordinary house for Joe's wife Rita and the children. Only Joe is caught in between his father and his own children, in a transitional phase where he cannot forget his place in the old social order. He still retains his picture of the old house and the old Mr. Hogan and his dogs, and he is perhaps a bit slow in appreciating the significance of some of the changes that would point to the new circumstances. The gate lodge itself is a remnant from another time. There was no indoor toilet and no running water and Joe is having to apply for money from the urban council to be able to make the many necessary improvements. A symbolically important event had taken place when “the authorities had taken away the great iron gates that sealed the mouth of the avenue” (p. 72). The entry to the Big House is now permanently open, and its inhabitants can no longer cut themselves off from the rest of the area in haughty isolation. This one symbol is the first significant pointer to the new and different times. The central episode of the story comes when Joe is asked to supply and operate a tape-recorder for a family reunion in Foundry House. He has never been inside the house and his first visit will make him the witness of the end of an era. When confronted with the decay and debility of the house and the Hogans, Joe still retains his own regard and respect for the family, refusing to let their changed fortune suppress the stronger and more innocent memories of childhood. The reason for this is probably to be found as much in Joe's unwillingness to be swayed by the obvious material changes that have happened as in the strength of his childhood memories, which constitute in many ways a definition and justification of his own life.

Mr. and Mrs. Hogan and their son Declan, a priest, are gathered to listen to a tape-recording sent by their daughter Claire, a nun in Africa, from where she is never to return. So the family is destined for extinction, not from external causes, but through their own inability to procreate. Their end becomes absolute and self-inflicted. They “burn [their] own fuel” (p. 79), and they seem singularly out of place in a modern and mechanical society. Mrs. Hogan, as would be expected by a representative of that class, does not know the difference between gas and electricity. The decline is everywhere to be seen, frequently contrasted by a more glorious and no too distant past. The “door handle was of cut glass, and the door itself did not close properly. Above his [Joe's] head was a print of horses galloping across open fields; the corner of the carpet was nibbled away” (p. 80). The much awaited recording from Sister Claire is a disaster and serves only to confirm the treacherous qualities of the passage of time. Claire remembers her parents and the house as it was when she was still there, and the ironic contrasts between now and then multiply themselves. The old man suffers a stroke when hearing his daughter's voice on the tape and has to be carried back to bed. Joe is left alone in the breakfast room, where the old couple spend most of their days in a house now far too large for them. He obediently waits for a whole hour before he sneaks out quietly. Back home in the gate lodge, when forced to report to his wife about the events of the afternoon, he will not allow what he has actually seen to influence his own personal and long-rooted view of the Hogan family. “‘They're a great family, Rita,’ he said. ‘A great, grand family’” (p. 88).

There is in “Foundry House” a wealth of interrelated themes and ideas. There is no escaping the social, political and religious facts which condition the story. Of these the first is by far the most important, the last only in itself remotely relevant. All the characters are in fact Catholics, thus virtually cancelling the possibility of an exploration along conventional Catholic-Protestant lines. The difference in social class between the Hogans and the Brennans, on the other hand, and more specifically, the changing fortunes of both, is at the heart of the story's thematic concerns. Joe has ‘risen’ to become a radio-and-television mechanic, and his occupation points forward to the future. The Hogans are a spent force and represent what has been and what is lost. So much is evident from the story. The difficulty arises when we are faced with the problem of interpreting these two trends and the respective merits of both as they appear in the story. Here it is possible to detect differing critical responses and views. D. E. S. Maxwell declares that the ending “avoids interpretation,” and is unwilling to comment on the underlying currents of meaning.15 But Maxwell also stresses the role of the reader, who must, as I have suggested earlier, go on to examine the background of the story and Joe's reactions to the events. Edmund J. Miner complains of the great difficulty for the uninitiated to understand the complexities of the North of Ireland background. In his view “‘Foundry House’ … lays stress on the feature that distinguishes the North from the South: they are industrial, materialist, eager beavers at doing and making as contrasted with the more artistic dreamers of the South.”16 He then goes on to enumerate “the more sacred inhumanities of the Ulsterman,” losing sight, it seems to me, of the story itself, in an effort to interpret the meaning of the background.17 In his discussion on “Foundry House” in Forces and Themes in Ulster Fiction John Wilson Foster does not fight shy of interpretation. He even chides Joe for his failure to accept the true nature of the Big House in its present situation. Joe's “nostalgic mythicisation of the rural semi-feudal past” is dangerous.18 “The myth of social grandeur that is debunked and then reinstated in the story is in fact the glorified memory of a semi-feudal past of ruling haves and obsequious have-nots.”19 But the point that the story makes is precisely this, that it is for the reader to see the contrasts between Joe's nostalgia, which is, as I have pointed out, understandable and understanding in view of the close and important relationship that he had with the Hogans and the house, and his own awareness of their decline. He can see, as well as the reader, what time has brought them. But for him to reject their past outright would be to reject his own past and provenance, his father's life and his own existence. It must be remembered that Joe's statement comes immediately after the experience. With time, because the inevitable passing of time is very much part of the background of the story, Joe may have to temper his nostalgia. He might equally well, of course, hang on to it as sustenance from his own life. “It is a fine story, in which the only true aristocrat is the imagination,” says Seamus Deane in his introduction to Brian Friel: Selected Stories.20 It would be equally accurate to say that the only true villain is the inevitable passing of time.

“Foundry House” is set in the North of Ireland, and it is different from most of the other stories in the way it sets out directly to deal with two separate social classes. The present divisions and their past history become an important part of the story. Similar divisions, though expressed more indirectly, can be seen to operate in “Johnny and Mick”. As Maxwell has pointed out, the place, without being mentioned, is almost certainly Friel's own Derry. The two young boys, 10 and 9 years old, spend an afternoon walking about in the suburban parts of the town, well away from the inferred poverty of “the squatters' huts at the outskirts of the town” where they live.21 They enter “a district that was new to them” where the streets are wide and the houses detached and secure.22 The social background from which they come is in sharp contrast to the clean and orderly area where they find themselves, and Johnny, at least, has already been in trouble with the police. He has learnt to “look the policeman or probation officer straight in the eyes and smile his happiest smile.”23 There are images of a divided city, “one half in the sun, the other in the shade,” and in the story there is a brief confrontation between the two classes.24 Johnny and Mick collect chestnuts, and they are pleasantly surprised to find that an old man from one of the houses offers to buy some for his effete grandson Wesley, who obviously cannot himself climb the trees. The contrast between them is further strengthened in Friel's description. The old man speaks a different language, the name of his house is Holmleigh, not “Hollem-lee” as Mick has pronounced it. The two boys briefly entertain a scheme to make easy money by selling chestnuts to other boys in the area. The scheme is quickly abandoned and their enthusiasm dies as the chestnuts scatter. Quietly, despondently, they make their way back to their own homes, leaving the suburban street behind them. The two young boys possess a reckless but unchannelled energy. They are too young to be wholly aware of their social plight, but they might also be two prospective civil rights marchers or even political activists. Again, Friel as the narrator is unobtrusive if not reserved in relation to the themes of the story. It does, however, clearly establish what Maxwell calls Friel's deep sense of Derry's divided community,” and inevitably suggests the social, political, and religious reality of that city, and by extension, the rest of Northern Ireland.25

It may be dangerous to hazard too many generalisations about the differences between those of Friel's stories that are set in Donegal and those that are set in Tyrone or Derry. Nevertheless, it seems to me that there are some clearly identifiable similarities that unite the Tyrone stories. As I have suggested earlier the Tyrone stories seem to establish a clear and safe attitude to the place described, where, in the stories set in Donegal, we have frequently the introduction of a visitor or newcomer to the West learning to decode the language and habits of the people there. In many of the Tyrone stories one of the main characters is a teacher and often a teacher and father in one. This, as far as I can see, is not the case in any one of the Donegal stories. The Tyrone stories almost always incline eastwards rather than westwards, whereas many of the Donegal ones take us as far west as possible. The autobiographical background seems to be more solidly exploited by Friel, especially the father/teacher in Omagh and/or Tyrone, whereas the experiences of Donegal are “new”. These, I think, are incontrovertible facts. But there are also other aspects of the Tyrone stories that receive a wider and more explicit treatment than in the Donegal ones. In stories like “The First of My Sins”, “The Highwayman and the Saint”, and “The Death of a Scientific Humanist”, apart from being firmly set in Omagh/Tyrone, the subject of religion is allowed to take over to a degree uncommon in Friel's stories. It is true that they are mainly comic in their intention, but they also contain a not inconsiderable amount of irony with serious undertones. In the first of these stories the young boy preparing for his first confession is confused by the difference between his own definition of a ‘sin’ and that of his mother and the priest. He innocently refuses to mention in his confession the fact that he pulled his Aunt Mary's skirt: “I only wanted to see the colour of her knickers.”26 To his mother this suggestion of sex is much more serious, and the boy will no doubt become aware of this as he grows up. To him, the fact that his Uncle George had stolen some knives and forks from the hotel in London where he was working was a much more relevant sort of sin, but when he tells the priest about this there is no reaction: “I told him again because he obviously did not understand the enormity of my sin.”27 But the boy is summarily absolved, and can rejoin “the row of eager, smiling mothers kneeling at the back.”28 In these three stories, and in some others, “Aunt Maggie, the Strong One” for example, the individual is subjected to the impersonal and dogmatic attitudes of institutionalised religion, and it is always the individual that has to bend. Friel's priests expect total obedience of their parishioners and will not accept any limitation of their authority. This demand frequently generates and encourages a hypocritical attitude on the part of the individual, of the kind evidenced by the narrator's mother in “The Death of a Scientific Humanist”. The presence of the nuns, we are told, “smothered her native spirit and reduced her to a simpering, sighing caricature of herself” (p. 20). At home her attitudes are far from reverential: “‘Thieves!’ she would say. ‘Sneaky, rotten thieves, with their oh-so-nice accents and their slithery eyes! Lord, but they'll have a lot to answer for, thon gang!’” (p. 20) More than anything else, it is when the demands of the church as institution, and of the priests and nuns as their representatives, become inhuman dogma and fail to consider the human needs of the individual, that Friel's sensibilities are offended.

Taken together the stories often display a balanced and comprehensive view of the issues dealt with. Friel moves backwards and forwards in time to look at a subject or theme from different angles, and the question of religious use or abuse is no exception. The innocent and natural simplicity of the child in “The Death of a Scientific Humanist” and “The First of My Sins” is in stark contrast to the studied hypocrisy of adult attitudes in the same stories and in “Aunt Maggie, the Strong One”. Even so, the adults suffer as well. Aunt Maggie is ‘tamed’—before she was taken into the Refuge she had said of the nuns: “Damned hypocrites! But they won't tame me, Bernard. They won't tame Maggie” (p. 188)—by a combination of old age, indignity at the loss of her own home and place, and the forbidding nature of life in the Refuge. The broad and burlesque farce of “The Highwayman and the Saint” hides the personal tragedy of Madge and Andy. Mrs. Wilson and Cissie Cassidy become the simpering symbols of blind, life-negating worship, combining to put out the fire of youth in Madge and Andy. The authoritarian Monseigneur Carroll in “My Father and the Sergeant” falsely allows the narrator's father to expect the headship of the new school, and then lets him read about the appointment of another man in the weekly paper. He goes on to exploit the loyalty of the father for his own, or the Church's, purposes—“I am depending on you, Jack” (p. 158)—to drag him prematurely from his sickbed after having summarily dismissed the replacement teacher. The latter had been accused of kissing one of his young girl-pupils, but in the story we are certainly led to believe that the accusation was false. The only witness, a young boy, takes great delight in using his imagination, and the father of the girl, O'Flaherty, “was known locally as a thick man, easily offended, easily risen to anger, difficult to reason with” (p. 155). Just as in “The First of My Sins” it is the spectre of sex that rears its ugly head, and Monseigneur Carroll shows his true colour in his reactions to it.

The stories set in Northern Ireland (Omagh, Tyrone, Derry) also give more scope to the background clashes between two classes and cultures. I have already mentioned “Foundry House” and “Johnny and Mick” and these two stories represent Friel's most direct and sustained handling of this theme. When examining “Everything Neat and Tidy” we would do well to remember Seamus Heaney's words about his own poem “The Last Mummer” quoted in my introduction. Although Friel's story again focuses on the individual, the pervasive qualities of certain background characteristics lead us towards an appreciation of the divided nature of the community described there. There is an insistence on the poor parentage of the main character and on the wasteful loss of the land of his parents-in-law. Johnny drives Lady Hartnell of Killard to the bank once a week and Mrs. MacMenamin, his mother-in-law, to the County Psychiatric Clinic twice a week. The Clinic, with its sharp contrast between the old and the new block, with “a dividing patch that was neither field nor lawn” (p. 100) in between, and indeed Mrs. MacMenamin's own ‘schizophrenic’ behaviour, could suggest elements of a basic condition in the province. Together, these details gather symbolic significance and set up a pattern which is largely absent in the Donegal stories. To a certain extent they may reveal the influence of Friel's own background on his creative writing. Belonging to a teacher's family there would have been some aspects of life he did not normally experience at firsthand. In “The Fawn Pup” the family, father, mother, and the young narrator, venture with little success into the dog-racing community of Omagh. The boy is disappointed by the general dilapidation of the track, “a muddy rectangular field cordoned off by a single, sagging length of wire” (p. 94), and his illusion of a “Derby Day” atmosphere is quickly shattered. The spectators, he realises, were “only farmers” and “I remember looking at them and realising that I was seeing gathered together for the first time all the people of the town whom Mother referred to, in her genteel way, as ‘the poor’” (p. 94). He becomes acutely aware of these class differences, and away from his secure and protected middle-class background he feels threatened. “Here they were loud and boisterous—quite unlike the way they were when they sometimes came knocking at our door—and I had an odd sense of fear” (p. 94). The event is a complete failure, mainly because they do not know the habits and rules of the community they have entered. The treatment is comic, but Friel's preoccupation with these basically social divisions manifestly reveal his awareness of them. On the strength of these observations I would be prepared to hazard the suggestion that the Tyrone stories show forth Friel's feelings of the North as a polarised society. The social differences are unambiguously projected, but the religious and political reality, of the North though not expressly stated, must be understood to be part of the overall atmosphere of the fiction.


There is, of course, poverty in the Donegal stories too. But here, it seems to me, poverty is presented as a condition of life, a natural and unavoidable part of the community. Within that community there are no contrasts, no alternatives other than emigration or the city in the East for those who want to escape. There are social differences too, but the various social classes exist here on similar terms and, though not economically equal, are part of a more homogeneous society. The interdependence which cements this society demands a necessity for communal values which the modern city has lost. The individual must find individuality and self-hood while still subordinating himself to societal demands and pressures. He must comply with the habits and laws which determine the quality of life in the village. The strain on this relationship between community and individual may cause a disruption in the traffic between them. The contrast between the public and private man has to be deftly managed by the individual in his everyday transactions with the community. “The Diviner” shows how the community spirit can be both a strength and a curse. From the very beginning of the story Friel lays considerable stress on the various social groupings that make up the village of Drumeen. Nelly Devenny, recently bereaved of her husband Tom and free of his drunken and shameful antics, starts work as a charwoman with “five better-class families” (p. 44), the bank manager, the solicitor, the dentist, the doctor, and the prosperous McLaughlins (presumably business people). This initial contrast provides the story with a potential clash between the two. This, however, never really comes off. Their fundamental relationship remains unchanged throughout the story. They are separated in status but united within the village community. The conflict occurs instead in the traffic between individual and community. Nelly's attempts at respectability within are highlighted by the introduction of the diviner from without. When Nelly's second husband, a mysterious newcomer whom nobody knows anything about, goes missing on the lake, the whole community unite in the search for the body and share Nelly's grief. Their collective efforts fail, however, and the arrival of the diviner from Co. Mayo enforces the initial social differences. The respectable ‘pillars of society’, and they are again carefully enumerated by Friel, refuse to take the diviner out in a boat. The division is only temporary. When the body is found the common purpose is renewed, the community itself left intact. But for Nelly “a foothold on respectability had almost been established” (p. 57), and her tears, more than for the loss of her husband, are for herself and for the loss of her own attempted respectability. With the dead man are found two pint whiskey bottles, “one of them had no cork; the other had been opened, but the cork was still in it” (p. 57), and the implications are obvious. The humiliation she felt in her first marriage had made Nelly “skilled in reticence and fanatically jealous of her dignity” (p. 45), but her efforts have been in vain and the secret is out.

The two key words in the story are “respectability” and “dignity”. The first represents an acceptance of agreed communal values, the second becomes the individual's response. It takes considerable strength to ignore the demands of the collective to the extent of reaching individuality, and only the diviner can do it. At first he is judged solely on appearances. “The first impression, was, What a fine man! But when he stepped directly in front of the headlights of one car there were signs of wear—faded, too active eyes, fingernails stained with nicotine, the trousers not a match for the jacket, the shoes cracking across the toecap” (p. 52), the opposite of the “gabardine raincoat, checked cap, and well-polished shoes” (p. 46) of Nelly's second husband. He even has his hair “carefully stretched across a bald patch” (p. 52), and he “reeks of whiskey” (p. 54). But the diviner can get away with it, because he is not part of the community, whereas Nelly must suffer for her husband's weakness. This, surely, is the vital distinction between the two. In his introduction to the Gallery Books edition of Friel's stories Seamus Deane singles out both Nelly and the diviner as the only outsiders. It is difficult to see how Nelly could be one. Her position is different from that of the other members of the community only in that it is explicitly expressed, the hint being that the others may well have their own secrets to hide. In another sense too, Deane's conclusion seems incomplete. When the diviner arrives, we are told, curiously enough, the he was “dressed in the same deep black as Nelly and the priest” (p. 52). As a character in the story, the priest almost usurps the central role played by Nelly. It is this trio, the priest, the diviner, and Nelly that contain the meaning of the story. The authority of the priest, so relentlessly enforced on Nelly, is questioned by the presence of the diviner. The latter finds the body, the former accomplishes nothing. His charity extends to little beyond the mumbling of rosaries, as this exchange between him and Nelly about the diviner makes abundantly clear.

‘Father, what will he do? D'you think he's going to do anything, Father?’

‘A fake! A quack! A charlatan! Get a grip on yourself, woman! We'll say another rosary and then I'll leave you home. They're wasting their time with that—that pretender!’ And he blessed himself extravagantly.

(p. 54)

In his dealings with the community he might have used the same three words to describe himself. His failure becomes complete when, finally, after first having failed to realise the meaning of the whiskey bottles, he is guided solely by the standards of respectability, and it is McElwee, the postman, who has to say a rosary for the repose of the soul of the dead man. So Father Curran takes his place among the other priests, not quite able to unite the community or to relate in human terms to the individual. His religious authority has no counterpart in the everyday reality of the life of the parishioners. As the narrator's father says in “My Father and the Sergeant”: “And now the Monseigneur knows that too—now when it's too late, as usual” (p. 159). With the risk of going too far, it could perhaps be seen as a sign of the problems inherent in trying to penetrate the sort of society described in “The Diviner”, when in the final paragraph, two people are manifestly cut off from the rest. “Beyond the circle around the dead man, the diviner mopped the perspiration on his forehead and on the back of his neck with a soiled handkerchief. Then he sat on the fender of a car and waited for someone to remember to drive him back to County Mayo” (p. 57).

As one of the societal pressures to achieve conformity, religion is one of the strongest influences. Individuals who refuse openly to accept it become cranks and outcasts. Andy in “The Highwayman and the Saint”, Grandfather in “My True Kinsman”, and Uncle Cormac in “The Death of a Scientific Humanist” are all in this category. But the persistent and difficult search for personal dignity is of even wider application in Friel's stories. Perhaps there is an affinity here with a quality of life that has been construed as a natural part of the West of Ireland. Corkery refers to Synge and the Aran Islands “where the people's age-long trafficking with a range of thoughts beyond the needs of nature had induced in them a dignity and settled peace that Synge not only noted but envied.”29 Many of Friel's characters seem to possess this natural dignity in the safe confidence of achievement. “Only the conquering fishermen were calm and aloof. In twos and threes, they came up the steep road to the village with the walk of kings” (p. 245). In “The Fawn Pup” the narrator's Father, a somewhat pompous character, cycles “with straight-backed dignity” (p. 92), but is forced to adopt a different posture after the humiliation at the race track. “Somehow we stumbled out of the field and away from those mocking voices. Not a word was spoken on the way home. Father walked at a brisk pace, and Mother did her best to keep up with him” (p. 99). To others, it becomes a necessary attitude in the face of adversity. Lobster O'Brien, the seedy dog trainer in the same story, “managed to carry himself with shabby dignity, like a down-at-heel military man” (p. 91). For the poor farmers in “A Fine Day at Glenties” to have your own cow becomes a basic and important indication of social status. But, as suggested earlier, dignity is an inner quality in the armoury of the individual in his dealings with society. Its greatest asset is its flexibility, the fact that it can be moulded to the needs of its owner. The individual is in complete control, and can decide what form it is to take when exposed to the outside world. The Sergeant in “The Saucer of Larks” is well aware of his moral misstep and has to compensate for it in his outward behaviour. “The Sergeant turned and waddled towards the building. For a man of his years and shape, he carried himself with considerable dignity” (p. 205).

Old age entails problems of its own kind. In Friel's work different generations often appear contrapuntally to illustrate different aspects of the same theme in order to complete the description. In a brief early story, “Ebb Tide”, old age clashes head-on with youth. The generation gap is as wide here as it will ever be. Friel sensitively explores the feelings of the old man and exposes the impatience of youth in their dealings with him. To be dependent is to relinquish part of one's pride and Tom Bonner resents their “dutiful solicitude for him,” a phrase suggesting also the dilemma faced by the other members of the community.30 In a moment of crisis Tom's great knowledge and experience are needed. A distress signal is sent from the lighthouse off the coast, a pregnant woman needs help. In spite of the gales the young men are prepared to risk the passage, but first the old man's advice is asked for. This is his chance to be useful and respected again, to assert his dignity in front of the rest of the village. “Tom felt none of their anxiety; only importance that rose in him like hot blood and hurt his chest slightly and even made his dead hands tingle … Now he wanted to have them looking at him and waiting for him. He might never have the chance again. He needed to savor it.”31 The ending of the story shows clearly where Friel's thematic priority lies. Tom's eagerly awaited answer has an oracle-like ring to it. “‘Nobody goes nowhere yet,’ he said. ‘Not for two hours. You'll have nothing but a puff of wind then.’”32 We are not told whether he is right or wrong, and for the purposes of the story this is immaterial. Instead Friel underscores the old man's monumental loneliness and the rash insensitivity of youth. After having carried Tom back to his cottage the young men leave him there and decide to spend the next two hours in the local pub.


Economic necessity often rules the lives of the people in rural Ireland. It is a condition of all of Friel's stories. Even where the relative comfort and higher status of the teacher/father and his family are central, the poverty of the background remains an overwhelming reality. When the visiting bookseller came to Beannafreaghan Primary School “no one ever bought anything” (p. 219), and a travelling theatre for schools is turned away by the teacher, who invents a reason for not allowing them to perform there. But “[t]he truth of the matter was that his twenty-five pupils could not afford to pay sixpence a head, not to talk of two-and-six, not even to see an international cast doing international plays” (p. 220). When M. L'Estrange performs, the teacher pays him out of his own pocket, “and during the following weeks badgered and cajoled his pupils to reimburse him” (p. 222). The mention, in several of the stories, of emigration or recurring stints of seasonal labour in Scotland or England, is a constant reminder of these hard economic facts. Sometimes the reference is casual and brief, betraying the normality and frequency of the circumstances. When the women of the village were condoling with Nelly, she “even had the presence of mind to inquire about a sick child or a son in America or a cow that was due to calve” (p. 47). In the same story there is what looks like another simple hint. When someone asked Nelly about her second husband's relatives “she said his people are all dead or in England” (p. 48). A perfectly normal statement in the situation. Or is it? Wouldn't it be interesting if the two conditions, being “dead or in England,” were intended to stand for one and the same thing? And the point is that neither the dead nor people in England can be notified of Mr. Doherty's death. In this light the simple sentence would grow into a statement of immense proportions. Seasonal labour in Scotland is mentioned in “Mr. Sing My Heart's Delight” and in “A Fine Day at Glenties”, which also has its ‘Boston Biddy’. Judith in “The Widowhood System” has a brother in Canada, and Aunt Rose, “the deep one” in “A Man's World” has received an offer of marriage from an Irish emigrant to America. The latter story is a fine example of Friel's sensitive exploration of the individual psyche and, at the same time, it is a case in point when discussing his tendency towards ‘underwriting’. Every August the young narrator and his family had been going to visit his five maiden aunts in Donegal. When he was eight years old his father lost his job and, since the aunts were reasonably well off, the whole family accepted their offer of help. They all go to live with the aunts but this time the experience is very different. Donegal in the winter is dark and cold and family relationships are severely tested. To entertain him Rose decides to let the young boy in on her great secret. She shows him a letter, dated 1906, and sent to her from Boston. “‘Dear Rose,’ it said, ‘I have now made enough money for your passage. If you will come out and marry me, I will send it to you. Please make up your mind and reply by return. In haste, Bill Sweeney.’”33 The brief and reticent lines hide a poignant personal tragedy. The innocent simplicity of the child makes him impervious to the enormity of the complex feelings involved, the letter is simply boring. A more inquisitive mind might want some answers to the several questions that multiply themselves if an effort to disentangle the meanings is made. The central question is: Why did she not go? Bill Sweeney was obviously close enough to her to be able to make this offer. Can it be established that the decision not to go was made by herself only? Or did the sisters have anything to do with it? Perhaps she answered the letter and never received the money? These questions are patently absurd. Only the first question would require an answer; and the only possible answer would be: we do not know why she did not go, and we need not know. The story as it stands gives us all we need to know in the situation, i.e. that she did not go. We are free to make various tantalizing suggestions and interpretations in the certainty that they are all possible. To give a more detailed explanation of the underlying reasons would have contributed nothing to the structure of meaning in the story. Furthermore, and this is a consideration that applies to all Friel's work, there is an ironic distance between the awareness of the young narrator and the event described. Irony is an important ingredient in Friel's stories and plays. Ironic contrasts are used to show up the true colour of events and to look at the same problem from different angles. Things do not turn out as people expect but, in doing that, they provide unexpected insight into life. At its simplest, irony is looking at the same thing in two different ways. It could perhaps be argued that irony is a stance which is adopted with particular ease by creative writers in the North of Ireland with its bifurcated traditions. Every event, every characteristic quality has its own natural opposite. Irony needs, in order to flourish, a set of established, well-known contrasts, where one statement or suggestion immediately also suggests the other extreme. Friel's irony is on one level the classic irony of fate where human beings are thwarted in their aims, on another level it is more intricate and frequently humorous. In the North-of-Ireland situation it could also be construed as a way of avoiding simple dogma or inflexible partisanship. Seamus Heaney's now famous lines, “Whatever you say, say nothing,” are recognised as being a true statement on the contradictory nature of the province. As a result there seems to be an agreed reticence among all members of both communities which is different from the more adventurous verbal imagination of the South.

Several commentators, in particular Foster and Deane, have noted the tendency towards personal illusions in many of Friel's characters. They are “inveterate fantasists” who increase their own lives by entertaining dreams of an alternative existence.34 Deane's attitude towards these people is understanding. “To recognise the squalor and insufficiency of one's life by the creation of an alternative fiction is itself an expression of dignity, not simply a flight from reality.”35 Foster's, on the other hand, is condemning. The problem here concerns the traditional Gaelic-Irish willingness to use mental compensation for material dearth and hardship in their dealings with reality. It is, as Deane suggests, a question of survival for the individual whose real-life existence affords him no sense of value or dignity. Lady Gregory, when collecting her Irish folk tales in the West of Ireland, was “moved by the strange contrast between the poverty of the tellers and the splendours of the tales.”36 But the impetus behind this tendency cannot only be seen to emanate from the socio-economic conditions, not even in modern times. In simple terms, the Irish short story can be traced back through an oral tradition of story-telling to the old legends and sagas themselves. This heritage, pagan and popular but of great symbolic, almost religious, value accounts for an important part of the predominance and success of the short story as a literary genre in Ireland. Very likely, the Catholic religion also provides an interesting sidelight on the subject, not so much in the actual writing of stories as in the personal attitudes of a typical Irish character. Acceptance of one's material lot may be a virtue, but the life of the imagination cannot be similarly supervised, and on the individual level total licence is sometimes given to the creative act. At its most extreme, every confession could be seen as a creative act, with the priest as reader/audience. The young boy in “The First of My Sins” is free to arrange his material as he wants (within certain preconceived ideas which he may or may not decide to follow). The narrator's mother in “The Death of a Scientific Humanist” is “adjusting the truth slightly” (p. 26) in order to achieve the desired effect. In their dealings with “truth” many of Friel's characters adopt very irreverent attitudes. Commonly, and this is a very pertinent fact, ‘the adjusting of the truth’ is done with an audience in mind. The small labels on the records are given imaginative content and provide Grandfather with a few facts for “an entirely fictitious history of the composer and the music,” with which he regales his audience of farmers and fishermen in “Kelly's Hall”.37 And yet the real background is not lost sight of, and Grandfather always returns to the recognisable facts of existence: “a poor humble fisherman called Strauss, a man like ourselves, who earned bread for his family by fishing mackerel in the Danubey sea … while his wife knit socks, he wrote songs … a waltz, a little faster than a hornpipe and a little slower than a jig.”38 Con in “The Gold in the Sea” is one of Friel's most experienced ‘adjusters of the truth’. His whole personality is a mixture of the local and verifiable and the far and free. He too has an audience in mind. The story about the gold in the sunken ship is told for the benefit of the young men in the party, Con tells the narrator/visitor to Ballybeg. “‘I don't want Philly or Lispy to know this [that the gold is not there]. It's better for them to think it's still there. They're young men. … You see, friend, they never got much out of life. Not like me’” (p. 256). Within the framework of the story the exact nature of truth cannot be defined. Nobody knows, not even the narrator or the reader, what happened to the Dutch salvage vessel

‘Take my word for it,’ Con broke in. ‘They got nothing. Didn't I watch them through the glasses day and night? And didn't I tell you dozens of times they pulled up nothing but seaweed?’

‘You couldn't swear to it.’

‘For God's sake, I'm not a swearing man. I'm telling you—the gold's still down there in the Bonipart.


‘Call it what you like. It's all there, happy as an old lark.’

‘Maybe you're right,’ said Philly, with surprising amiability. ‘I'm not saying you're wrong. All I'm saying is that we don't know for sure.’

‘Take my word for it,’ said Con with finality. ‘We're sitting on a gold mine.’ He spoke with such authority that somehow we all felt that he must be right.

(p. 255)

Invention thrives in uncertainty, and an attractive story will, if repeated often enough, assume the stature of truth. Con is the sole judge of truth, but his truth is subjective. The illusion he wants to instill in Philly and Lispy for their edification, he himself demands from the visitor.

His voice trailed off, and I suddenly understood that he was asking me for something more important than money.

‘You saw the world, Con,’ I said. ‘You've been everywhere.’

‘Damned right I have!’ he said. ‘Canada, the United States, South America—right round the world before I was twenty!’

(p. 256)

The gold in the sea becomes a potent symbol of the force and nature of the imagination, and the need to have something to believe in, even if it may be an empty vessel on the bottom of the sea. And as if to reinforce the argument, the narrator himself is far from immune to the attractions of easy dreams. “Then, as one does when easy wealth presents itself, I built myself a chalet above Ballybeg, bought a boat, hired a crew, set up a canning factory and an export business” (p. 247). The big fish in “The Wee Lake Beyond” is a similar symbol, better left in the realm of the imagination, a private memory that must not be exploded. “I was glad too, for some obscure reason, that my fish had not shown himself to me again because, if he had, I might have known too much about him.”39 Here, though, the motivation behind the symbol is not so much tribulation as the protection of a private dream that cannot be shared with anyone else.

In “Mr. Sing My Heart's Delight” the contrast between humdrum reality and the fertility of the imagination is at its greatest. The Irish imagination can no doubt be said to be verbal rather than visual, a fact completely forgotten by Foster in his discussion of the story. This is made abundantly clear at the beginning, where the bare essentials of the room are contrasted by the “rich array” of the mantelpiece. The young narrator and the colour-starved Granny both admire the motley collection which the reader is clearly meant to react to. “A china dog stood guard at each end and between them there was a shining alarm clock, two vases, a brass elf holding a cracked thermometer whose mercury had long since been spilled, a golden picture frame enclosing a coloured photograph of a racehorse, and the shells of three sea urchins, sitting on three matchboxes covered with red crêpe paper” (pp. 58-59). It is not strange then, that they also wonder at the “gaudy knick-knacks” of the Indian packman. But the interruption is temporary and they are quickly brought back to the actuality of their situation. “‘Shut up!’ she snapped with sudden venom, springing up to a sitting position on the bed and scattering the languor that had emanated from the dealer. ‘Shut up, Packman! We are poor people here! We have nothing! Shut up!’” (p. 66) This sudden and slightly uncharacteristic outburst from Granny is a true sign of her impatience with the packman and his wares. They have reminded her of her own poverty and, which is worse, made her hanker after material awards. She may not have much but what she does have she is ready to share with him. Her hospitality and generosity are unlimited, and her ability to invest reality with the magic of verbal beauty may well be one of her most typical qualities. The introduction of an exceptional event or individual into the West of Ireland has again served to point out some of its most enduring characteristics.

Giving in to illusions in an effort to embellish and increase one's life seems to be an ability that grows with age. Most of Friel's ‘illusionists’ that manipulate the facts of their past are approaching or have reached middle age. The young boys prefer to look forward to the future, and they react against an adult indulgence in nostalgic memory. “‘Come on, Granny,’ I said irritably. ‘The cow will think we're dead’” (p. 71). The young boy in ‘Mr. Sing My Heart's Delight’ pulls Granny back to the everyday task, having had enough of her romantic dreams. But in a life of cruel economic necessity the painful realisation of the hardship of adult existence comes early. In “The Potato Gatherers” the striking difference between the ‘dreams’ of the two boys clearly suggests Joe's early initiation into the comforts of a pretended existence. With the money they hope to receive for their hard day's potato-picking Philly, the younger of the two brothers, wants to buy, a shotgun, a bike, a leatherbelt, rabbit snares, a gaff or a scout knife, all real and functional implements, but also suggesting the playfulness of youth. Joe, only thirteen but more experienced than Philly in the true circumstances of the economic severity, first accepts the unlikelihood of them getting any money at all and then, in a vain, extravagant gesture which hints at his abandonment to illusion and dream, opts for “red silk socks” (p. 42). The premature draining of his youthful strength is a reminder of what life has in store for him. The background sounds of the other children playing in the playground at school stress the serious aspects of the nature of their own task. Their future may not be too promising in economic and material terms and they must be forgiven if, like other Friel characters, they allow themselves the luxury of investing their lives with colour and excitement. (The “red silk socks”, incidentally, could be seen as another reminder of the lack of visual beauty in the Irish imagination. They also serve to point out the contrast they would make with the background, thus becoming a symbol rather than a simple realistic item in the story.)


Illusion, in all its different manifestations, is a pervasive theme in Friel's work. It is seen as an ordinary and natural part of an individual's life. It hovers somewhere near such words as ‘fact’ and ‘reality’, and what Friel does more than anything is to expose how thin the line between ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’ is. Friel's characters, far from being “inveterate fantasists,” as Foster suggests, realise fully, as does Friel, the mediocrity of their lives, and in reacting imaginatively to it, express a basic human urge. This does not make them lesser beings. Friel has caught them at a moment of personal crisis, when they experience some sort of insight into the mental qualities of life, and in their own relation to it. When Friel applies the idea of illusion to an individual's past and the nature of memory it becomes especially significant.

What Friel wrote in a rather obscure and local publication in 1979 may stand as a direct expression of an idea that can be seen working in a more literary form in his stories and plays. “One's life in retrospect seems to be defined by precise contours and primary colours: all summers were arcadian, all winters were arctic, pleasures were unqualified, disappointments were total. This remaking I imagine, is a conscious and deliberate attempt to invest mediocrity with passion and drama.”40 But even a neat compartmentalisation of that kind belies the complex relation to one's past. Friel's ‘illusionists’ structure their past to conform to the requirements of a basic and necessary belief in themselves, in a justification of their own existence. It is a process at once conscious and deliberate, and subconscious and involuntary. An excellent example of the first of these can be seen in “The Illusionists”. M. L'Estrange is an ‘illusionist’ by profession, but the plural form of the title includes also the father/teacher in the story (and perhaps even the young narrator). After his performance for the children in the school, M. L'Estrange is invited for a meal and a bottle of whiskey (always a good aid to nostalgic self-aggrandizement). Later that evening the narrator and his mother witness a single combat in delusion between the two middle-aged men.

‘France is the country,’ said M. L'Estrange, turning his rings idly. ‘That's where they had appreciation. A hundred thousand francs for an hour's performance. La belle France.’ ‘Dublin—Cork—Galway—crying out for me. An old P.P. drove up the whole way from Kerry, three hundred and fifty miles, to ask me personally to take over a school in Killarney. “We would be honoured to have you, Mr. Boyle,” he said.’

(p. 226)

They do not even listen to each other, so intent are they on beautifying their own pasts. The audience becomes unnecessary in this most private of exercises. When they are made aware of each other again their self-esteem has to find another way to satisfaction, and they proceed to taunt each other.

‘Go home to your hovel, wherever it is!’ father roared. ‘Bloody tramp!’

‘Beannafreaghan is the place for you!’ M. L'Estrange called back. ‘The back end of nowhere!’

‘And where did you pick up the name L'Estrange, eh? I know who you are, Monsieur Illusionist L'Estrange: your real name's Barney O'Reilly, and you were whelped and bred in a thatched cottage in County Galway!’

‘They wouldn't give you a job in the town if there wasn't another teacher in the whole country!’

(pp. 228-229)

These middle-aged men need their rosy pasts. It provides them with a sort of retrospective hope they have now lost. In the young boy real hope is still strong, and, as in many other stories, the relevance of the thematic interest is extended by contrapuntal treatment. He had been hoping to go off with M. L'Estrange as an apprentice illusionist in order to escape the Dublin boarding school that was waiting for him (another of his father's grand dreams). When his dreams are reduced to tears his mother is at hand to comfort him back to the down-to-earth reality of their life. She is not an ‘illusionist’ like the others, she does not search for her dreams in France, Germany, Spain or India but in the there and then, in repeating the normal everyday tasks as a natural part of one's life. There may, however, be an element of deferred gratification in her final words, “when the good weather comes,” suggesting that even these simple pleasures are only arduously come by. The boy's reaction at the very end of the story is significant. “I stopped crying and smiled into her breast because every word she said was true. But it wasn't because I remembered that it was true that I believed her, but because she believed it herself, and because her certainty convinced me.” (p. 233)

It could be argued that Friel, in this and other stories, comes out in favour of the simple local pleasures as the best road to happiness, and against seeking one's fortune in other parts of the world, and that this implies a passive acceptance of one's lot. Foster would probably agree with this. He ends his discussion of Friel's stories with the following statement: “By unconsciously closing off his options, Friel severely restricts the universality of his work. It seems to me that Friel, by refusing to test or breach the social and moral premises of the rural area in which his stories are set, is in danger of confining his work within a regionalist framework.”41 By common critical consensus ‘a sense of place’ is one of the most pervasive qualities in Friel's work. His commitment to his own people is almost total as is his intention to describe them without judging them. Those are his self-chosen options. “If you write with a certain truth about any situation or any people, even though the rest of the world isn't well versed in the peculiarities, I think you can acquire a kind of universality,” Friel himself has said.42 Foster is looking for something that is not there because it was never intended to be there. His discussion is heavy-handedly interpretative, and it frequently goes outside the stories for his ideas and judgements.43

The ending of “The Illusionists” (quoted above) is interesting in the way it presents the young boy's attitudes to his own past and the memory of past events. It suggests the emotional nature of memory and recognises the importance of outside influences on the ‘factual reality’ of these events. Friel himself questions the validity of facts in the shaping of individual memory. “The facts. What is a fact in the context of autobiography? A fact is something that happened to me or something I experienced. It can also be something I thought happened to me, something I thought I experienced. Or indeed an autobiographical fact can be pure fiction and no less true or reliable for that.”44 So fact and fiction blend, the imagined becomes the truth and vice versa. Any human being becomes the author of his own past. Friel goes on to give as an example (interesting and relevant because of the light it throws on a similar memory in two stories, “The Wee Lake Beyond” and “Aunt Maggie, the Strong One” and in the play Philadelphia, Here I Come!) one of his own childhood memories:

The boy I see is about nine years old and my father would have been in his early forties. We are walking home from a lake with our fishing rods across our shoulders. …

And there we are, the two of us, soaking wet, splashing along a muddy road that comes in at right-angles to Glenties main street, singing about how my boat can safely float through the teeth of wind and weather. That's the memory. That's what happened.45

But his memory does not quite tally with the truth of geographic facts, “there is no lake along that muddy road,” and “since there is no lake my father and I never walked back from it in the rain with our rods across our shoulders.” This may be the logical conclusion to draw, but to Friel

[w]hat matters is that for some reason … for some reason this vivid memory is there in the storehouse of the mind. For some reason the mind has shuffled the pieces of verifiable truth and composed a truth of its own. For to me it is a truth. And because I acknowledge its peculiar veracity, it becomes a layer in my subsoil; it becomes part of me; ultimately it becomes me.46

It is part of Friel's technique to emphasise the past, and especially its emotional and less precise properties, as one of the shaping influences on any individual and his life. There is an acute awareness of the inevitable passing of time, and the author is always careful to extend the time scheme in different directions to enlarge and deepen the thematic development. To this end the father-son relationship in “Among the Ruins” also serves to include previous and later generations. The story represents Friel's most sustained effort in this line. It is a journey back to childhood and its memories, and its images and ideas dominate the story completely. In the course of the afternoon Joe is seeing again what had become since then a layer in his own ‘subsoil’. To start with, the outcome of the event seems to suggest little more than the common-place ideas of the ravages of time. Everything round the old farm is different, the river is only a “trickle of water,” the forest a “sad little cluster of oaks” (p. 11). But worse, much worse, is the fact that Joe finds reasons for doubting his own memory of things, and that he is reminded of certain negatives he had forgotten. What seemed to him at first “the uninterrupted luxury of remembering” (p. 9) soon turns into something different.

Why, Joe wondered, had he been so excited about the trip that morning? What had he expected to find at Corradinna—a restoration of innocence? A dream confirmed? He could not remember. All he knew now was that the visit had been a mistake. It had robbed him of a precious thing, his illusions of his past, and in their place now there was nothing—nothing at all but the truth.

(p. 16)

But there are more important and revealing correspondences within the story. The truth may not be enough to sustain the memory and the mind makes its own picture. This picture is personal and intensely private and cannot be communicated to any other human being. Joe cannot explain to his wife what was so funny about the words (“sligalog” and “skooka-look”) that he and his sister made up while playing in the bower. At first he does not realise the significance of his son's “donging the tower” all by himself, and he fails to unite these invented words which signify the same thing. Once the link has been established Joe believes he can reach a more understanding relationship with his past.

Generations of fathers stretching back and back, all finding magic and sustenance in the brief, quickly destroyed happiness of their children. The past did have meaning. It was neither reality nor dreams, neither today's patchy oaks nor the great woods of his boyhood. It was simply continuance, life repeating itself and surviving.

(p. 18)

Another example of this “continuance” is the way Joe and his sister Susan laugh at their own “privacies” and how this is projected into the future by Joe's children, Mary and Peter, when they “fell into a fit of laughing at their private joke” (p. 9).

References to the nature of memory are fairly frequent in Friel's stories. Sometimes they are momentary reflections only, not developed into the thematic context of the story, but nevertheless expressing an important quality. There is the short but explicit reference in “The Fawn Pup”: “Memory is strange—and kind—in many ways. It will play back short tantalizing sequences of the whole tape and then go silent” (p. 90); in “Aunt Maggie, the Strong One” there is a similarly mechanical metaphor: “Only his brain was crystal clear, sharp, alert, recording everything that was taking place for some future time when it would play it all back to him” (p. 191). Of a different kind is the creative Irish hyperbole in “Kelly's Hall”: “I can scarcely convince myself that I do not remember the scene although the baptismal water must still have been damp on my head that evening.”47 Finally, however, it is the illusive quality about remembering that Friel returns to; how the mind seems to push away the less attractive memories. Johnny in “Everything Neat and Tidy” experiences this transformation: “Yet when he went home to his own house in the town … he forgot the chaos and the decay and remembered only the tranquillity of their lives” (p. 104). The emotional nature of memory is stressed; both in theory: “[k]nowledge of all he had witnessed could no longer by contained in the intellect alone but was dissolving already and overflowing into the emotions” (p. 195), and in action: “To this day, I have never been certain about what happened then: I have never been able to distinguish between what I felt and knew then and what I think now I must have felt and known then” (p. 120). These vague and wistful qualities determine the individual's response to the world around him. They are deeply emotional and personal and exist only within the individual himself. They cannot be communicated.


In “Among the Ruins” Friel extends the treatment of the past to take in the impregnable and private aspects of the individual. In spite of the suggested truce between Joe and his past at the end the overwhelming impression is one of aloneness in emotional affairs, of people being largely “incommunicado.”

On the way home, a sense of aloneness crept over him. Once he gave in to the temptation to glance in the mirror, but it was already dark outside, and Errigal was just part of the blackness behind them. He should never have gone back, he knew: at least, he should never have gone back with Margo and the children [my italics].

(p. 15)

There are private regions that can never be reached by somebody else. “She knew and understood him so well” (p. 8), Joe confidently tell us at the beginning of the story, and so she does, as far as is humanly possible. But Margo can never “understand” Joe's private memories. Apart from some momentary irritation when she was trying to do just that, she is, however, very understanding towards the privacy and intimacy of Joe's memories.48 The aloneness that Joe experiences, and that is one of Friel's most persistent themes, is existential and cosmic. It is a condition of life that has to be accepted for people to be able to relate to each other. Love is certainly possible, but far from perfect. For George Barrow in “The Visitation” the incommunicability of his own emotions is an unavoidable fact. Talking about his wife he says: “she understands better than Wilkinson did, he thought, counting the steps automatically as he always did now; but even she does not understand fully; no one can understand fully how I feel to-day; no one.”49There is no reason why we should doubt the existence of love between wife and husband in these stories. The same is true of “Everything Neat and Tidy”. The difference is that whereas the wives in the first two stories have a considerable part to play, Johnny's wife, Mary, hardly figures at all. Johnny's loneliness is fresher and more acute than that of Joe in “Among the Ruins,” he has not yet come to terms with it. His mother-in-law, Mrs. Mac, has reached a calm that threatens Johnny's mental well-being.

Mrs. Mac had escaped. She was at peace, no longer frightened by the past and the morass of memory, but her release had deprived him forever of the farm and the Sunday afternoons and all the tidy, attainable ambitions of his single days. Chilled by this sudden personal disaster, he drove faster and faster, as if he could escape the moment when he would take up the lonely burden of recollections that the dead had fled from and the living had forgotten.

(p. 110)

His vicarious dreams of the farm have left a gap in him, his “attainable ambitions” are gone, and in order to survive with his dignity intact, he may have to embrace more unattainable dreams in the future. It is significant that both these men, who experience their loneliness so intensely, are married. The existence of a wife and children is not per se a cure against this loneliness. It may, however, help to alleviate the effects. Joe seems to have accepted it, Johnny may well do so in the future. For many of Friel's bachelors, on the other hand, the exposure to loneliness is even more intense and has a more distinctly physical quality. They are, in a sense, outsiders, and they are under pressure from all quarters to conform. In “The Highwayman and the Saint” Andy is forced to marry in order to escape being sent away to do a job in Belfast. Catherine in “Straight from His Colonial Success” keeps taunting their visitor about his unmarried state. Another bachelor, Maurice Barry in “Stories on the Verandah”, is sharply contrasted with two of the other inmates in the County Donegal Hospital for Tuberculosis, both of whom are married. The two of them suggest that Barry should get married—“It's a sheer waste, isn't it, Field?”—and these constant reminders unsettle Barry.50 On his way home with his own two maiden aunts and Uncle George, Barry meets Mrs. Field with their eight children and Mrs. Porter, “wearing a dazzling scarlet frock and a mad yellow hat.”51 The expression may be a bit awkward and overcharged here but there is no mistaking its purpose. Barry's regrets are for the lack of a worldly wife and for the fear of a more permanent state of loneliness, and “he heard only snatches of what they said because a loneliness that was close to despair had settled on him, he knew, forever.”52 A similar realisation hits Harry Quinn in “The Widowhood System”. He, however, can convert it instantly into marriage thanks to the presence of the long-waiting Judith.

Talk of the cock led him to Handme and the Fusilier … sitting in the dusk of the loft, discussing automation, their feet ringed with empty bottles, waiting for replenishments. The more he talked of them, the funnier they seemed to be. Never before had they seemed funny. After all, they were his friends, his best friends. But now, for the first time, he saw them in another way, and they were ludicrous—two middle-aged men wasting their lives, waiting for a pigeon to come home? He began to chuckle. The chuckle grew into a laugh. In the end, he was laughing so that his sides hurt and his eyes were streaming with water. And in the crook of his arm Judith was laughing, too, and crying, too. And for that half hour, for all the crying, they were the happiest couple in the whole of Mullaghduff.

(pp. 142 - 143)

The unit of the family is, as suggested earlier, an important presence in Friel's work, partly because the society in which Friel finds his events and characters is a society where marriage and the family are especially significant. In spite of the fact that socio-economic factors and social mores made marriage particularly difficult and generally late, it has always been regarded as preferable to bachelor- or spinsterhood.53 Once married, the tendency was for large families with many children. In Friel's stories images of infertility are frequently contrasted with vigorous fertility. They are particularly obvious in “Foundry House”, “Ginger Hero”, “The Widowhood System”, and “Stories on the Verandah”.

In certain respects the family can usefully be seen as a community, different from a village community, but with similar clashes between individual and society.54 The family can also be a constricting influence on the individual member. There has to be a balance between the needs of the family and the needs of the individual. The father-son relationship is a recurring theme in these stories. As usual, Friel is trying to be ‘fair’ to both by shifting the point of view constantly. In most of the stories with a first-person narrator the child is the narrator, a more effective point of view for ironic insight into adult life, but in a few notable examples, “Among the Ruins” and “The Wee Lake Beyond”, the father becomes the focus and can express deeper and more experienced truths. The difficulty for the young boy to differentiate between his father at school and at home in “My Father and the Sergeant” is matched by the vacillating attitudes towards his son in the father of “Among the Ruins” and “The Wee Lake Beyond”. It seems as if the embarrassment level is at its chronically highest in the father-son relationship. There can be no direct genuine communication between them.“But still he seems watchful of me, as if I have some secret advantage I am concealing from him,” says the father in “The Wee Lake Beyond”.55 This suspicion is hard to dispel and dominates the relationship. It is easier to communicate naturally with Grandfather or Grandmother, Uncle or Aunt than with one's own father. Nevertheless there is a finer affinity between fathers and sons in Friel's work than in any other relationship. But it operates underground and its expression is made difficult by the proximity and the complexities of the connection. The generation gap is always an important consideration in these stories. They span over the whole duration of human life to take in illness, old age, and death as well as early boyhood and youth. The “continuance” referred to in “Among the Ruins” operates on all levels. There is a sad awareness of the inevitable passing of time, and here the “continuance” is a comforting concept suggesting perhaps ‘intimations of immortality’.

The father-son relationship is also indirectly discussed in stories where the young narrator compares mother and father. In O'Casey's Juno and the Paycock Mary's expected child will not have a father but what is “far betther—it'll have two mothers.”56 There are several Juno-like women in Friel's stories, though their idealisation is not as powerful as in O'Casey. Friel's women are strong and capable and include one or two viragos. Mothers generally are “purposeful and competent” like in, paradoxically, “A Man's World”, and they are the organising influences behind the family in “Among the Ruins”, “The Death of a Scientific Humanist”, “Foundry House”, “The Potato Gatherers”, “My True Kinsman”, and “Aunt Maggie, the Strong One”, more than enough for a pattern to crystallise. Men and fathers are inefficient and impractical. They never finish their crossword puzzles and are frequently lazy. The narrator's mother in “The Death of a Scientific Humanist”, who is left to make all the arrangements for Uncle Cormac's funeral, exclaims: “O God, protect me from useless men!” (p. 29) The mother in “The Illusionists” is certainly a doer rather than a talker. As the two men get progressively more drunk and their conversation more and more self-indulgent, her impatience with them grows: “You're nothing but a pair of bletherskites!” (p. 225) She leaves them to their futile talk. “Throughout the whole afternoon and evening she never stopped working, baking bread, washing clothes in the zinc bath, boiling nettles for the hens, scalding the milking tins, chopping vegetables for dinner the next day” (p. 225). In the underlying theory the position of Irish women is very strong. In Catholicisism and in the worship of the Virgin Mary Irish women are given the right of control over certain aspects of their lives and these are frequently enforced with great energy. But it is important to realise that these aspects are very much limited to the traditional role played by women in Irish society. Their position within the home and the family may be strong, but not in society generally, as a result of this strict division of labour. Friel's stories reflect this. His women are in charge of the home and the family, including, not surprisingly, religious affairs. They are tied to the home and in only one or two cases, the cleaning woman in “The Diviner” and Tom's wife running a small shop in “Ginger Hero”, is there any sign of women working independently of husband and home.

The predominance and excellence of the Irish short story has been frequently and variously commented upon. The only relevance of this tradition for the present purpose is to establish that Friel exists as part of this history. His stories are now very much part of his early literary career. Since the mid-sixties he has devoted himself completely to the theatre, and the stories must be said to take second place to the plays when it comes to estimate Friel's overall body of work. They were well received and it was certainly not for lack of success that Friel turned to drama. Sean MacMahon considered Friel “the most likely successor to Frank O'Connor as Ireland's leading exponent of the genre,” and hoped that he would not turn away from the writing of short stories.57The Times Literary Supplement called The Saucer of Larks, his first collection, “an intelligent and pleasing book.”58 Taken together the stories are remarkable in their consistent and sensitive treatment of a range of themes that Friel has explored in his close observation of the people who inhabit his well-known local habitat. The sense of rural and small-town Ireland is strong, and social, economic, religious circumstances combine in shaping the nature of life for his characters. There is an acute awareness of the shortcomings of the material background in satisfying these people's needs. A characteristic mood in these stories is sadness, a disappointment that time should pass so quickly, that existence should be so precarious and fragile, that the individual, who has little to rely on outside himself should be so painfully lonely. Friel's creative sensibility is tragic. His people are subjected to the inevitable and arbitrary workings of fate, a force that cannot be rationalised or defined. There is a wistfulness about the quality of life experienced by these people, who find it extremely difficult to live in the present, and prefer the past or the future. The present cannot be defined or arranged according to one's own will with the same control that can be exercised when it comes to expressing the past or the future. Children have a special place in Friel's stories, and their failure to understand the ways of adult life serves to point out some of its absurdities. Childhood and old age have more in common than either of them has with adulthood. There is nostalgia for the innocence of childhood, and respect and sympathy for old age. The imperfections of adulthood are all too obvious and treated with mild impatience.

Friel's handling of the short story is largely traditional. Most of the stories are intimate in their tone and personal in their concerns. The main crisis always happens on the level of the individual and affects the way in which this individual is used to dealing with life around him in all its different manifestations. When an insight into life is hinted at its expression is vague and wistful, a response that is emotional as well as rational, and the meaning of the story may not be entirely contained in the events described. This would be in line with Friel's idea of existence as only partially definable, confirming the view that one's grasp on reality is uncertain. There is a nucleus of dialogue which reveals Friel's interest in a dramatic medium of expression. His short stories are a very significant part of his work and represent a private expression of intensely felt impulses. The major themes as they reveal themselves in the stories were to return in the plays, the difference being that the public form of the theatre had required a different approach to the subject, an adoption of new techniques.


  1. G. B. Shaw, John Bull's Other Island (London: Archibald Constable and Co., 1907), p. XXXIV.

  2. Brian Friel, The Saucer of Larks (London: Victor Gollancz, 1962), p. 93. “Kelly's Hall” was first published separately in The Sign as “My Famous Grandfather.”

    In my treatment of Friel's stories references will be made to three different editions: the two original collections, The Saucer of Larks (London: Victor Gollancz, 1962) and The Gold in the Sea (London: Victor Gollancz, 1966); frequently, however, the reference is to a later collection, The Saucer of Larks: Stories of Ireland (London: Arrow Books, 1969), which contains stories from both the original collections. Since a majority of the references are to the latter edition these will be given parenthetically in the text. References to either of the two original collections, or to other sources, will be given in notes.

  3. The Saucer of Larks, p. 93.

  4. Ibid., p. 104.

  5. New Yorker, 24, August 1963, p. 85.

  6. Ibid.

  7. Ibid.

  8. Ibid.

  9. In “Kelly's Hall”, too, the influence of Gaelic is felt. The English of the narrator's grandfather “was never very comfortable.” The Saucer of Larks, p. 94.

  10. The Saucer of Larks, p. 104.

  11. Ibid., p. 90.

  12. Ibid., p. 96.

  13. Acorn, pp. 4 - 5.

  14. Ibid., p. 13.

  15. Maxwell, p. 40.

  16. Edmund J. Miner, “Homecoming: The Theme of Disillusionment in Brian Friel's Short Stories,” Kansas Quarterly, 9, No. 2 (Spring 1977), p. 95.

  17. Ibid., p. 96.

  18. Foster, p. 71.

  19. Ibid.

  20. Brian Friel: Selected Stories (Dublin: Gallery Press, 1979), p. 13.

  21. The Saucer of Larks, p. 135.

  22. Ibid.

  23. Ibid., p. 132.

  24. Ibid., p. 135.

  25. Maxwell, p. 17.

  26. The Gold in the Sea, p. 161.

  27. Ibid., p. 168.

  28. Ibid.

  29. Corkery, p. 240.

  30. The Saucer of Larks, p. 155.

  31. Ibid., pp. 154 - 155.

  32. Ibid., p. 155

  33. The Saucer of Larks, p. 114.

  34. Foster, p. 64.

  35. Brian Friel: Selected Stories, p. 14.

  36. Lady Gregory, Poets and Dreamers: Studies and Translations from the Irish (Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe, 1974), p. 98.

  37. The Saucer of Larks, p. 94.

  38. Ibid.

  39. The Gold in the Sea, p. 75.

  40. “Salutation”, Pennyburn Boy's Anniversary Magazine 1954 - 1975 St. Patrick's Boys' School, Derry.

  41. Foster, p. 72.

  42. The Irish Times, 12 February, 1970, p. 14.

  43. I fully support Seán McMahon's view of Foster's book: “The most obvious characteristic of Dr. Foster's book is the application of the heavy machinery of anthropological criticism to subjects that can scarcely bear the weight,” and “it has no equipment for measuring aesthetic worth.” Eire - Ireland, 10, 1 (Spring 1975), pp. 153 - 154.

  44. Aquarius, No. 5, 1972, p. 18.

  45. Ibid.

  46. Ibid.

  47. The Saucer of Larks, p. 91.

  48. It is impossible to agree with Edmund J. Miner's view of Margo. “Neither man [Joe Brennan in “Foundry House” and Joe in “Among the Ruins”], of course, has a sympathetic or understanding wife: their husbands' boyhoods, in the final analysis, provide both women with some measure of amused contempt” (p. 99).

  49. The Kilkenny Magazine, No. 5 (Autumn/Winter 1961), p. 14.

  50. The Saucer of Larks, p. 213.

  51. Ibid., p. 215.

  52. Ibid.

  53. On the link between marriage and socio-economic factors in general see, for instance, Brown, pp. 24-25 and 259-260.

  54. In one of Friel's stories, “The Skelper”, the two concepts are joined. There was, about the Skelper, “an atmosphere of mocking superiority … that cut him off from the family oneness of the village” (p. 234).

  55. The Gold in the Sea, p. 69.

  56. O'Casey, I, 86.

  57. Seán McMahon, Threshold, No. 21 (Summer 1967), p. 172.

  58. The Times Literary Supplement, 19 April 1963, p. 261.

    In recent years there has been renewed interest in Friel's best stories. In 1979 the Gallery Press brought out a new selection, Brian Friel: Selected Stories, and in 1983 the same stories were published by The O'Brien Press in their Classic Irish Fiction Series under the new title The Diviner.

Further Reading

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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 detached observer, consciously setting out to loosen up, to interrogate and subvert the set patterns of thought and feeling, the fixed discourses, the stereotypes of routine perception.”

Harp, Richard Robert C. Evans, eds. A Companion to Brian Friel, pp. 510. West Cornwall, Conn.: Locust Hill Press, 2002.

Contains three critical essays on Friel's short fiction.

O'Brien, George. Brian Friel: A Reference Guide, 1962-1992, pp. 136. New York: G. K. Hall & Co., 1995.

Primary and secondary bibliography of Friel.

Additional coverage of Friel's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: British Writers Supplement, Vol. 5; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-24R; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 33, 69, 131; Contemporary British Dramatists; Contemporary Dramatists, Ed. 5; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 5, 42, 59, 115; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 13; Drama Criticism, Vol. 8; Drama for Students, Vol. 11; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Ed. 1; Reference Guide to English Literature, Ed. 2; and Twayne's English Authors.

George O'Brien (essay date 1989)

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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 heart.”1 He has lived in rural County Donegal since 1969, and the generic village of Ballybeg where many of his plays are set is (to cite a typical reference) located “in a remote part of County Donegal”2—than which it is difficult to imagine a place more remote.

The appeal of the rural hinterland of Donegal was enhanced by the relocation of the family in Derry city when Friel was ten, his father having transferred to a teaching position in the Long Tower school there. Friel attended this school before completing his secondary education at Saint Columb's College, Derry. From there he went to Saint Patrick's College, Maynooth, the Republic of Ireland's national seminary near Dublin. Friel spent two-and-a-half years here, and has referred to it as “a very disturbing experience.”3 Instead of going on for the priesthood, as might be expected of a seminarist, he graduated with a B.A. and took a postgraduate teacher-training course at Saint Joseph's College, Belfast. By 1950 Friel's formal education was complete. For the next ten years, following in the professional footsteps of his father and two sisters, he taught school in Derry.

Since terms such as Northern Ireland, Ulster, and Border will recur throughout much of what follows, it seems appropriate at this point to provide a brief sketch of the larger sociopolitical background in which Friel grew up. The Irish province of Ulster consists of the island's nine northernmost counties. When juridical and administrative autonomy within the British Empire seemed imminent in the early years of the twentieth century, as a result of constitutional agitation for Home Rule for Ireland, the predominantly Protestant population of Ulster's northeastern counties resisted the possibility. The fruit of their loyalty to the British crown, and the reward for their political party, the Unionists, was the establishment of a parliament to rule the six loyal counties. Provisions for this state to come into being were made in the Government of Ireland Act, 1920, and the Northern parliament was opened in 1921, shortly before the signing of the treaty bringing to an end hostilities between Crown forces and the twenty-six nationalist, predominantly Catholic counties that made up the rest of Ireland. Thus Ireland was partitioned, and the Border between the island's two jurisdictions has remained a painful source of contention.

In addition, the defensiveness from which the Northern Ireland state originally arose became enshrined in its social policies and public institutions: “the course of events subsequently tended to perpetuate divisions and perpetuate allegiances.”4 Derry, Northern Ireland's second largest city, had since the state's inception suffered in a particularly blatant fashion from the ruling Unionist party's juridical and social inequities. Despite the majority of its citizens being Catholic Nationalists, they had virtually no chance of replacing the monopoly of Protestant Unionists on the city council, a monopoly maintained by careful gerrymandering of the city's electoral wards and by plural voting rights based on property holding. Friel's father was active in Nationalist circles in the town, as was Friel himself for a period. But the combination of social deprivation and political frustration had a strongly alienating effect, as Friel later recalled: “The sense of frustration which I felt under the tight and immovable Unionist regime became distasteful.”5

There is no evidence to suggest that Friel's career as a writer began as an expression of withdrawal from, and implicit resistance to, the atmosphere of Derry in the 1950s. As the subsequent discussion of his early stories will point out, the stories delineate stagnation and limitation and the occasional moment of bittersweet illumination. What is notable in the formative years of Friel's career is his commitment to writing, which cannot have been easy while carrying on a full-time teaching career and becoming a family man (he married Anne Morrison in 1954, and they have four daughters and a son). Clearly he was helped by a contract with the New Yorker, which had first refusal on his stories. By 1960, the year that Friel quit teaching to write full-time, he had published many of the short stories collected in The Saucer of Larks (1962), and he had had his first dramatic efforts—for radio—accepted. At this point, Friel was preeminently a short story writer, working in the essentially pastoral mode of the Irish short story in the interwar period, whose best-known exponents are Frank O'Connor and Sean O'Faolain, though Friel's work is nearer in tone and touch to the lesser known and unjustly neglected Ulster story writer, Michael McLaverty.

Two radio plays, A Sort of Freedom and To This Hard House, were broadcast in 1958. Both are not quite conclusive evidence in support of Friel's admission that, “As for playwriting it began as a sort of self-indulgence and then eventually I got caught up more and more in it.”6 Compared to the deftness of his stories, however, they are stiff and overearnest. Yet within five years Friel's theatrical entanglement had become so severe that to take charge of it he spent three months in early 1963 at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, Minnesota, to observe Sir Tyrone Guthrie rehearse Hamlet and Chekhov's Three Sisters for that theater's inaugural season. This sojourn and the risky decision three years earlier to resign from teaching mark the decisive turning points in Friel's career.

The Guthrie Theater commemorates by name the rich theatrical legacy of its founder, Sir Tyrone Guthrie. A veteran of theater in England of the 1930s and 1940s, when he was closely associated with London's famous Old Vic Theatre and had directed all the luminaries of the English stage—Charles Laughton, Laurence Olivier, Flora Robson, John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson—Guthrie had an equally illustrious set of international credentials. One of his most enduring achievements is the foundation of the Stratford, Ontario, Shakespeare Festival, a landmark on the North American theater calendar since Guthrie began it in 1952. Guthrie also revolutionized postwar theater design with his innovative use of the thrust stage—a stage that breaks the conventional boundary of the proscenium arch by thrusting itself into the body of the audience, which as a result is more directly affected by and intimately associated with the drama. In all, Guthrie was a consummate man of the theater and ambitious in his sense of the theater's importance, as the confession of faith made at the close of his autobiography, A Life in the Theatre, makes clear: “I believe that the purpose of the theatre is to show mankind to himself, and thereby to show to man God's image.”7 These qualifications, together with the fact that Guthrie had Ulster connections (though he was born in England, his family home, to which he retired and where he died, was in County Monaghan), ensured that the four months Friel spent in Minneapolis were crucially instructive, particularly in view of his belief that “indigenous drama was a valuable element in both national development and international understanding; that art must spring from the soil; that to be authentic was important in speech and action, not just on the stage but always and everywhere.”8

The immediate result of Friel's journey to Minneapolis was his first and largest hit, Philadelphia, Here I Come!, which, apart from its innovative use of two actors to play two different aspects of the protagonist, enabled Friel to present a more vivid and complex set of perspectives on familiar material: “It was a play about an area of Irish life that I had been closely associated with in County Donegal. Our neighbours and friends there had all been affected by emigration …”9 (though Friel goes on to say that the play's subject is love rather than emigration). Friel's post-Minneapolis attitude toward his material is informed by the same affections and attachments as previously, but disciplined now by a much more sophisticated sense of theatrical possibility and aesthetic distancing. The plays immediately following Philadelphia (those produced between 1964 and 1968) certainly bear witness to Friel's rapidly developing dramaturgical mastery.

In 1969 Friel offered a new play, The Mundy Scheme, to the Abbey Theatre, Dublin—Ireland's national theater—which rejected it. The play marks, in Friel's words, “a completely new direction”10 in his work, and has for its subject the farcical, self-serving, self-aggrandizing character of contemporary Irish politics. At the same time, however, political activity in Northern Ireland was taking a decisively violent turn. Demonstrations and protest marches in support of civil rights for the minority population incurred a wrathful, violent reaction at the grassroots level of Unionism. This reaction led to the introduction of British troops to keep the peace between the two communities. In response to this move, violent elements on the minority side took arms against the troops.

The enumeration of atrocities and aborted political initiatives resulting from the violent polarization of Catholic Nationalist and Protestant Unionist factions is beside the point of the present purpose. It must be noted, however, that in the case of Derry, the climactic episode of civil disorder was the killing of thirteen civil rights protesters by British troops during a demonstration on 30 January 1972, subsequently known as Bloody Sunday. Prior to this event, Friel had said that because “I have no objectivity in this situation” and “I don't think there is the stuff of drama in the situation”11 he could not envisage writing a play about it. This attitude changed substantially: The Freedom of the City, first produced in 1973, is based on the events of Bloody Sunday and its aftermath and introduces a more public, communal, cultural, and historical set of themes to Friel's work. The increasing intellectual complexity and dramaturgical finesse with which Friel treats these themes in his plays of the 1970s find their most elaborate expression in his most admired play, Translations, which had its first night in the Guildhall, Derry, a building that is a symbol of power and alienation in The Freedom of the City.

Translations was the first production of the Field Day Theatre Company, founded in 1980 by Friel and the actor Stephen Rea. The company has produced most of Friel's plays since Translations, has commissioned work from some of the finest contemporary Irish writers,12 and has toured Ireland, north and south, with its productions, “adding to the artistic links which are being forged.”13 In 1983 a directorate of Field Day was formed, consisting of such prominent Northern Ireland poets and intellectuals as Seamus Heaney, Seamus Deane, and Tom Paulin. (Friel, Rea, and the noted Northern Ireland broadcaster David Hammond complete the directorate.) The immediate result of this development was publication of the first three of a series of controversial pamphlets.

It is unlikely that Friel believed that Field Day's purpose should be the same as the one he suggested to the editors of a local Derry magazine in 1970: “The editors of a little magazine must have one purpose and a total conviction of their ability to achieve it: their purpose must be to change the face of the earth.”14 Nevertheless, there is no doubting the commitment of Field Day in its pamphlet form:

In brief, all the directors felt that the political crisis in the North and its reverberations in the Republic had made the necessity of a reappraisal of Ireland's political and cultural situation explicit and urgent. All the directors are northerners. They believed that Field Day could and should contribute to the solution of the present crisis by producing analyses of the established opinions, myths and stereotypes which had become both a symptom and a cause of the current situation. The collapse of constitutional and political arrangements and the recrudescence of the violence which they had been designed to repress or contain, made this a more urgent requirement in the North than in the Republic, even though the improbability of either surviving in its present form seemed clear in 1980 and is clearer still in 1985.15

Initially concerned with literary and cultural topics, the pamphlet series has subsequently broadened its scope to deal with historical and juridical areas. The effect of these pamphlets has been considerable, and they have fueled the contemporary debate about past and future in Irish thought.16

Friel has received many of the honors that his country gives to writers. He was elected to the Irish Academy of Letters in 1972 and became a member of Aosdana, the national treasury of Irish artists, in 1982. The National University of Ireland granted him an honorary D.Litt. in 1982. In honor of his cultural commitment, and also, no doubt, his artistic achievements, Brian Friel was nominated in 1986 to a seat in the Irish Senate, the consultative lower house of the Irish Parliament. He accepted this unusual nomination and is the first Irish writer to serve in this capacity since the poet W. B. Yeats, whose term as senator came to an end in 1928, the year before Friel was born.


Between the appearance of his first short story, “The Child”17 and the publication of The Gold in the Sea, Brian Friel had an extremely successful career as a writer of stories. Two collections—a total of thirty-one stories in all18—were published and received a generous critical reception from such notables as Sir Tyrone Guthrie and Edna O'Brien; and their judgment has been endorsed by the eminent English critic Walter Allen, who considers Friel “a natural story-writer” who “accepts his findings about life … without reservations and … transmits admirably the feel of ordinary life.”19 These books were reviewed in prestigious newspapers and periodicals, and both had British and American editions. Such attention was merely a ratification of the already high profile acquired by the stories as a result of their initial publication in such periodicals as the New Yorker and the Atlantic Monthly. In short, from the beginning Friel's work has won and held an international audience.

As The Saucer of Larks: Stories of Ireland (a selection of stories from The Saucer of Larks and The Gold in the Sea) makes clear, there is little sense of development in Friel's story-writing. He came to his world and its themes early and, rather uncritically, remained with them until committing himself completely to the theater. This is not to say that all of Friel's stories are alike, or that their world gains in blandness what it fails to attain in diversity. On the contrary, they contain a variety of themes and a reasonably broad spectrum of character. It is fair to say, however, that each bears a family resemblance to the others. Beneath their circumstantial differences and somewhat differentiated personnel, Friel's stories possess an essential kinship. And while on the one hand the stories' family likeness tends to blur their particularities, it also alerts the reader to the possibility that the combination of likenesses ultimately make up an articulate map of an integrated imaginative world.

Friel's primary source for this world, and a fundamental ground for its imaginative integration, is the landscape of his childhood. In D. E. S. Maxwell's words: “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.”20 In fact, as Maxwell points out, Derry City, Friel's home town, does not feature very prominently in the stories; only Johnny and Mick” (SOL [The Saucer of Larks], 133-43) seems to be set in it (while Derry is undeniably the story's setting, the city remains unnamed).21 Thus, the stories' terrain is that of the author's preadolescent years. Broadly speaking, the landscape is that of the Northwest quadrant of Ulster, in particular the northwest corner of County Tyrone and the county to the immediate northwest of that, Donegal.

To most of Friel's readers, including many in Ireland, this stretch of country is virtually a definition of remoteness and unfamiliarity. Most Irish readers, however, would note that Friel treats it in a revealingly anachronistic manner by ignoring the Border, which divides it. County Tyrone falls under the jurisdiction of the British Government, and from 1920 to 1973 was within the remit of a parliament in Belfast. County Donegal, on the other hand, is in Eire, the Irish Republic. Friel in his stories remains as oblivious of the Border as the youthful narrator of “Mr. Sing My Heart's Delight,” traveling “the forty-five-mile journey by train, mail car, and foot across County Donegal to my granny's house which sat at the top of a cliff above the raging Atlantic at the very end of the parish of Mullaghduff” (SOL, 168).

Friel's apparent indifference to the Border has elicited a certain amount of critical comment: “In his Irish context there is no place for the Border, and it does not seem to exist in his writing, where his characters, especially in the short stories and early plays, move from west to east and from north to south without the Border being mentioned. … Friel frequently deals, both directly and indirectly, with the tragic consequences of Partition, but his subject matter is the whole island of Ireland.”22 This statement enlarges Sean MacMahon's comment, particularly apropos Friel's stories, that the Border “seems not yet to have affected his writing”23 The alternative approach, of course, is that of John Wilson Foster in his Forces and Themes in Ulster Fiction: “It seemed best … to disregard the border as a precise cultural divide.”24

Friel's exclusion from his fictional world of this basis fact of sociopolitical life may be interpreted in a variety of ways. There is a dearth of evidence for the assertion that the Border is sublimated by the author's all-Irish concerns. As to Sean MacMahon's point, it all depends on what affect means, as we shall see. Moreover, it is not true that Friel completely overlooks the Border issues. The stories “Johnny and Mick” and “The Death of a Scientific Humanist” (GIS [The Gold in the Sea], 55-68) examine aspects of a Border-influenced reality. The former story has at its core a sense of irreparable, unconscious social division, while the latter can be read as an oblique, vaguely satirical commentary on Ulster's religious narrow-mindedness. If, in general, Friel's stories studiously avoid the Border, they remain even more silent about the fact that their domain is almost identical to that of the ancient tribal lands of the powerful O'Neill and O'Donnell clans, the last of the native Irish polity to resist the Elizabethan colonization of Ireland. It is undoubtedly true that “the territory of Brian Friel's short stories and plays is that borderland of Derry, Donegal, and Tyrone in which a large Catholic community leads a reduced existence under the pressure of political and economic oppression.”25

Ultimately, however, Friel speaks for a culture, not a polity. At the same time, there is a strong sense of division in the world of Friel's stories. Indeed, the existence of two worlds is evident in the actual landscape itself. Of Tyrone it has been said that, “though a large and pleasing area, [it] is lacking somewhat in special interests, topographical, biological, or archaeological … a curiously negative tract, with a paucity of outstanding features.”26 The same author writes of Donegal, however: “there is nowhere else where the beauties of hill and dale, lake and rock, sea and bog, pasture and tillage, are so intimately and closely interwoven, so that every turn of the road opens new prospects, and every hill-crest fresh combinations of these delightful elements.”27 Friel doesn't necessarily endorse these views: Mullaghduff, in “Mr. Sing My Heart's Delight,” for example, is “even on the best day in summer … a desolate place” (SOL, 169). For Friel, however, the issue is not topographical: the prominent foregrounding of character in his stories is much more to the point.

The divisions are between different areas of life. One area is the world of work, duty, and the discipline of family structure, and has the general label Tyrone. The other is a world of play and the relaxation of family constraints—an asocial world. This is generally known as Donegal. Thus while both worlds contain poverty, the repressive social character of poverty is examined in a story set in a field in County Tyrone (“The Potato Gatherers,” SOL, 79-89), while in “Mr. Sing My Heart's Delight” Granny almost in the same breath exclaims “We are poor people here! We have nothing!” and “A feast it'll be then. … A feast and be damned to Sunday” (SOL, 176), expressing a purely personal overriding of poverty.

In “A Man's World” (SOL, 106-15), the difference between the workaday Tyrone world and the Donegal world of holiday is made explicit. Here, however, the narrator learns that such demarcations are not permanent; neither world protects its people from their weaknesses. It may be argued that in Friel's Donegal stories, “poverty is presented as a condition of life, a natural and unavoidable part of the community,”28 but clearly the poverty endured by Granny in “Mr. Sing My Heart's Delight” is less corrosive than that which seems the unhappy birthright of the child laborers in “The Potato Gatherers.” In the latter case, the impersonally mechanical source of their work (the farmer on the tractor) not only fails to yield an adequate wage but is also a symptom of cultural deprivation.

Nevertheless, “it may be dangerous to hazard too many generalizations about the differences between those of Friel's stories that are set in Donegal and those that are set in Tyrone or Derry.”29 Not everyone in Friel's Tyrone is a settled member of society; not everybody in the Donegal hinterland is endowed with a romanticized remoteness. The stories in general confirm Tyrone Guthrie's view that “a close attachment to, and interpretation of, a particular part of the earth is an absolute essential to any work of art which can ever be of deep or lasting significance. It is one of the paradoxes of art that a work can only be universal if it is rooted in a part of its creator which is most privately and particularly himself. Such roots must sprout not only from the people but also the places which have meant most to him in his most impressionable years.”30 Friel's fictional world, however, only superficially embodies the degree of homogeneity Guthrie suggests. Moreover, Friel has successfully disguised his own presence in his world by placing in the forefront of the stories “the submerged population groups,” which in Frank O'Connor's influential view denote a short story's typical social reality.31 Friel's stories communicate a variety of submergences that are as much cultural and temperamental as they are economic or political.

They present, then, two zones, one broadly speaking the domain of nature, of the natural, the presocial or asocial, in man; the other, generally speaking, the social. Thus, as in the case of the actual terrain on which they draw, the stories may be crudely divided into two kinds which seem in direct contrast to each other. In fact, the stories and their zones complement each other. Together they add up to a world, since together they subscribe to an essential condition of any inhabitable place, variety. Just as, for all the topographical contrasts, there is a basic, indispensable continuity in the land between Omagh and the sea, Friel's stories exemplify difference and cohesion.

However convenient it may be to group the stories into nature-Donegal and social-Tyrone, it must be borne in mind that an arguably more important aspect of the stories is that they resist facile categorization. Their resistance to generalization is also a feature of their inner particularity. Ostensibly dealing with stereotypes and stock situations, these stories reveal a restlessness, loneliness, and frustration beneath their typically even-tempered surfaces.

The significance of nature can be readily appreciated from the title story of Friel's first collection. “The Saucer of Larks” tells of a visit to Donegal of two German civil servants whose job it is to locate the grave of a Luftwaffe pilot lost in action during World War II. The pilot has been given a decent burial by the locals who found his body. Now, however, it has been decreed that all German war dead in Ireland must be buried in a commemorative mass grave in County Wicklow, not very far from Dublin. To assist Herr Grass and his colleague, the local sergeant of police and his deputy, Guard Burke, act as guides to the pilot's grave, which is in a remote spot named Glennafushog, the larks' glen, “a miniature valley, a saucer of green grass bordered by yellow sand dunes” (SOL, 12) at the end of a promontory fronting the Atlantic ocean.

The trip takes place on a beautiful day, through what the sergeant refers to as “my kingdom … the best of creation” (SOL, 9). As the group proceeds farther into nature, the sergeant becomes increasingly susceptible to the surroundings, noting in particular their fitness as a last resting place: “Dammit, there's so much good life around you, you haven't a chance to be really dead!” (SOL, 10). But pleasure is modulated into more profound feeling, and light-hearted banter gives way to unspoken intimations of mortality, when they reach the saucer of larks. Their arrival is climaxed by an ascension of singing larks, performing in the natural amphitheater that is their home a hymn to life and to the departed: “The air was a great void of warmth around them. Gradually the emptiness was filled again by the larks.” (SOL, 15).

The larks' performance is presented as a counterpoint to the sergeant's state of mind. He does not express his feelings directly, however: he communicates them by asking Herr Grass to consider leaving the pilot in his perfect resting place. Herr Grass replies that such a possibility is unthinkable, and back in the familiarity of the barracks and his daily round the sergeant implicitly agrees: “‘I don't know a damn what came over me out there,’ he said in a low voice, as if he were alone” (SOL, 17). Whatever it was, it denotes in the story a power, emanating from nature, sufficient to make the sergeant lapse from duty and glimpse areas of his makeup to which his social role cannot give access. In contrast to Herr Grass, who is not at all moved by what he sees or deflected for a moment from his sense of duty, the more the sergeant moves outside his daily round the more he is moved by the pulse of greater things. Considerations of life and death enter his consciousness to the extent that he is willing to overturn his professional code of impersonally obeying orders. At the same moment as the sergeant entertains such an idea, the historical casualty (the airman) is claimed, and nature is at its most expressive, the lift-off of larks acting as a confirmation of the spontaneous and unexpected scope of the Sergeant's humanity. Yet, as the end of the story maintains (and as the detached presence of Guard Burke and Herr Heinrich, Grass's colleague, underlines), the sergeant is alone in his intimations, so much so that he can hardly comprehend their significance.

A similarly restorative experience, with perhaps more permanent consequences, is felt by Joe, the protagonist of “Among the Ruins.” This story is also set in Donegal, among what Joe refers to as “my hills” (SOL, 22), and again a trip provides the story's narrative basis, even though Joe has been reluctant to accede to his wife's insistence that he take her and their two children back to see his rural birthplace.

His reluctance is understandable, since when they arrive they find the ruins of the story's title, not the homestead. In more general terms, physical evidence of the social unit which was Joe's family has given way to the purely natural features of the place. These stimulate Joe into recapturing the happiness of his childhood, the inexplicable laughter he and his sister shared. Yet when his own son, Peter, becomes lost in his own incomprehensible play, Joe treats the boy as violently as his own father treated similar breaches in discipline. The effect of that reaction, however, is to prompt Joe into appreciating his son's play: “The fact that Peter would never remember it was of no importance; it was his own possession now, his own happiness, this knowledge of a child's private joy” (SOL, 29).

As a result of this perception, Joe is enabled to repossess his own childhood and its naturalness, perhaps a more fundamental piece of psychic property than “my hills.” Its acquisition crystallizes the story's undogmatic but deeply felt interdependence of human nature and its impersonal counterpart. The story fittingly concludes, therefore, with a moving, knowing sense on Joe's part of what the trip has vouchsafed: “The past did have meaning. It was neither reality nor dreams, neither today's patchy oaks nor the great woods of his boyhood. It was simply continuance, life repeating itself and surviving” (SOL, 30). The experience of naturalness acts as a precondition for thought. The function of thought is to secure an accommodation between self and world, and to heal the effects of divisions made by time while in the very act of fully acknowledging them.

A similar sense of continuity emerges from “The Wee Lake Beyond,” again in the context of a father-and-son relationship. Here the independence asserted with typical adolescent surliness by the narrator's son evokes memories of comparable behavior by the narrator when he was an adolescent. This story's emphasis is more obviously psychological than that of “Among the Ruins.” Once again, however, the mediating factor that facilitates awareness in the story is nature. The narrator's youthful break from his father, his petulant sally into a remoter area of their fishing holiday, the “wee lake” in which he catches sight of the great fish—”I never saw so big a fish in any Donegal lake before or since” (GIS, 76)—that is the mythical, irrepressible, elusive symbol of his new-found autonomy, all denote the pattern of connections between natural and human phenomena, and the expressive capacities their relationship attains in Friel's stories.

In “My Father and the Sergeant” the local hills are referred to as sources of wealth (SOL, 191). Their value, and that of Friel's overall use of the natural world, is that they do not provide a passive backdrop. Nature acts in the stories as an authorizing presence, enabling those who come in contact with it to recognize dimensions of themselves to which they might otherwise remain blind. The revelatory moments—epiphanies, to use a term minted by James Joyce32—give access to the unconditionally human, the human unmasked of its social conditioning. Nature's active presence—which is presumably what Walter Allen has in mind when he commends “The Saucer of Larks” for placing us “in the presence of something like Wordsworth's natural piety”33—is commissioned by a seemingly natural, or fortuitous, or unplanned encounter.

Friel's characterization of nature as a further, relatively unexperienced dimension of the human is underlined in stories which use natural phenomena in a manner which is the reverse of spontaneous and fortuitous. These stories feature animals as the means of bringing about the degree of personal recognition necessary for life to attain “continuance.” The animals in question—a bantam cock in “Ginger Hero,” a racing pigeon in “The Widowhood System,” a greyhound in “The Fawn Pup,” greyhounds in “The Barney Game”—are devices intended, through training, to enable their owners to lay a firmer claim to their world than they otherwise can. Nature thus is anthropomorphized, adapted to a plan, domesticated, disciplined to direct its instinctual play toward specific, vaguely social ends.

The full implications of such adaptation are to be seen most clearly in “Ginger Hero.” Here, as in the other animal stories, Friel reveals his knowledge of local culture: cock fighting and pigeon racing are endemic to Ulster, and the former is a pastime particularly favored in the province's border areas. As is often the case in Friel's stories, the central characters in “Ginger Hero” are conceived in terms of opposites and unities. Tom, the narrator, is an easy-going laborer and father of a large family. Billy, his partner, is his superior in most ways—decisive, Tom's immediate boss at work, handler and trainer of the champion bird which gives the story its title. In addition to being partners in the cock-fighting venture, the two are brothers-in-law: Tom is married to the nagging, fertile Min, while Billy and the ample, good-natured Annie are childless.

On one level, the story narrates the illustrious history of Ginger Hero's career, culminating with his victory over Colonel Robson's Tiger, a victory for which Ginger, alas, pays the ultimate price. This final victory is obviously important, not only because of the honor and glory which it earns Ginger, but also because it earns substantial winnings as well (cock fights being traditional occasions for illegal gambling). On another level, however, which comes fully to the fore when Ginger is in his death-throes, the fighting encourages a natural intimacy between Tom and Annie (the latter, being childless, is free to accompany the men to the fights). While Ginger is dying, Tom and Annie are making love. Soon afterwards, Billy and Annie start a new life in England, and eventually Tom receives news that they are expecting a child. Meanwhile, Tom's own marriage improves: due to Ginger's earnings, Min has opened a shop (named Ginger Hero) and is blooming.

Billy may be the one to discipline the bird; indeed, they seem to be of a feather, judging by the details of his description—he's a former “bantam-weight boxer” with “two tufts of bright ginger hair that sprouted from the top of his high cheekbones” (GIS, 168). It is clear also that Billy needs the violence of cock fighting and the fulfillment and absoluteness of victory. Tom, on the other hand, is the man for more tentative and accidental human tasks. He is much less implicated in the machismo of the enterprise; thus, fittingly, he adds a human dimension to it. Since it is not Tom's way to espouse the brutal, direct, do-or-die ethos by which Ginger offers Billy fulfillment, he emerges from the story as the character who lets natural instincts take their unforced, disarming course—a course that would be far less evident without the ostensibly distracting but ultimately clarifying presence of Ginger Hero.

It seems relevant to see “Ginger Hero” in these terms, specifically, in view of the assertion that Ginger's final fight “invokes the conflict between the English landowners and the Irish peasantry.”34 While it is true that both Tom and Billy work on Lord Downside's estate, this aspect of their lives seems to be mentioned in order to ground the characters. Billy is by far the more ardent aficionado, though he earns more than Tom. Just as “The Saucer of Larks” has a historical aspect, “Ginger Hero” has a socio-economic component. In both cases, material that could lend itself to conceptual analysis lies latent and underdeveloped, suggesting that Friel means to express solidarity with the image of the human that the story seems naturally to bring into being. It may be that the intense play of human emotions can have effects as lacerating as those inflicted by a cock on its opponent. But their mode of expression is not necessarily brutal and can be creative.

Similar issues are presented in “The Widowhood System,” though because the approach is broader (featuring, for example, a couple of “rude mechanicals”35 from the village of Mullaghduff) the outcome is less affecting. The system in question has been perfected by Harry, the pigeon fancier, and enjoins his would-be champion bird to sexual abstinence prior to a race in the belief that this will cultivate his homing instincts. It doesn't, any more than Harry's allegedly Mendelian breeding system has produced a champion. The verdict delivered on both systems by Harry's unprepossessing sidekicks is that they are “not natural” (GIS, 26).

The way Harry treats the girl next door, Judith Costigan, is not natural either. (As is “Ginger Hero,” there is explicit paralleling between human and animal: Judith is “plump, smooth, hazel-eyed” [GIS, 14]. Again, the parallel is introduced to establish a conflict at a deeper level, a conflict between reason or “system” and instinct or “nature.”) Only when he's had a few too many drinks is he capable of expressing affection for her. Judith permits herself to be taken for granted in this manner, but only up to a point. Unlike a pigeon, whose homing instincts, Harry explains, operate “as simple as if he was running on railway lines” (GIS, 21), Judith can't function with such a mechanical degree of consistency, as her response, “Lucky bird … lucky, lucky bird” (GIS, 22) indicates. When Judith departs from her predictable round amidst rumours that she may be thinking of emigrating, Harry realizes the inadequacy of his approach to her, a realization that coincides with his acceptance that his “widowhood system” for the pigeon has also been misconceived. Ultimately, the pigeon can only go its own way. Permitting this to be the case finds, for its reward, happiness with Judith.

The genial vein of “The Widowhood System” is also that of “The Fawn Pup” (the stories even share a minor character, Fusilier Lynch, a dilapidated sportsman), where the eponymous animal has been so carefully looked after that, on its first night out, it shames its owners by deviating from the track to be by their side. The dog's indiscipline, its having never learned, parallels its owner's exuberant outlook. The initial impulse to train the dog comes from the fact that the owner, a teacher, has an exaggerated belief in the capacities of his former pupils, a number of whom are engaged as trainers. The hoots of a derisive crowd at the track and the unwholesome condition of the track itself bespeak the state of local society. For a moment, this state's reality and the dog's failure dampen the teacher's spirits. Before the evening is over, however, “he was in good humour again” (SOL, 51), this impulsive, credulous nature undiminished by his exposure to elements more wordly wise, less playful, less puppyish than himself. Like the dog, the man has not succumbed to the ethos of the track and its mechanical race.

Things are rather more serious in “The Barney Game,” where the nonhuman exemplars, the hounds and the hare, give piteous expression to the exploitative sport that Crispin, the insecure lawyer, plays with his good-natured slob of an uncle, Barney. It may be “all blood sports disgusted” Crispin (GIS, 106), but he is plainly unaware of how the phrase blood sport describes the way he treats his relative. And indeed, much as Crispin might wish to jettison the game (“He was sick of it all” [GIS, 111]) in favor of a more honest approach, when this approach is attempted, the quarry, uncle Barney, resents it: Barney needs the illusion that there is not a game as much as Crispin needs the hard cash which is the game's object. The relentless manner in which the hounds kill the hapless hare has the effect of confirming Crispin in his own game (surely Friel intends the reader to see the double meaning of game in this context): “After all these years it had now become part of his nature” (GIS, 114).

By doing so, the game has frayed the bonds of natural attachment that hold Crispin to Barney. Crispin cannot believe that his love for his uncle might be all Barney needs: Crispin has to have money too. As in the other stories where animals intervene, the capacity for doing the human thing in order to sustain relationships is seen problematically. The ulterior motive, ostensibly the enabling agent in these stories' various plans, schemes, and systems, turns out to have disabling results, usually because their initiators give human contrariness insufficient credit. The essentially unsystematic and unpredictable character of human behavior defines human nature in these stories. The point made about the protagonist's father in “The Fawn Pup”—“these were anomalies in his make-up that left him larger than any pigeonhole” (SOL, 41)—applies to all the protagonists of these stories.

Nature, however, in either animate or inanimate form, supplies the context in which this largeness may be perceived. The animal stories do not discriminate between the places in which this context appears: “The Fawn Pup” is set in and around Omagh, in County Tyrone (SOL, 41), “Ginger Hero” in Donegal, “The Barney Game” (unusually) in Coleraine (GIS, 104), County Derry. The stories of inanimate nature's influence are set in County Donegal. Place seems less relevant than what is revealed within it. The same may be said of character. Their names—Tom, Harry, Joe—may be as undistinguished as those of their locales. Yet it is from their virtual anonymity that their stories are made. The frailty, blindness, and imperfections that these characters reveal at the individual level are both revealed and relieved at the generalized level provided by natural contexts. D. E. S. Maxwell's observation about “Johnny and Mick” that “its representativeness depends upon its realizing a distinctive individual situation”36 describes Friel's overall achievement in the nature stories.

One of the features of the nature stories is that they tend to deal with figures in a landscape, rather than figures in society. As Friel's social stories bear out, being in society means having an institutional life. In the nature stories, the characters' membership in institutions has either temporarily lapsed or has never been established. And in the social, or Tyrone, stories, the enlarging epiphanous moments nature vouchsafes are replaced as narrative objectives by instances of illusion and disillusion, confirming that society imposes constraints—constraints of duty, class, work, and family. Just as nature's epiphanies do not promise permanent enlargement, social constraints are not necessarily seen in an adverse light. The sergeant at the end of “The Saucer of Larks” implicitly wonders if he was not behaving in a deluded manner when asking the Germans to disobey orders, arguing for his dependence on the round of weekday duties that places him in a distinctive social role.37 Nevertheless, a pattern of being blinded to the ways of the world and of coming to perceive such to be the case is discernible in those stories of Friel's which have an explicit, developed social setting. Moreover, this pattern has a reciprocal relationship to the nature stories. Thus, while in one sense Friel's fictional world appears to be a divided one, the complementary relationship between his family of nature stories and his family of social stories demonstrates its essential imaginative unity.

The theme of illusion is most fully and most satisfactorily treated in what has been called Friel's best story,38 “Foundry House.” Since childhood, Joe Brennan has been in awe of the Hogan family, foundry owners and inhabitants of the big house in whose gatelodge Joe grows up. Given the chance to return to the lodge, Joe accepts with alacrity and moves in with his large brood and genial, level-headed wife, who is rather less enamoured of the Hogans. The Hogan family has by this time grown up, and only the bedridden pater familias, Bernard, and his wife still live in Foundry House. A family reunion of sorts is in the offing, however, prompted by the arrival of a tape-recorded message from the daughter of the house, Claire, a nun in Africa. To play the message, Joe's expertise in matters electrical is required. He supplies the tape recorder and installs it.

Joe's expertise means much less to him, however, than the fact that it enables him to see the inside of Foundry House for the first time. What the reader sees is a state of total neglect: what Joe sees, however (as he tells his wife later), is “very nice,” an untruth that is one of a tissue of misrepresentations about the events of the Hogan reunion. Thus, Joe does not describe the excruciating bathos of Claire's tape, nor does he reveal that at the sound of his daughter's voice old Bernard has an attack. He steadfastly maintains his claim that the Hogans are “a great, grand family.” The story ends: “‘The same as ever,’ he crooned into the child's ear. ‘A great family. A grand family’” (SOL, 67).

The presence of Joe's large family in the “chaotic” (SOL, 66) kitchen to which he returns after the reunion provides one of the main contrasts between his life and that of the Hogans. The Hogan children, Sister Claire and Father Declan, are obviously destined to remain childless. Their self-imposed condition of repressed fertility seems to be Foundry House's most obvious legacy, its version of “continuance.” Joe cannot accept for what they are the ruins among which he finds himself, unlike his namesake in “Among the Ruins.” But Joe's illusions of family grandeur are not based on his actual experience of the family. His halting speech in their company eloquently expresses his unease, his unconscious awareness of the extent of the cultural distance between them. What remains important to Joe is the idea of the family. The judgment that it is a story in which “the only true aristocrat is the imagination,”39 points to Joe's latent, undemonstrative idealism.

In this light, the fact that both he and the Hogans are Catholics is noteworthy. As Catholics they are essentially detached from the larger context of the Northern Ireland state—the house is off “the main Belfast-Derry road” (SOL, 53)—and their religion ostensibly gives them common ground. The connection between Joe and the family, however, depends not on social enablement but on social disenfranchisement. Thus, it is only in his own mind that Joe can preserve and cherish the family's significance. His sense of the family is both real to Joe and disclaimed by the world upon which it is based. In other words, Joe's attachment to the Hogans is a real illusion, its very transparency articulating the layers of deprivation and obsolescence which Joe implicitly requires it to mask. It evokes sympathy for being so understandable in human terms, rather than condemnation for its social inadequacy.

The objective, disillusioning view of the Hogan family as a social institution seen over Joe's shoulder, so to speak, is the basis for Joe's subjective need to go on glorifying the family.40 In “The Illusionists” there is a similar dispelling and reinstallation of illusion. The annual visit of M. L'Estrange, the magician, to the young narrator's school stimulates his desire to escape the narrow confines of school and home. It also stimulates his father, the schoolmaster and L'Estrange's host, to wax eloquent about putative professional achievement. The guest also is an eloquent praiser of his own past. The story focuses on the visit during which the two men, fueled as usual with whiskey, denounce each other's tall tales of glory. This does not deter the narrator from following through with his ambition to set out with L'Estrange. But this illusion of novelty and success is quickly dispelled. The child, having barely traveled beyond the first turn in the road, where he finds a drunk L'Estrange floundering, returns home disenchanted. By way of consoling the boy, his mother tenderly paints a verbal picture of all the bright days ahead in which the stuff of their daily lives are touched with an imaginative glow.

L'Estrange has been exposed for the “sham” and “fake” (GIS, 40) the mother has known him to be all along. The narrator's father has unmasked his pseudonymous claims to notoriety: “I know who you are, Monsieur illusionist L'Estrange: your real name's Barney O'Reilly” (GIS, 40). The boy himself has found the illusionist's theatricality to be wanting. L'Estrange's annual visit may be an overture of spring, as the story's opening sentence insinuates, but it is nothing like the real thing—nothing, that is, like “the great fun we'll have—oh dear God it'll be powerful—when the good weather comes” (GIS, 44). Immediately following those words of his mother, however, comes the narrator's acknowledgement that they too contain a necessary illusion: “I stopped crying and smiled into her breast because every word she said was true. But it wasn't because I remembered that it was true that I believed her, but because she believed it herself, and because her certainty convinced me” (GIS, 44). It is not the therapeutic powers of good weather that is the point so much as the fact that the mind needs to ascribe such potential to a future that it cannot control. Once again, it is not the existence of an illusion that articulates the story's substance, but the reality of and necessity for illusion.

The illusions that the illusionistic teacher-father cherishes about his professional achievements are matters of fact in the case of the teacher-father in “My Father and the Sergeant.” And perhaps as a corollary, the father in “The Illusionists” cannot, or does not, give his son an alternative world by which he might satisfy his imaginative longing, while the father who is also a “sergeant” devotes his professional life to directing the scholarship class (which includes his narrator-son) to a wider world so that he will not “rot his life away” (SOL, 191). The story examines the duality that its title expresses by contrasting the father's ambitions with the pedagogical style of Paul Desmond, hired as a substitute when the father falls ill.

The substitute's style is to dispense with the curriculum and appeal to the pupils' imaginations. His is the soft spirit of romance: the sergeant is the stern voice of reason. Yet, for all the eye-opening encounters with unfamiliar lore that Desmond effects, he does not seem in control of his own romanticism. His unstructured, institutionally subversive approach leads to his kissing Maire, the narrator's beloved classmate, and a hasty, scandalous departure. The sergeant leaves his sickbed to take over, and things in school revert to pitiless drill, while the narrator is restored to Maire. Reality, comprising the necessary doubleness of discipline and love, has returned.

Yet such an outcome is not necessarily a critique of what Paul Desmond provided. Rather it is a commentary on its insufficiency. More compelling, according to the story, is the teacher-father's suppression of romance in the classroom in the belief that this serves the purpose of the outside world—that is, the world of Boards of Education, prestigious secondary schools and the like: a world of complex social institutions, in fact. This is a world that has defeated the teacher-father; hence, for all his pedagogic gifts, his spending “the whole of his restless life” in a “one-roomed building” (SOL, 182) in rural County Tyrone.

It would be unkind to label as illusion the teacher's ambitions for his pupils. At the same time, however, that ambition has the same degree of psychological necessity and perfection of vision typical of the reality of illusion in “Foundry House” and “The Illusionists.” Once again, this story's central figure is characterized in terms of his poverty (which in this case is caused by the failure of his career to develop), and of the dignity with which he fashions the persona of “sergeant” to cope with his poverty. The fragility of such a creation is captured in the story's concluding vignette, in which the narrator, restored to things in their familiar arrangement, sounds as though this is the state in which he believes they will last. He doesn't know any better; hence has no need of a persona (or, rather, his narrator's persona does not influence the story's effect). The naive wish expresses the poignant desire.

The character of Desmond, and to a certain extent that of L'Estrange, brings to the fore an important type in Friel's social stories: the outsider, the interloper who unwittingly exposes or redefines the accepted codes and accommodations of the status quo. His influence in the social stories is comparable in its effect to that of animals in the nature stories, and his presence communicates a similarly complex ethos in which issues of freedom, discipline, and expressiveness are inconclusively but resonantly combined. The outstanding case in point is “The Diviner.”41

This story deals with Nelly Devenny, a charwoman, who having made a disastrous marriage to an alcoholic, remarries after his death a man who to all appearances is “the essence of respectability” (GIS, 116). Nobody can be sure of this Mr. Doherty's credentials, however, since he is not from Nelly's village of Drumeen and is the opposite from being sociable. It turns out that appearances have been deceptive. When, after a boating accident at a local lake, Mr. Doherty's body is eventually recovered, his coat pockets are found to contain whiskey bottles. Nelly's illusion of respectability is shattered.

Her husband's body would never have been recovered without the intervention of the diviner, the story's most obvious outsider, summoned from afar to work his uncanny skills where more physical methods have failed. But the recovery of the body and the subsequent shock to Nelly's social standing is not all the diviner accomplishes. His detachment from Nelly's social world is a precondition for her being detached from the status her new husband had almost brought her: “Hers … were not only the tears for twenty-five years of humility and mortification but, more bitter still, tears for the past three months, when appearances had almost won, when a foothold on respectability had almost been established” (GIS, 127-28).

Nelly's social loss, in turn, seems an act of divination, raising to the surface assumptions about the village of Drumeen and its social codes. The story concludes with prayers being said for the soul of the departed, a gesture that highlights how little Christian charity is being extended to his widow. In this context, Nelly's illusion of respectability is a more significant model of integrity than that suggested by the institutionalized response generated by the local priest. As for the diviner, his impersonal, pragmatic contribution has created ripples on the surface of Drumeen for which nobody is either willing or equipped to take moral responsibility. His arrival denotes the latent capacity for revelation that lies beneath the commonplace. It might even be thought that the diviner is, like L'Estrange and Paul Desmond (whose real vocation is painting), an artist manqué.

The role of the priest in “The Diviner” (and the possibility that the story's title may be a sly pun on the priest's calling) underlines the generally adverse social contributions made by the Catholic clergy in Friel's social stories. A priest is responsible for the shape assumed by the teaching career of the narrator's father in “My Father and the Sergeant.” Clerical attitudes are seen at a disadvantage in the matter of the burial of the narrator's Uncle Cormac, the eponymous outsider in “The Death of a Scientific Humanist.” In “The First of My Sins” the child-narrator's first confessor ratifies the rapid withdrawal of adult sympathy from Uncle George, whose petty thievery the narrator has betrayed. The result is the narrator's realization that it is with the outsider that his own sympathies lie, not with the moral structures that support those institutions seeking to define the scope and play of those sympathies, Church and family. And when spurned, outlandish Grandfather wants to embarrass the narrator's mother in “My True Kinsman”; he ironically inveighs against her religious punctiliousness: “Not off to confession, again, daughter-in-law? Heavens, woman, but you must lead a profligate life!” (SOL, 70).

“My True Kinsman” is a vivid example of how an outsider's presence reveals the confines of those institutions of which he is not a member. And the narrator's decision to give his grandfather the money meant to buy iodine for a minor injury incurred by his mother is clearly a decisive moment in his development. Not surprisingly, it comes on his tenth birthday. In addition, the money may be seen to be far less valuable than what the grandfather provides, a cultural tour of the village of Mullaghduff, with a commentary delivered in “wonderful words” (SOL, 75). Naturally and spontaneously—which in this case means, unprompted by the dictates of an institution—the youngster allows himself to be taken under the maverick's wing. The shelter from the rain provided by the coat his grandfather loans him for his return home is a reciprocal gesture—spontaneous and winningly improvident. The coat's smell, previously found menacing, now exerts a talismanic force on the child: “The smell was through me and all about me. And I knew that as long as it lasted, I would have the courage to meet my mother and tell her the terrible news—that I had no iodine and no money and that Grandfather had got me” (SOL, 78). Ultimately, however, this state of affairs has come about because at some level the narrator wanted it. Whatever label may be attached to this level—individualistic, rebellious, cultural—it exists in counterpoint to the mother's decorous, institutional orientation. Acquaintance with it enlarges the child's sense of the knowable, gives him scope to fantasize, adds color to staidness, and not only justifies the existence of outsider figures but ratifies the basis of illusion. For, as the social stories collectively state, the reality of illusion is the human need for and acceptance of alternatives.

Friel's stories have been criticized on the grounds that the author, “by refusing to test or breach the social and moral premises of the rural area in which his stories are set, is in danger of confining his work within a regionalist framework.”42 The stories surmount this risk by embracing it. Their regionalist framework is the basis and core of their achievement, a source of enablement rather than of disenfranchisement. Friel has produced in the stories a literature appropriate to its world of origin and as a result has created a world indeed.

The basis of this world is its integrity. An overview of the stories reveals how the County Tyrone pieces function as a commentary on their County Donegal neighbors, and vice versa. Supplementing this generalized standpoint is a sense that nature provides what society is deficient in. Nature offers instances of detachment, escape, illumination, and perspective. It confers on its unsuspecting visitors the unsettling and enriching otherness of its presence. In animal form nature passively provides a focus that unobtrusively highlights the narrative material's human dimension. What social life represses, nature sustains, as the sexual aspect of “Ginger Hero,” “The Widowhood System,” and “The Wee Lake Beyond” illustrates. Thus, while it may be that “the vibrant solidity of settings is perhaps the strongest single impression left by the world of the stories,”43 it is difficult to overlook the characters who occupy the foreground of these settings and who, for all their failings, render the settings significant. It is Friel's people who occasion nature's amenability to discourse, thereby humanizing it.

Ultimately, however, people do not belong within the otherness of nature. Joe goes home with his family from the ruins of his childhood home; Tom and Min patch up their marriage by means of a familiar rural institution, the little shop. People belong with their own kind. Society offers the possibility of community and a refuge from what Pascal has called “the eternal silence of those infinite spaces.”44 In particular, the family offers shelter from the uncertainties of a seductive but unknowable wider world. So the boys in “My Father and the Sergeant” and “The Illusionists” discover. For adults, their hope is to drown the menacing silence. Hence the commitment of “the Sergeant” and old Con's insistence on the reality of buried treasure in “The Gold in the Sea”: they mean to be saviors.

Thus, while nature and society are distinct environments in Friel's stories, their distinctiveness is less important, finally, than the fact that they are not opposed. Rather, they are understood to be equally revealing and instructive manifestations of what the world at large contains and are presented as alternative, complementary perspectives on the human continuum (“life repeating itself and surviving”). The success of the stories, taken as a whole, is to a considerable extent their gentle but insistent representation of reciprocity and compatibility between what might conventionally be considered irreconcilable categories—reality and illusion, nature and society, mountains and men.

Such harmony may also be found in other aspects of Friel's fiction. Thus the stories preserve the geographical reality of their origins as well as being at the same time imaginative transmutations of that reality: rural names, such as “the townland of Knockenagh” (SOL, 182) in “My Father and the Sergeant” have been invented, but the country—“a shelf of arable land buttressing the face of grey-black mountains that keep County Tyrone from County Donegal” (SOL, 182)—is real.

Another, more delicate, example of the reciprocity between absence and presence in Friel's stories is the character of the author himself. It is through his self-effacement that we become aware of him. Rather than fill the role of author as authority-figure, Friel obviates his own controlling interest in events, preferring to share the essential passivity of his subjects. As a result the stories seem to take their own shape, in their own time. Their evolution is articulated through the formation of delicate networks of implication and resonance. The author's supple patterning of general context and individual case, of details that are matches and details that are equally illuminating mismatches, is one of the principle disciplines of these stories that a theme-seeking, schematic reading is liable to overlook. And as though to authenticate their being underwritten, the stories lack overt drama, and potentially dramatic incidents expressly lack dramatic responses on the part of those affected by them (Nelly's private, unstaunchable tears at the end of “The Diviner” is a particularly moving case in point). It is this very lack of clamor, either in language or in plot, that enables the reader to hear the key in which Friel's plainsong renders, in Seamus Heaney's phrase, “the music of what happens.”45

In his stories Friel has created an imaginatively integrated replica of the world of his early years. To require that the stories function as an interpretation of that world and “breach” its “premises” (as though it were a world under siege) is to risk misrepresenting the spirit of Friel's fiction. Friel's creation speaks not only to literature or in the idiom of literary criticism, it also addresses the world that is its origin and to which it has remained faithful in its fashion. Thus, while it is extremely doubtful that Friel wrote his stories to repudiate Winston Churchill's dismissal of “the dreary steeples of Tyrone and Fermanagh,”46 it must be counted among his stories' achievements that they effect such a repudiation. The stories rehabilitate the alleged “dreariness” not by disguising it but by revealing it, by seeing in it an opportunity for honesty rather than a reason for rejection. In Seamus Deane's words: “The narrowness of the social life is bitter, but the complexity of the moral life within is generous.”47

It is in the context of such loyalty to a world—a loyalty that is reproduced at the artistic level by the stories' many-sided integrity and urge to harmony—that the question of the Border in Friel's work may be considered. Rather than being invisible or having no effect on Friel's work, the Border between the North of Ireland and the Irish Republic makes a distinctive imaginative contribution to it. The stories implicitly accept the existence of a Border in the distinction they make between County Tyrone and County Donegal. But they also transcend that distinction by establishing reciprocal relationships between those two territories. Imaginative geography supercedes historical actuality.

To Friel the writer the Border is a word, a concept, a code, a criterion as palpable and invisible as any other cultural condition. As such, it does not exist in the world of his characters as a visible, objective, historical entity; it is a defining characteristic of their world that has been absorbed into the fabric of their lives. Friel's imaginative transmutation of geographical reality has effectively sublimated the Border as a physical entity. It has also allowed him, however, to insinuate the idea of the Border. Thus Friel has denied himself explicit mention of the Border so as to be imaginatively free to communicate its ethos.

Friel's characters, on the other hand, occupy positions that connote the opposite of such freedom. They are defined by constraint, limitation, and incompleteness. The majority of them are virtually anonymous. They experience various kinds of social marginalization. They are almost invariably Catholics, but neither their faith nor its institutions enlarge or alleviate their condition. Awareness of a wider world and a larger life comes from beyond the ambit of their daily round and through unfamiliar agents, human and otherwise. These agents, delegates of the absence at the center of the protagonists' lives, offer means of making deficiency admissable and containable.

In order to install those means firmly within the protagonists' narrow world, the need to cross borders must be articulated. Typically, Friel proposes no one way of articulating the need of making the crossing. In “The Saucer of Larks” the sergeant is obliged to consider an alternative to dutiful obedience. Tom breaks the barrier of marital fidelity in “Ginger Hero,” a triumph more worthy of his humanity than any made by the fighting cock. The narrator of “My Father and the Sergeant” allows Paul Desmond's influence: that enables him to live more securely than ever in his father's world. The alternative world—the world which the Border declines to admit—is the world that completes the actual world.

The willingness exhibited by Friel's protagonists to extend themselves in either thought or deed suggests their capacity to find the outsider in themselves, to inhabit a more natural and more complete edition of themselves than their restrictive, Border-haunted society can tolerate. Without borders there can be no outsiders. But without outsiders there is no alternative, there is no freedom to encounter an alternative. The spirit of freedom is what finally imbues the world of Friel's stories. It is this spirit that the reciprocity and harmony of his fictional world, considered as a totality, underwrite. (It is also this spirit, considered problematically, that animates Friel's plays.) Like so many other features of Friel's work, however, freedom has a dual character. By allowing his characters the freedom to exist defined by their own border mentality and that of their society he locates them precisely in geographical reality. They are real by virtue of their distinctiveness. Free to encounter alternatives to their restrictions, they inhabit imaginative geography. Thus they lapse out of their limitations and become unconditionally human.


The republication of Friel's stories in The Saucer of Larks: Stories of Ireland (1969), Selected Stories (1979), and The Diviner (1983) has kept the author's reputation as a writer of stories alive long after he abandoned the form. Yet the finality with which the appearance of his second volume of stories, The Gold in the Sea, ends the story-writing phase of his career is somewhat deceptive. Friel abandoned the form, but remained faithful to the world of the stories. Indeed, his adoption of the theater could be interpreted as a clarification and a public avowal of that fidelity. Rather than denoting a discrete creative period, subsequently marginalized by his playwrighting success, the stories are a seedbed for Friel's theatre. The claim that there is an intimate, though by no means totally congruent, relationship between Friel's stories and his plays offers a means of presenting a preliminary description of the integrity of Friel's imaginative terrain and the development of his artistic vision of it.

Superficial connections between the stories and the plays are plainly evident. The issue of capitation—the educational authorities' ruling that schools will be staffed and funded according to the number of pupils attending them—is the basis of the tense dynamic of autonomy and social structure in “My Father and the Sergeant”; it is also the basis of the plot in Friel's second play for radio, To This Hard House. The threnodial litanies of locales in two of Friel's most celebrated plays, Faith Healer and Translations, evoke the more private but equally expressive round of postings to which Mrs. Burke subjects herself and her husband in “The Flower of Kiltymore”: “from Kiltymore to Culdreivne, from Culdreivne to Ballybeg, from Ballybeg to Beannafreaghan, from Beannafreaghan back to Kiltymore” (GIS, 133-34). The linguistic difficulties experienced by the sergeant in “The Saucer of Larks” anticipates Translations by being a subtle metaphor for the more elusive incompatibilities of ethos within whose framework the story takes shape.

In addition, and less trivially, two of Friel's plays are based on short stories. Reworked, “The Highwayman and the Saint” from The Gold in the Sea becomes Losers in the dramatic diptych Lovers: Winners and Losers. The differences between the basic ingredients of both story and play—cast of characters, plot, and denoument—are negligible; in both cases, the protagonist is the victim of an unholy alliance between religiosity and its moral soulmate, hypocrisy. Yet, the two pieces are decisively distinct due to the nonnaturalistic devices that give dramatic force and point to the play. By disturbing the rather naive chronological development of “The Highwayman and the Saint” the play brings to the fore the material's inner reality. Losers presents a series of tableaux depicting the completeness of the protagonist's defeated condition. “The Highwayman and the Saint,” however, does not succeed in overcoming the material's anecdotal novelty. (As will be discussed below, Losers also gains in scope from being presented in the context of a diptych.) Thus, without making extravagant claims for Losers—in fact, Lovers: Winners and Losers is not in the first rank of Friel's plays—a comparison of the play with its original demonstrates both Friel's continuing thematic and geographical loyalty to his world and the degree to which his artistic possession of that world is enhanced by the sense of presence, projection, and completeness of effect that the theater provides.

The other adaptation of material from page to stage is a more graphic illustration of the principle of fidelity and departure generally articulated in the relationship between Friel's stories and plays. “Foundry House” is more substantial, and so is the play in which it is recast, Aristocrats.48 The relationship between the two pieces is illustrated by the story's most important scene, in which old Bernard Hogan's disabled condition takes a turn for the worse when hearing the tape-recorded voice of his daughter. The same scene acts as a turning point in Aristocrats, and to describe it as a turning point is to isolate the fundamental difference between the dramatic scene and its fictional counterpart.

In “Foundry House” the scene makes no difference either to the condition of the Hogan family or to the illusions of faithful Joe. The fact that old Mr. Hogan merely sinks further toward his end, without meeting it, underlines the essentially unchanging nature of things for all concerned. “Father” in Aristocrats, on the other hand, dies as a result of hearing his daughter's voice on tape, thereby releasing the rest of the family and its retainers into a more complex, more decisive, and more independent sense of who they are and what now they might do with their lives. If, as Seamus Deane has said, “the only true aristocrat” in “Foundry House” is “the imagination,” the achievement of the reworked material is to dignify the anachronistic aristocrats by endowing them with a reality principle. Not all the characters share this principle, or share it completely, but this does not invalidate it.

The revolution in perception indicated by a comparison between “Foundry House” and Aristocrats has a more general application when Friel's plays are considered in the light of his stories. Like many of Friel's stories and plays, both “Foundry House” and Aristocrats deal with families. Many of the families in the plays, however, lack the completeness of structure that the families in the stories possess. Partly due to the necessarily restricted child's-eye-view that communicates Friel's typical narrative perspective on them, families in the stories are generally seen as detached, discrete entities, tangentially if decisively connected to social structures more powerful than themselves. The plays, however, offer a different, more problematic sense of families.

A convenient way in which to outline the change—a change that exemplifies Friel's imaginative development—is to consider the relative status of mothers in the stories and in the plays. Broadly speaking, the stories have mothers, the plays do not. The role of the mother in, for example, “The Illusionists” makes her the voice of duty and practicality, bidding her son to attend to the chores instead of listening to the pair of male gasbags who drunkenly attempt to outdo each other with fantasies of rich pasts. Yet she is the voice also of containable illusion, encouraging the child to picture the year ahead, thereby implicitly easing the burden of the present. Thus, perhaps unwittingly, she participates, though in quietist and putatively realistic terms, in the activity of the two hopeless men. This power of influencing the child-narrator's conflicts, mollifying him by setting them in a continuum, is also evident in “The Death of a Scientific Humanist.” And while this regulatory office is not confined to mothers—as is borne out by, for example, old Con in “The Gold in the Sea”—it is more typical of mothers' behavior than it is of any other Friel character type. Therefore, the absence of mothers in the plays means the absence of a character who, in the stories, had a powerful integrative influence on the family—a presence that can keep the family more or less immune from the threat of other, more worldly, influences. So central is such a presence in the stories that it is possible to devote works—“My True Kinsman” and “The First of My Sins”—to accommodating alternative presences by which mothers might be challenged.

Perhaps because the plays cannot present a child's-eye-view it is impossible for them to ratify the gently ironic interplay between the reality of innocence and the illusion of safety that sounds the note of typicality in many of Friel's family, child-centered stories. In any case, the absence of such material from the plays seems consistent with the absence of mothers, and in turn these absences are consistent with deficient fathers, fragmented families, and the world at large flooding in upon indefensible homes. Friel's rejection of mother figures results in the family being considered more problematically in his work. The playwright's disinclination to be loyal to one of the crucial figures from the world of the stories results in dramas where family and other types of loyalty becomes a vital issue. A revealing reflection of this development is that while in plays such as The Gentle Island and Living Quarters natural families prove to be untenable, murderous institutions, plays like The Freedom of the City and Volunteers reconstitute a sense of family—replete with the pride, solidarity, and fondness for ritual long thought to be sources of cohesiveness in the natural family—from characters thrown together either by force of historical circumstances or for some other impersonal reason. Friel's reexamination of the family as an imaginative resource provides another striking illustration of the way in which the plays are both related to, and developments of, the stories.49

Similar observations may be made about the plays' use of place. The geographical reality of the stories is once again evoked in the plays. The wild young woman described as the mother of Gar O'Donnell, protagonist of Philadelphia, Here I Come!, seems to be from the same family as the narrator's granny in “Mr. Sing My Heart's Delight”: “She was small—and wild and young—from a place called Bailtefree beyond the mountains; and her eyes were bright, and her hair was loose, and she carried her shoes under her arm until she came to the edge of the village.”50 And both of them may well be blood relations of the eponymous heroine of “Aunt Maggie, the Strong One” (SOL, 122-32). Not all the plays are set in northwest Ulster, but there is a sense of hinterland in those that are that is quite as palpable as that provided by the natural settings of the stories. The big difference, however, is that virtually all the plays set in Friel country are set in Ballybeg. An anglicization of the Irish baile beag (small town), the name connotes a generic, archetypal, small, remote, rural community. In Ulf Dantanus's words: “In its social, economic and religious characteristics, in its implied political history, the village of Ballybeg is emblematic of Ireland and a part of Ireland rather than any one specific village in that area. In this respect Ballybeg represents an effort, on Friel's part, at the wider application of a place, towards some kind of local universality.”51

Regardless of this seemingly paradoxical intention, Friel has managed by creating Ballybeg to compress into one social and geographical entity the sense of place that is diversified throughout the stories. One of the effects of this act of compression is to render redundant purely topographical accuracy. The temptation of facile picturesqueness is resisted as completely as the temptation of easy sentimentality that mothers present. In addition, the crystallization of place that the invention of Ballybeg achieves means that nature is no longer available as the lieu theatrale of insight, as it had been in, for example, “The Saucer of Larks.” The role of nature is supplanted in the plays by that of culture.

This development does not mean that the characters in the plays are particularly cultured, at least not in the sense of high culture. In fact, those relatively few dramatic characters conversant with the classics—Hugh and Jimmy in Translations, Trilbe Costello and Mr. Ingram in The Loves of Cass McGuire—are just as doomed and deluded as those without learning. Culture, rather, should be understood as a vivid matrix of clichés, traditions, historical conditionings and misprisions, intellectual formulations, prejudices, and attachments that in the unevenness and contradictoriness of their interaction enact codes of affiliation between person and place in Friel's plays.52

As nature did in the stories, culture in the plays offers a context in which the distinct and solitary promptings of individuality may be experienced and reflected. Nature is a model of continuity whose counterpart is inescapability. It is a tissue of properties communally available but appropriated and utilized primarily by means of individual perception. Nature is the world without man, in which man can find reflections of himself. Similarly, culture offers models of continuity and collectivity. For Friel it provides a common mind-set which can both provide an identity to those who share it and constrain that identity's freedom and autonomy. Thus culture, being exclusively the work of man—being, in effect, the world according to man—offers a more complex, more focused, more condensed optic through which issues concerning self and world may be perceived. It will be seen that culture as a source of drama is one of Friel's enduring preoccupations as a playwright, present in plays as different from each other as Philadelphia, Here I Come!, Volunteers, and Translations, to mention only three very obvious cases in point. As though to maintain a link between the stories and that area of the plays that seems most distinct from them, however, Friel makes the character who is most resourceful, culturally speaking, take the role of outsider, as he did in the stories. And as in the stories, this character is most adept at changing roles, accents, and demeanors—at being theatrical, in fact.53

As though to confirm the salience of culture in the plays, language, culture's primary instrument, occupies a much more prominent place in Friel's theater than it did in the stories. In fact, language itself—its duplicities and resilience, its essential play—becomes one of the plays' subsidiary subjects. In general, there is greater verbal exuberance in the plays, an unexpected penchant for broad jokes, a marked increase in declaration and assertion, an obviously greater trust in conversation as an expressive device. The comparative paucity and generally nonproductive nature of conversation in the stories speaks eloquently of their protagonists' isolation. In the plays, however, the typical protagonist is inevitably a man of language, composing and recomposing his identity in the light of the cultural options to which his language provides access. Such activity does not necessarily cure the protagonist's isolation, but it does ensure that he is no longer the passive figure in a landscape typical of the stories.

The relationship between Friel's stories and plays, then, is complex and deep. On the one hand, it is clear that Friel's plays demonstrate how much he has rethought and outgrown the artistic origins revealed by the stories. The opportunities afforded by drama for both definitiveness of presentation and variety of approach to his material were clearly welcomed, and the material itself began to reveal nuances and potentialities of which the stories give little or no clue. Friel in his plays is a much more obviously individuated writer, intellectually committed and aesthetically adventurous to such a degree as to suggest that the theater was an artistic rebirth for him.

On the other hand, these advances are still very much in the service of the world of the stories, the modest characters who inhabit it, and the recessive culture that distinguishes and stigmatizes it. Moreover, Friel's development as a writer has not compromised the fundamental humanity that graces all of his work, and of which the stories remain the first, and not necessarily least, revealing articulation.


  1. Graham Morison, “An Ulster Writer: Brian Friel,” Acorn, Spring 1965: 14.

  2. Living Quarters (London: Faber and Faber, 1978), 8.

  3. Morison, “Friel,” 10.

  4. J. L. McCracken, “Northern Ireland (1921-66),” in The Course of Irish History, ed. T. W. Moody and F. X. Martin (Cork: Mercier Press, 1967), 320.

  5. Hickey and Smith, Paler Shade, 221. For further information on Friel's early professional years in Derry and the effect of the city's atmosphere on him, see Maxwell, Friel, 18-31, and Ulf Dantanus, Brian Friel: The Growth of an Irish Playwright (Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1985), 23-25.

  6. Morison, “Friel,” 4.

  7. Tyrone Guthrie, A Life in Theatre (New York: Limelight Editions, 1985), 349.

  8. Guthrie, A Life, 344.

  9. Hickey and Smith, Paler Shade, 222.

  10. Ibid.

  11. Ibid.

  12. Derek Mahon's treatments of Moliere's School for Husbands (entitled High Time) and The School for Wives, Thomas Paulin's version of Antigone, The Riot Act, and Thomas Kilroy's Double Cross come immediately to mind.

  13. The Times [London], 8 September.

  14. “A Challenge to Acorn,” Acorn 14 (1970): 4.

  15. Field Day Theatre Company, Ireland's Field Day (London: Hutchinson, 1985), vii. The preface has the collective signature of the Company, and the book reprints the first six Field Day pamphlets. There is an afterword by the critic Denis Donoghue. For more on Field Day, see John Gray, “Field Day Five Years On,” Linen Hall Review 2, no. 2 (Summer 1985): 4-10.

  16. A critique of Field Day may be found in Edna Longley, “Poetry and Politics in Northern Ireland,” in Poetry in the Wars (Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Bloodaxe Books, 1986), 185-210.

  17. “The Child,” The Bell 18, no. 4 (July 1952): 232-33.

  18. The stories are collected in The Saucer of Larks (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1962) and The Gold in the Sea (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1966). The source of quotations from individual stories are hereafter identified in the text by reference to either SOL, or GIS, followed by page number.

  19. Walter Allen, The Short Story in English (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981), 389.

  20. Maxwell, Friel, 31.

  21. For a thorough discussion of this story and its Derry context, see Maxwell, Friel, 15-17.

  22. Dantanus, Friel, 25.

  23. Sean MacMahon, “The Black North: The Prose Writers of the North of Ireland,” Threshold 21 (Summer 1967): 172.

  24. John Wilson Foster, Forces and Themes in Ulster Fiction (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1973), x.

  25. Seamus Deane, “Brian Friel,” Ireland Today, 978 (1981): 7.

  26. Robert Lloyd Praegar, The Way That I Went (Dublin: Allen Figgis, 1969), 101.

  27. Ibid., 22.

  28. Dantanus, Friel, 56.

  29. Ibid., 52.

  30. Tyrone Guthrie, In Various Directions: A View of the Theatre (London: Michael Joseph, 1963), 113.

  31. Frank O'Connor, The Lonely Voice (New York: Harper & Row, 1985), 18. O'Connor considered the concept applicable to the short story generally speaking: it has, however, a peculiarly apt application to the Irish short story.

  32. Epiphany—defined by James Joyce as “a sudden spiritual manifestation”—is perhaps the most important term in the modern short story's critical vocabulary. See James Joyce, Stephen Hero (London: Jonathan Cape, 1969), 216-17.

  33. Walter Allen, The Short Story, 389.

  34. Foster, Ulster Fiction, 255.

  35. This phrase comes from Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream (3.2.9.), where it describes Bottom the weaver and his companions.

  36. Maxwell, Friel, 17.

  37. For a similar example of the significance of this dependence see “The Flower of Killymore” (GIS, 129-44).

  38. Foster, Ulster Fiction, 69.

  39. Seamus Deane, Introduction to Brian Friel: Selected Stories (Dublin: Gallery Press, 1979), 13.

  40. Another notable Friel story about the power and need—the apparently natural inevitability—of illusion is “The Gold in the Sea” (GIS, 91-102).

  41. In this regard, it is interesting to consider the degree to which the poem “The Diviner” by Friel's friend, Seamus Heaney, may be considered a metaphor for his artistic practice. See Seamus Heaney, “The Diviner,” in Death of a Naturalist (London: Faber and Faber, 1966), 36. On the poem's origins, see Heaney, Preoccupations (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1980), 47-48.

  42. Foster, Ulster Fiction, 72.

  43. Maxwell, Friel, 31.

  44. Pascal, Pensées, trans. W. F. Trotter (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1958), 61.

  45. Seamus Heaney, “Song,” in Field Work (London: Faber and Faber, 1979), 56.

  46. Winston Churchill, The World Crisis (New York: Scribner's 1957), 5:336.

  47. Seamus Deane, Introduction to Stories, 9.

  48. For a fascinating, prescient discussion of the theatrical aspects of “Foundry House,” see Maxwell, Friel, 40-41.

  49. My thinking on this issue owes a great deal to Professor Anthony Bradley's unpublished essay, “Filiation and Affiliation in the Plays of Brian Friel.”

  50. Philadelphia, Here I Come! (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux), 25.

  51. Dantanus, Friel, 14.

  52. Cf. T. S. Eliot, Notes Towards the Definition of Culture: “The reader must remind himself as the author has constantly to do, of how much is here embraced by the term. It includes all the characteristic activities and interests of a people: Derby Day, Henley Regatta, Cowes, the twelfth of August, a cup final, the dog races, the pin table. … The reader can make his own list.” Excerpted in The Selected Prose of T. S. Eliot, ed. Frank Kermode (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1975), 297-98.

  53. A particularly good example of this type is Terry Bryson in the otherwise somewhat sketchy story, “Straight from his Colonial Success.” (SOL, 156-67).

Richard Pine (essay date 1990)

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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 says that ‘each story is social in its setting, moral in its implications’ but this takes us only part of the way in understanding Friel's intentions. Beyond morality, beyond the social boundaries which the moral code dictates, there is a ‘quality of mercy’ which takes the form of a tenderness mediating between the wry and the grotesque. In the sense that Friel's stories have two dimensions, the actual and the metaphysical, the important factor is the way in which he translates each to the other: here he is most Chekhovian because he unites the reader with his intentions, and his intention is the subject itself, the simple relation of self and society.

Friel's main themes in the stories are: illusion; expectation (and the disillusion which comes with the failure of expectation), and the various types of dignity which interweave among the social and moral dimensions of our lives. His technique in drawing us into his world is to live vicariously through us in the illusion, disillusion, and attempts at dignity, so that when he resolves whatever crisis has been posed—loss of faith, disintegration of the family, failure of memory, displacement of affection—we become responsible for that resolution.

Friel's device, therefore, is to make us the medium of our own culture by translating us into the id of his world; we thus id-entify with the people and psyche of Ballybeg. In this he is divining not only himself and Ballybeg, but also the other participant in this private conversation, the reader. The technique is also applied in the radio plays, which possess the same intimacy of the word spoken directly into the ear. No other Irish writer is so adept at this form of divination except Heaney, whose gift of mediation is as great as Friel's; if Heaney wrote short stories and plays, one feels they would have the same texture and gravitas as Friel's.

The Swedish critic Ulf Dantanus refers on several occasions to Friel's ‘defining’: ‘his efforts to define and interpret the Irish psyche’; ‘to define its main characteristics’; ‘to unearth essential qualities of Irishness and to define the nature of the Irish past’; ‘to express and define the Irish identity’; ‘an effort to understand and define history and especially the spiritual past and various attitudes to it’; ‘these concepts are finally tested and defined’.3 This is of course the result of a mis-hearing which turns ‘divine’ into ‘define’, and which Friel would absolutely disown. The Irish psyche, and the nature of the Irish past, are subject to—and demand—divination, but not definition. Both Friel and Heaney divine and dig below the everyday surface to show us, like a cubist dissecting the inner frames of reference of planes hidden to ordinary view, the tensions which hold some parts of people, and society, together and keep others apart. Eventually, however, they return us to the surface in a closure which often resembles the coda of an archaeologist's exposition.

Friel refers to this as ‘the successful invention’. Discussing the accumulation of memory, such as that of the ‘fictional’ fishing trip already referred to, he says, ‘perhaps the important thing is not the accurate memory but the successful invention. And at this stage of my life I no longer know what is invention and what “authentic”. The two have merged into one truth for me’. And ‘Ballybeg’ ‘is a village of the mind, more a depository for remembered or invented experience than a geographical location’.4

This accounts for the private conception of Ballybeg. The ‘public’ reason for its existence is, perhaps, more significant, and will become clearer when we turn to the later plays. His emphasis on the parochial has developed,

perhaps because whatever literary tradition we have here—in the English language—doesn't derive from the confidence of an integrated nation. English authors work from an achieved, complete and continuous tradition. Maybe in lieu of a nation we place our faith in the only alternative we have; the parish.5

This helps us to understand why the Irish short story so often strikes English readers as being written in a foreign tongue; although the language is ostensibly the same it is being used in the service of a quite different set of perceptions, a series of ‘successful inventions’ predominating over the ‘authentic’. As Friel recounts in ‘Kelly's Hall’:

I heard the story so often from my mother and I grew so close to the man himself … that I can scarcely convince myself that I do not remember the scene although the baptismal water must still have been damp on my head that evening.

(Saucer [The Saucer of Larks] 91)

In the fiction, we notice, the child is ushered into the family and extended family, the private and the public culture of the tribe, in order to become both a participant in, and a means of relaying, that culture. There are two sides to this awareness of fact, and rejection of its tyranny: one is what Ulf Dantanus calls ‘the essentially private nature of truth’.6 The other is the essentially public nature of truth. The difference between them is the difference between language and silence, since private truth is unspoken whilst public truth is a text which must be uttered in order to have existence. One is thought, representing a paradigm of being, the other moves through the paradigm of absolute time, an affect of history.

Between these two, the characters, their author and, by the subtlety of his extension, his audience, move towards a discovery of their faith. Because there are no longer any certainities, either in the secret garden of Irish memory or in the wide world, that movement is bedevilled not only by the unreliability of words and other signals, but by dichotomies in the nature of the world itself, which we are seeking to make sense of by description.

‘The world of the senses was liable always to sidestep into sinister territories of the mind’ says A.N. Jeffares.7 It is a world which, however much we may resent it, may ultimately expel us into a much more painful and violent exile, the rite of passage in search of home. We feel this insecurity because ‘home’ can project itself not just as place but as character. This is distinctly Irish as it is essentially Chekhovian, because, in Patrick Kavanagh's words, ‘Parochialism is universal; it deals with the fundamentals.’8 Columba's exclamation, ‘what more do you demand of me, damned Ireland? My soul?’ (EW 71) takes on an extra significance as we see Ireland as a character in the fiction. Friel's ‘romantic ideal that we call Cathleen’9 is not simply a state of mind, but an epiphany of place. The ‘mother Ireland’, the poor old woman (shan van vocht), seeking the restitution of her four green fields, who dominates Yeats's ‘Cathleen Ni Houlihan’ and who haunts modern Irish literature, places Irish men and women at her disposal. The attempt to reunite the modern political states of Ireland is a fictive approach to the greater and deeper mythic needs of the Irish psyche.

If place can have personality, then our response to it cannot be impersonal, it signs to us and we sign to it, in a mythopoeic, rather than a logocentric, language. If we find fault with a place, the fault is similar to that we would detect in another person. In ‘The Diviner’ this is the essence of Nelly Devenny's resentment of the lake where her husband has drowned; the attraction of the place is the magnetism of a person, as in the silent virginal beauty of ‘The Wee Lake Beyond’, and the jealousy it engenders between father and son. If we resent place, it is because place to an overwhelming extent gives essence and meaning, forms our perceptions like a teacher, underwrites our earliest sensations like a parent, provides us with name, identity and purpose.

Friel's response in art began in 1952 with the publication in The Bell of his first story, ‘The Child’.10 It was an act of courageous faith for a young writer. Friel, however, neither wishes nor permits this story to be republished, so despite the fact that it is the seminal work from which flow all his insights into the question of love, language and freedom, I can only summarise it, no doubt quite inadequately.

A boy (‘the child’) lies awake at night. He hears the reassuring sounds of his mother at work in the kitchen below. The comfortable world is shattered by the one event which obviously lurks in the child's abiding dread: the entry of the father, a drunkard who can communicate only in the language of familiar hostility. The boy is startled into customary terror. He begs God not to let them fight. But God lets them fight: a ritual, symbiotic captivity of caged animals. He goes almost automatically to the head of the stairs to witness the spectacle: ‘the child knew the routine by heart … it was the scene he knew so well’. God is implored once more as the intermediary: promise God you will be good if only the beasts below can be separated. ‘Down below they were roaring at each other. Quietly he rose, and, blinded with tears, groped his way back to his room.’

This is not ‘the reality of rural Ireland’ as Dantanus suggests but it is a reality.11 It suggests the personality of a thing called ‘home’ which, we know, Friel denies. It sets ‘pleasant memories of the day’—the Arcadian vision—against the ‘waiting black void’ of the night, the exit into sleep and our other, subliminal, self. It contrasts the outdoor freedoms with the ferocious domination of the indoors by the father, the fight between mother and father for control of the kitchen, the hearth. The child is outlawed from the adult world in which the tensions of village life are worked out privately; he is blinded both by his own tears and by the darkness.

No clearer proof need be furnished that Friel, by concentrating his vision on rural society and ‘Ballybeg’, is singing an Arcadian eclogue, to the exclusion of ‘reality’. ‘Reality’ in fact is a mixture of arcadian and infernal, of white and black, dexter and sinister. Friel records:

One's life in retrospect seems to be defined by precise contours and primary colours: all summers were arcadian, all winters were arctic, pleasures were unqualified, disappointments were total. This remembering, I imagine, is a conscious and deliberate attempt to invest mediocrity with passion and drama.12

The art of reconstructing reality lies in qualifying and reducing the absolutes in which children (and some adults) see the world in the light of retrospect, while maintaining the passion and drama of the situation being described. But the description is of course fiction, because it no longer exists. The return to one's past, whether it is purely through time or, as in the case of the revenant exile, also through space, is a recherche of a paradise or hell which, because it is no longer real, might never have been real.

Therefore, Friel is at liberty in these stories to construct representations of a reality which may never have been ‘authentic’. His travellers carry cardboard suitcases; his father-figures carry authority, usually schoolmasters or those in other positions of guardianship, reaching across space to admonish; and grandfathers, irresponsible and attractive, reaching out across time to subvert and amaze and reveal; all the stock population of a town like Glenties (Ballybeg) or Omagh (Ballymore). ‘Home’ is the hearth—literally the focus—around which they gather for their rituals. But in the stories and radio plays there is also the wife and mother, fretful, tense, warm, resourceful, beautiful, whose absence in the later plays is a continual reproach to Friel's ability to make life whole again.

In reviewing Friel's stories Robert Lacy commented on ‘the touching sense of loss, a clearly communicated feeling that something magical and grand has slipped away’.13 The dangers of such recollection are obvious, but, as I hope I have shown, Friel is not pursuing an arcadian vision. The reconstruction, which places the relation of time and memory at the centre of Friel's stories, is much more than the restitution to the disappointed child of his shattered paradise. Friel knows that the child also numbers hell among his realities, and that he voluntarily throws away the crown of ecstasy. Therefore he seeks to reconstruct not so much what was as what might have been.

In this the grandfathers are the perpetrators of a vicious and irresponsible hoax on the boys. In fact there is the suspicion throughout the stories that because of the effective elision of the father-figure where the grandfather is concerned, Friel is describing a world where all the boys are encouraged to grow old and already have an aged psychology. Boys, as if they were old men, are searching back into their own boyhood because they cannot recognise and grasp it as now, and are all the time sitting in the waiting room for death.


One slips back into one's place by the power of memory. ‘Baile’ means home and town. And yet the Irish have never been ‘at home’ in towns as the English understand them. ‘We have always feared towns’ says Sean O'Faolain.14 Yet the search for that powerful focal hearth goes on as surely in the private mind as that for the four green fields occupies, and persists in, the public conscience. In The Great O'Neill O'Faolain makes the point more strongly: ‘each centre is the centre only of its own locus. No hierarchy or predominance has been established. History is still a complete gamble.’ Once again the temperament is Chekhovian: Ulster was ‘practically bare of town life’; O'Neill and his folk were ‘men for whom the outer world existed only as a remote and practically irrelevant detail. Their interests were personal and local.’15 And they continue to be so when we start to explore the unease we feel with the encroachment of the outer world. Heaney becomes ‘Unhappy and at home’; Friel denies the existence of ‘home’ itself, but he encourages sons and fathers to explore what this particular avenue of memory has to offer. Of course they find that memory is only effective if they maintain their faith in history.

Thus in ‘Among the Ruins’, because his own childhood dream of innocence has been lost rather than confirmed, Joe wills his son to be a man, because, he now knows, the future at least holds no illusions: ‘It's a good thing for a man to cry like that sometimes.’ Joe wants the boy to ‘grow up’, to rush through the misery and disillusion of adolescence, so that he can join his father in a common bond:

Generations of fathers stretching back and back, all finding magic and sustenance in the brief, quickly destroyed happiness of their children. The past did not have meaning. It was neither reality nor dreams, neither today's patchy oaks nor the great woods of his boyhood. It was simply continuance, life repeating itself and surviving.

(Diviner [The Diviner: The Best Stories of Brian Friel] 136)

If such a Lawrentian resolution appears trite, it is due to the need to reaffirm a life-force in the face of the disintegration Friel sees in the familiar world, a need which endangers the first act of Translations in its apparent complacency. (Triteness, encouraged by the New Yorker formula, is also a reason for Friel's eventual dissatisfaction with the limiting conventions of the short story in favour of the more open possibilities of the play.) This is particularly evident in the conclusion of ‘Everything Neat and Tidy’:

Chilled by the sudden personal disaster, he drove faster and faster, as if he could escape the moment when he would take up the lonely burden of recollection that the dead had fled from and the living had forgotten.

(Diviner 155)

This fear of taking up ‘the lonely burden of recollection’ is precisely that fear which persuades the Irish to remember their future rather than their past.16 And it is one which Friel accosts only imperfectly in his stories. He has not been influenced by Chekhov in story-writing (unlike his play-writing) and this possibly accounts for the fact that his mercy, unlike Chekhov's, is too great, his tenderness mediates too far, in displacing horror with dignity. As a result they ultimately address themselves to the problem of individuation, which, as Seamus Deane notes, ‘with its emphasis on internal freedom … most often makes a virtue of alienation and a fetish of integrity’.17 Where Chekhov faced such a challenge by embracing fear, for example in ‘A Boring Story’, Friel prefers to resolve his crises by rushing into the arms of fate. Seldom in the stories is this technique fully successful, partly because Friel falls into the trap of triteness, and partly because he seems afraid to call the bluff of fate. His greatest success in meeting the challenge is an unjustly neglected story, ‘The Flower of Kiltymore’, which in many ways announces the ultimate resolution which he achieves in Faith Healer. In this story, Sergeant Burke, regarded by his late wife as lacking professional dignity (‘she had been a sergeant's daughter herself, and anybody below the rank of superintendent was a nobody’), finds that the ‘calm and peace’ brought by his wife's death conveys nothing so much as a sense of his own unease, perhaps impending death. He is mocked by his assistant guard, ‘a Kerryman, young and keen and cunning’, who has outmanoeuvred him socially by his alliance with the Canon; he is taunted by the local pranksters (‘the Blue Boys’), bewildered by the clean bill of health from the doctor, which is contradicted by his ‘unnatural tranquillity’. Thus excluded from peace, from social position, from professional authority, he asks in a Gethsemane-like appeal, for the ‘unnatural tranquillity’ to pass:

So this was peace, this terrible emptiness. So this was what in those odd moments of treachery, when Lily flogged him with her tongue, he had dreamed of, this vacuity that was a pain within him. Sweet God, he prayed, sweet God, if this is what I wanted, take it away from me.

(Gold [The Gold in the Sea] 138)

Finally he calls the bluff of ‘the Blue Boys’ who allege that they have found a mine on the beach. The message is no bluff, the mine explodes and the youngsters, ‘the flower of Kiltymore’, are killed.18 Now ruined and hated by the community, he faces a commissioner's inquiry which can only restore to him the natural tranquillity he seeks. The events of the tragedy, by making him an outcast, ‘assured him that he was still the centre of the pushing stream of life, and not floating, as he had been since Lily's death, in the peace and calm of some stagnant backwater’. Like Frank Hardy, he can face the firing squad of self-betrayal:

He got up from the bed, put on his Sunday uniform and his good boots, combed his hair, and straightened his tie. As he went down the stairs to meet his judges, the wretchedness of the last four weeks was forgotten, and he knew again the only joy he had ever known. The month of ghostly isolation was over. His prayer in the garden had been answered. Let the Superintendent and the Commissioner do their damnedest to him! He knew now he had the capacity to survive it, because his life had suddenly happily slipped back into its old groove.

(Gold 144-5)

Perhaps Friel succeeds in this conclusion because he is not afraid of pieties, he does not embrace them simply because they represent some Lawrentian life-force. There comes a point, which becomes clear, particularly in his later plays, where ‘piety’, in seeking to remain within the borders of the moral code, becomes absurd and grotesque. Here, however, Friel knows, more maturely than elsewhere in the stories, that the ‘enemy within’ is a devil, and that homecoming necessitates a death: it predicts the fate of Yolland, the alter ego revenant of Translations, and of Bazarov in Fathers and Sons, because otherwise the story could not continue.


Friel is at his most suggestive, and his writing exhibits the finest quality, when he combines the descriptive with the emotive. Thus in ‘Foundry House’ his characterisation of Mrs. Hogan: ‘She was a tall, ungraceful woman, with a man's shoulders and a wasted body and long thin feet. When she spoke, her mouth and lips worked in excessive movement’ (Diviner 78).

In fact, Friel's stories reveal a skill not only at characterisation, but also gesture and emphasis, which present quite different challenges in drama, and at which his stage directions are often less successful. Thus his ‘private conversation’ (confabulation) with the reader sometimes achieves a more affective result than the ‘public address’ which denies such finesse. In the passage quoted above, the words ‘ungraceful’, ‘worked’ and ‘excessive’ convey a personality and a neurosis which no actor could easily effect. At first the combination of ‘long’ and ‘thin’ seems de trop, but taken together with the woman's shoulders and her mouth-motion, it suggests a mediaeval effigy which Friel has manipulated into an uneasy recovery, a devilish creation. Similarly with the cadences in which he describes or recreates movement: as Nelly Devenny goes towards her particular Calvary, the divining of her second drunken husband's body in the lake, she ‘left the priest's car for the first time that day, and ran to join the watchers. The women gathered protectively around her’ (Diviner 28-9). Left, ran, gathered: a flight towards the fold, in this case the elusive dignity denied to Nelly by a fate she has not found the courage to confront. Another example of Friel's ability to combine the descriptive with the emotive is in the opening pages of ‘The Illusionists’:

Once a month Father Shiels, the manager, drove out the twisted five miles from the town, in one breath asked us were we good and told us to say our prayers, shook father's hand firmly, and scuttled away again as if there were someone chasing him.

(Diviner 91)

Not only is this a comical, clockwork-like figure but we can see how distastefully, almost fearfully, the priest performs his automatic, perfunctory and indifferent task.

It is by means of this emotive descriptiveness that Friel achieves a suggestion of what Seamus Deane calls ‘the co-existence of two realms, one clearly stated and social, the other amorphous and imaginative’, in which he says ‘the author's insistence on the actuality of event and on the reality of imagination is quite impartial’.19 I would add that the same assumption of the reader's common knowledge and intimacy that greets us in Chekhov's stories is taken a stage further by Friel in inducing a complicity in the moral code and, in his most successful stories, in the transgression of that code in the working out of individual salvation. This was Friel's reply to the situation of displacement of people within a fixed locale. The realisation that it did not go far enough was the reason for eventually abandoning the short story.

We can find that reason clearly spelt out in his approach to the problem of authority. As Deane says, ‘Authority in its most basic form grows out of a sense of mystery but in its more quotidian form out of awareness of status.’20 That degeneracy is best expressed through differing attitudes to, or differing attempts to express, the idea of ‘dignity’; those who are ‘dignified’, who possess dignity, or whose internal explorations result in the repossession of a lost dignity, emerge from the stories as the ‘winners’, while those who scramble for dignity, for the acquisition of a quality which they imagine can be achieved through an appeal to some external authority, ‘respectability’, are the ‘losers’. Dantanus makes the valuable distinction between respectability, an acceptance of agreed communal values, and dignity, the individual's response.21 Tribal pressure to conform is exerted by means of respectability, whereas the divination of the individual seeking dignity can only be achieved by rejecting the collective insistence. Nelly Devenny, through her public humiliation, becomes ‘skilled in reticence and fanatically jealous of her dignity’ (Diviner 20), but in fact she was fanatically jealous of the ‘dignity’ she sees in others; her second attempt to achieve it, by marrying a second husband (and thus acquiring a new identity in her new name, Nelly Doherty) leaves her the ultimate appeal, to the external authority of her peers—‘the women gathered protectively around her’. The diviner discloses more in the waters of the lake than the body of Mr. Doherty who has no other name, and comes simply from ‘the West’: he draws up another way of confronting reality, another set of perceptions by which to test our received and time-worn responses to the climate, to land and our ‘community’.

It is remarkable that Friel is not especially aware of the pursuit of dignity, or the condition of being dignified in either his stories or plays.22 Yet Seamus Deane insists that Friel ‘never forsakes the notion that human need, however artificially expressed, is rooted in the natural inclination towards dignity’.23 As we shall see in examining the plays, Friel often explicitly presents us with the fear which inhabits people when that natural inclination is thwarted. Thus in ‘Everything Neat and Tidy’ Mrs. MacMenamin suffers ‘anguish and indignity’ at her husband's death; to live with her married daughter is ‘the final, crushing indignity’. But her eventual achievement—not acquisition—of peace is in some way a redemption of dignity of a different order (Diviner 146-55). This is very effectively expressed in ‘The First of My Sins’ which also looks at dignity in two ways: ‘a slap on the face merely pricks one's pride, but cow-dung on new shoes shatters one's dignity’ (Gold 157). It would be easy to confuse a superficial tenure on respectability with the idea that one must act out the community's perception of oneself. In ‘The First of My Sins’ that ‘slap on the face’ is something we all endure every day in social exchange; that which shatters dignity is a breach of the family integer. We are told not of the narrator's boyish ‘sins’ but of his uncle's petty thieving, a ‘crime’ which hardly offends the criminal code but inflicts a moral disorder within the family.

Friel is also content to dismiss the search for respectability with wry and disdainful humour, in ‘The Queen of Troy Close’ (Gold: ‘We'll put manners on them!’) or ‘The Fawn Pup’ (Saucer: ‘he managed to carry himself with a shabby dignity, like a down-at-heel military man’) or the ‘grandfather’ whose ‘sufficient charity’ puts a name to a fatherless child in ‘Mr. Sing My Heart's Delight’ (Saucer).

The status of dignity as a tribal quality clearly vexes Friel: in The Enemy Within there is a distinct relationship between Eoghan's ‘gauche dignity’ and his ‘quiet power’ (EW 58). There is also a connection between dignity and the exotic as if the ultimate test of dignity is whether or not it can survive the challenge of the external. In ‘Kelly's Hall’ the debacle of Grandfather's wondrous gramophone as a source of income places his family at the hands of charity:

This new method of living, ‘charity’ she called it, imposed a great strain on Grandmother's virtue. She longed for the old days again when he went on binges and when her vanity had to weather only short, well-spaced storms … ‘God be with the days when he used to be carried home drunk to me’.

(Saucer 95-6)

Like Synge, Friel bows to the need for illusion, in Deane's words ‘in a society which so severely distorts the psychic life’.24 This may be the illusion which is simply destroyed by the force of ‘reality’ as in ‘The Illusionists’ or an illusion which is reinforced in the flight from reality, as in ‘Foundry House’: Joe, having realised that the real Mr. Hogan ‘was not the image’ he carried in his memory, insists on relating to his wife an evasive version of the encounter, in which he claims Mr. Hogan is ‘the same as ever … no different’ (Diviner 89-90). The exotic, in ‘Kelly's Hall’, in the form of Grandfather Kelly's gramophone, leads him into the lie or illusion in which the exotic becomes bizarre: ‘He never played a disk without first prefacing the performance with an entirely fictitious history of the composer and the music’ (Saucer 94). In ‘The Gold in the Sea’ illusion is used as a tool of social engineering: Con, having admitted that the ship-wrecked gold has already been salvaged, maintains, in front of the younger fishermen, the pretence that it has not: ‘It is better for them to think it is still there. They're young men … You see, friend, they never got much out of life, not like me’ (Diviner 44).

Pigeon fanciers and breeders of fighting cocks are typical, and natural, victims of their own illusions, as in ‘The Widowhood System’ and ‘Ginger Hero’ (in The Diviner), but Friel's most immediate experience, as the pupil of his own father's national school, provides a most powerful example in the eponymous ‘The Illusionists’. In this story there are three illusionists: M. L'Estrange, Prince of the Occult (in reality Barney O'Reilly); the narrator's father, who is refusing to come to terms with the difference between his present circumstances and the image of his former self which he espouses; and the narrator, who expects by becoming an apprentice illusionist to reach some Chekhovian Moscow, and who is eventually forced not only to admit the illusionary nature of M. L'Estrange's past and therefore his own future, but also to embrace, or reclaim, a known, but equally illusory world, offered to him through the affective authority of his mother.

The exotic (in this case M. L'Estrange) is also used as an alternative to familiar disappointment. Friel, and much modern Irish fiction, turns accepted critical theory on its head, since he shows the wisdom of age and authority as a synonym for buffoonery and drunkenness. ‘In the analogy of innocence’, writes Northrop Frye, ‘the divine or spiritual figures are usually paternal wise old men with magical powers’.25 Irish society tends to smile on, if not to extol, the alcoholic, that genetically disappointed result of psychological and environmental tragedy, in the same way as it invests the associated deficiencies of insanity or mental aberration with healing and magical powers: an illusion—a lie—that guarantees a tender, forgiving smile and recognises those affects in oneself. But the exotic, even though he is also master, and creature, of illusion, can dispel that atmosphere of tolerance and open a door into a more exciting darkness. In ‘Segova, The Savage Turk’ it is Segova's strength which attracts the child, in contrast to his father's weakness. Segova's thick dark hair symbolises his strength, ‘the supreme in manhood … the crystallisation of every hope and ambition I would ever have’. Even when he is beaten for trying to be like Segova, the child realises that ‘every stroke [was] alienating me more and more from the puny and the feeble and strengthening me in my resolve to join forces with the brawny and the mighty’ (Saucer 121).

In their treatment of expectation destroyed, or hope deferred, or the assessment of dignity, Friel's stories are more important in a modern reading than his attention to illusion per se, which is not in itself as central to his later work as these other elements. The psychic disorders of Irish society are not only served by illusion or illusionism; visually and verbally Irish people are being asked to reassess what they see and what they hear and thus to re-examine the architecture of their minds. Friel's contribution to this process—the German ‘Prozess’ seems appropriate here—has been characterised by a concern for tenderness evident in even his overtly violent play, The Freedom of the City, and the most covertly fierce, Crystal and Fox; while in The Loves of Cass McGuire Cass's outbursts are counterpointed by a poignant series of rhapsodies, culminating in Cass's own entry into a dream world. An illusion, yes, but more than that, a way of dealing with time and place rediscovered which reveals the sensibility more attuned to nicety, to tension, to heartache, to panic in the face of the grotesque or bizarre, than to the problems of self-deceit, however disturbing those may be. Friel, particularly in the stories, divines within us the frightened child. With his mixture of strictness and compassion, he exposes the near-brutality to which our psychic disorder has reduced us, and then shows us how to become whole. Through the private conversation of his stories and radio plays, he does this on an intimate level; since the appearance of The Enemy Within he has been working out how to achieve this through the public address system. There is a good deal of Eliot's intellectuality and spirituality in Friel's plays, because of his attention to the psyche. These are the stories Eliot might have written.

Friel's psychological techniques are those of recurring visions and appeals to past time. Chekhov's frightened children express the problem thus: Carlotta: ‘Where I come from and who I am I don't know’; Yepihodov: ‘I can't seem to make out where I'm going, what it is I really want … to live or to shoot myself, so to speak’; Liubov Andreeyevna: ‘What truth? You can see where the truth is, and where it isn't, but I seem to have lost my power of vision.’26 Friel's characters, particularly in the stories, experience the same problem—If I can't speak my name, I can't be a person, so I can't go anywhere among men; if I can't see, I have no moral or aesthetic vision, so I can't find my way in the world; if I can't tell the real from the unreal, I can't discriminate, I lose the power of choice, so I am immobolised. Ordinarily Friel's people have names which delineate their role in society on both its physical and metaphysical levels: Flames Flaherty ‘who used to run before the fire brigade in the old days, clearing the street’ (Gold 80)—we can see him and his job; ‘Mr. Sing My Heart's Delight’ for the packman Singh, because he fills the lonely woman's fading memories with an exotic richness; and the qualifying names which we meet in ‘Sarah Johnny Sally’ (Tr.28) telling us seed, breed and generation. Then there are the nicknames—of description: Lobster O'Brien with the injured eye (in ‘The Fawn Pup’); of moral value: Anna na mBreag, Anna of the Lies, maker of bad poteen (Tr. 27)—and the series of names by which a single body has many personae in the family and extended family: ‘at home I was Joe or “Joey boy” or even in his softer moments “Plumb” but in school I was plain Hargan’ (‘My Father and the Sergeant’). Finally, there are the names that mislead, which give us a mistaken identity: Owen/Roland in Translations being the most poignant as well as the most treacherous. Beyond ourselves there are the objective/subjective names we give to places. Once again Translations provides us with the mental and physical problem of map-making, but a neglected story, ‘The Wee Lake Beyond’, tells us not only of the lake whose map-names translate that meaning into topography (‘Lough Fada, the long lake; Lough Na Noilean, the lake with the islands; Lough Gorm, the blue lake; Lough Rower, the fat lake’ Gold 69-70) but also of those lakes which ‘were nameless and inaccessible’. Nameless and therefore inaccessible: naming them would make them accessible, would add to their definition on the map, would open them up for discussion. Ordinarily we locate ourselves by means of vision, and only secondarily by other senses. In ‘The Gold in the Sea’ ‘the blackness was so dense that the three fishermen had identity only by their voices’ (Diviner 37). Their identity, it is suggested, is diminished by their invisibility; in ‘The Widowhood System’ the bird ‘suffered from mental blackouts, like blown fuses, so that it had to fly blind for periods until the psyche righted itself’ (Diviner 55), in other words it had to relocate itself by reference to the inner, not the outer, world. At the opening of ‘The Barney Game’ Barney Cole sat on an upturned box in the yard behind the poultry shop, killing chickens with his eyes closed. ‘It's the feel of them I know’, he explained … ‘If I looked at what I was doing, I'd only be all thumbs’ (Gold 103). More than an index to physical contact, vision can also act as a trigger to memory and imagination:

‘Very poor’, she said quietly, adding the detail to the picture she was composing in her mind. ‘And the oranges and bananas grow there on trees and there are all classes of fruit and flowers with all the colours of the rainbow on them.’

‘Yes’, he said simply, for he was remembering his own picture. ‘It is very beautiful, good lady. Very beau-ti-ful’.

(Saucer 68)

Finally, there is the use of time as an ordinary technique of story-writing. Friel's stories usually open with a statement of time, rather than of place or person. ‘The very day his mother was buried’ (Diviner 45); ‘November frost had starched the flat countryside into silent rigidity’ (Diviner 65); ‘When his father and mother died’ (Diviner 75); ‘I can recall the precise moment in my childhood’ (Gold 157). This last opening creates a flashback of the kind which triggers memory in the narrator, and imagination of time past in the reader/spectator. It is particularly effective cinematically in its combination of the visual and the temporal dimensions. The appeal is to a ‘state that was’, in illo tempore, as in ‘Among the Ruins’: ‘We're going to see where Daddy used to play when he was a little boy’ (Diviner 127); or ‘The Wee Lake Beyond’ in which the timeless landscape of mountains and lakes holds simultaneously the events of the holiday now and those of the holiday forty-five years earlier. This is partly ‘emotion recollected in tranquillity’ and partly an attempt to solve the ‘crisis recollected from childhood’ in the crucible of memory and thus isolate it from contemporary events.

It is of course noticeable that Friel's stories are non-eclectic. As D. E. S. Maxwell comments, ‘Friel rarely writes about the city, he writes about Catholics but not Protestants’ (even his ‘aristocrats’ in ‘Foundry House’ and of course in Aristocrats itself, are Catholics); most of his people are poor, they carry cardboard suitcases. Maxwell says quite rightly that ‘he is not an artist of the whole community’ and that he could not be, since neither of the two traditions of Ulster ‘has any real and natural intimacy with the other’.27 But while Friel is not a spokesman for Catholic or nationalist viewpoints, and does not attempt to portray anything other than his own folk, the more serious imbalance in his stories is the lack of that intimacy which comes from mutual commerce between town and country. As Raymond Williams says:

The common image of the country is now an image of the past, and the common image of the city an image of the future. That leaves, if we isolate them, an undefined present. The pull of the idea of the country is towards old ways, human ways, natural ways.28

To translate this into the Derry/Donegal context, we can quite distinctly see Friel in his stories addressing one side of the equation in his concentration on the past, on a traditional, Gaelic world, and therefore leaving the ‘undefined present’ dangerously unresolved. Conscious of writing in a genre that owed too much to the influence of a master like Frank O'Connor, and of being too easily seduced by the demands of the American market, once Friel had begun to extend the private voice with his radio plays he abandoned the short story form. But at the same time we cannot dismiss the elements of the stories simply because they tend towards the elegiac. (The danger of elegy has been underlined in The Gentle Island: ‘My God it's beautiful up there, Shane: the sun and the fresh wind from the sea and the sky alive with larks and the smell of heather’ GI 36.) The strengths of the pastoral are present in all his plays, even Volunteers and The Freedom of the City: the extension lies in the fact that he is now prepared to add into the equation the dynamic of the city, and the future tense. His tone continues to be lyric, but it now looks for external, as well as interior, freedom.


  1. Beckett, Trilogy, p. 336.

  2. S. Deane, Introduction to The Diviner, p. 9.

  3. Dantanus (1988), pp. 84, 128, 132, 152, 202.

  4. Interview with D. E. S. Maxwell, Images: Arts and the People in Northern Ireland (Belfast: Northern Ireland Information Office/Arts Council of Northern Ireland, n.d.).

  5. ibid.

  6. Ulf Dantanus, Brian Friel: The Growth of an Irish Dramatist (Goteborg: Gothenburg Studies in English 59, Acta Universitatis Gotheburgensis, 1985) p. 174: hereafter referred to as Dantanus (1985).

  7. A. N. Jeffares, ‘Place, space and personality and the Irish writer’, in A. Carpenter (ed.), Place, Personality and the Irish Writer (Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe, 1977), p. 167.

  8. Quoted in Heaney, Preoccupations, p. 139.

  9. Friel, ‘Plays peasant and unpeasant’.

  10. B. Friel, ‘The child’, The Bell, vol. 18, no. 4, July 1952.

  11. Dantanus (1988), p. 23.

  12. B. Friel, ‘A challenge to Acorn’, Acorn, no. 14, 1970.

  13. Robert Lacy, Canadian Journal of Irish Studies, vol. 7, no. 2, December 1981.

  14. S. O'Faolain, The Irish (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1969), p. 143.

  15. O'Faolain, The Great O'Neill, pp. 7, 23.

  16. cf. Deane, ‘Irish poetry and Irish nationalism’, and ‘Remembering the Irish future’, The Crane Bag, vol. 8, no. l, 1984.

  17. Diviner, pp. 15-16.

  18. Meg Enright's mistaken perceptions about time future in ‘Winners’ provide a similar example of physical sense becoming metaphysically damaging.

  19. Diviner, pp. 9-10.

  20. ibid., p. 13.

  21. Dantanus (1988) p. 57.

  22. In conversation with the author.

  23. Diviner, pp. 15-16.

  24. ibid., p. 12.

  25. Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism (New York: Cornell University Press, 1957), p. 151.

  26. Chekhov, The Cherry Orchard, Act 2, pp. 354, 355; Act 3, p. 375, in Plays by Anton Chekhov (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1954).

  27. Maxwell, Brian Friel, pp. 38, 46; cf. also Maxwell's comments, ibid., pp. 17-18, 31, 46-7.

  28. Raymond Williams, The Country and the City (London: Chatto and Windus, 1973), p. 62.

Richard Bonaccorso (essay date December 1991)

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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 intrinsic value.

Though Friel's major critics have justly given greatest attention to the plays, there is agreement among some of the most thorough readers regarding the achievement of the stories. D. E. S. Maxwell deems that the “stories too retain within themselves a core of meaning that resists paraphrase” (47). Seamus Deane praises the achievement of a tone that is “perfectly appropriate” to the form of the story (11). George O'Brien, while considering the theatre “an artistic rebirth” for Friel, remarks upon “the fundamental humanity that graces all of his work, and of which the stories remain the first, and not necessarily least, revealing articulation” (29). Friel himself has commented on the strategic differences of the genres, suggesting that in the story the writer, enjoying a more conspiratorial relationship with the reader than the playwright does with an audience, has a more immediate opportunity to express the subversive idea (“Theatre” 15). Stating elsewhere that “I abandoned short story writing before I grew tired of it,” he has also considered the possibility of a creative return to the form (Hickey 224).

“Foundry House,” collected in A Saucer of Larks, is Friel's most well-known story, and perhaps justly so, given its cultural interest, quiet intensity, and subtle characterization of its protagonist. Its teasing paradoxes have stimulated critics to respond from a wide range of perspectives, from the satiric to the elegiac and from the sociological to the psychological.

There is a divergence between early and later readings which can be partially attributed to an awareness of Friel's play, Aristocrats (1980), a work which repeats much of the story's situation, but which essentially alters the thematic considerations by shifting the aristocratic family from background (the Hogans of “Foundry House”) to foreground (the O'Donnells of Aristocrats). There are similar concerns, however, at the heart of both works, one being Friel's longstanding interest in the psychology of class confrontation. (Indeed, one can find a nearly identical theme in one of his earliest published works, “The Visitation,” a story published in Kilkenny Magazine in 1961.) An examination of the thematic relationships between these works (not the intention of this paper) suggests that though Friel has what might be called a consistency of interests, his response to them is multiple.

“Foundry House” concerns thirty-three year old Joe Brennan, a radio mechanic and struggling father of nine. The Brennans live in the old gate lodge of Foundry House, the ancestral home of the Hogans, a once-powerful Catholic family in Northern Ireland. Shared religion is about all the two families have in common. Not only do they represent opposite social classes, it is also clear that the Brennans, for all of their economic hardship, have a vitality that the Hogans, for all of their past eminence, have lost.

Joe remains in awe of the Hogans. He has childhood recollections of the once-thriving foundry which employed his father for over fifty years and of the grand house with its apparently serene lifestyle (Joe had never entered it as a child). He also recalls the patriarchal reputation of Mr. Hogan (called Mr. Bernard and mythologized by the community as a larger than life figure). Yet all of these conditions have changed, and Joe knows that the Hogans and the house are disintegrating. Nevertheless his respect holds. He thinks of the Hogan children, now a priest and a nun:

Sister Claire and Father Declan—just the two of them, and both of them in religion, and the big house up above going to pieces, and no one to take over the foundry when the time would come. Everything they could want in the world, anything that money could buy, and they turned their backs on it all. Strange, Joe thought. Strange. But right, because they were the Hogans.


Even their decadence is admirable to Joe, who recalls that the laws of their existence never required them to be practical like everyone else. But the world seems to have outgrown the kind of useless beauty that the house represented, and utilitarian buildings block the common man's view of it:

The main Derry-Belfast road ran parallel to the house, and on the other side the ground rose rapidly in a tangle of shrubs and wild rhododendron and decaying trees, through which the avenue crawled up to Foundry House at the top of the hill. The residence was not visible from the road or from any part of the town; one could only guess at its location somewhere in the green patch that lay between the new housing estate and the brassiere factory.


Friel's symbolism here not only suggests historical change, it presents an aesthetic contrast between old and new worlds that contributes to our understanding of Joe's sensibility.

When Joe is called to Foundry House and actually enters it for the first time, he directly observes its ruin and finds the Hogans reduced to physical decrepitude and economic want. The ultimate mystery of the story derives from Joe's continuing respect, indeed reverence, for the Hogans even after he has witnessed their collapse, while keeping the pathetic aspect of his visit to himself.

Joe calls the event “lovely” when his wife asks him about his visit. He had heard a tape of Sister Claire's voice (she is an African missionary who will never come home again) with her old parents and Father Declan. Yet the recording and the immediate reaction it inspires is anything but lovely. The tape, as O'Brien states, is “excruciating bathos,” (16) and Joe is somewhat aware of it as such: “This sounded more like reading than speaking, he thought—like a teacher reading a story to a class of infants, making her voice go up and down in pretended interest” (63). Mrs. Hogan and Father Declan seem stupefied by her singsong recitation, but decrepid and apparently demented Mr. Bernard nearly dies (his counterpart in the play actually does) of emotional shock upon hearing his lost daughter's voice.

It is a story that can be and has been read in a number of ways, depending on the emphasis that one places upon the ironies that give it its dimension. One can opt for a satiric, mainly sociological reading by emphasizing the story's evocation of two bankrupt worlds, of the physically decayed Hogans and the intellectually mundane Brennans. In such a reading Joe Brennan's idealization of the Hogans can be seen as self-deceiving, vicarious wish-fulfillment. For example, Edmund J. Miner emphasizes Joe's disillusionment and his desire to conceal it after he has been to Foundry House (95), and John Wilson Foster suggests that Joe is one of those several Friel characters who “demonstrate vividly the connection between social deprivation and sentimental fantasy” (64).

But one can also respond to the story as elegy, investing more of the work's emotive force in Joe's character rather than seeing him as a typical member of the serving classes confronting his “betters.” Maxwell emphasizes the elegiac, stating that in “Foundry House” the past “impregnates” the present (38). Ulf Dantanus, Deane, and O'Brien all focus on the curiosities of Joe's imagination in accounting for his paradoxical response to his visit. Dantanus sees that response based on “the strength of his childhood memories” and, in Joe's state of “personal crisis,” as a reaction to the “mediocrity” of his life (49-50, 66). Deane, suggesting that the sense of individual “dislocation” in Friel's stories is to be attributed to “a failure in the transaction between individual and society,” adds that in “Foundry House,” “the only true aristocrat is the imagination” (13, 14). O'Brien also responds more sympathetically than satirically to Joe, considering him the possessor of a “latent, undemonstrative idealism” (17).

Part of the problem in interpreting the story stems from Friel's artistic reticence. Indeed, as Maxwell points out, the story suggests the dramatic mode, for it is delivered only by “what we see and hear” and “there is no commentary on what the characters think and feel” (41). The critic must therefore respond to the unique effects of the work while taking Friel's “obsessions” into account. There are many thematic features in “Foundry House” that are general in Friel's work. One is the sense of an all-but-overpowering cultural inheritance that produces a likely but not necessarily determined response. Another of Friel's general motifs is the tendency to manipulate reality with a compensating and yet self-tormenting imagination. A third signature theme is that of thwarted communication, the inability to share one's innermost being.

In “Foundry House” Joe is a type character of the working classes, but he is also individuated. Though Friel gives us sociological reasons for Joe's kind of personality, his mentality is not entirely to be explained in sociological terms. Friel evokes an appreciation for a subtle interior life in this externally unremarkable man. As is usual in Friel's characterizations, Joe has achieved a measure of individuality by understanding the inadequacies of his existence. He understands that his emotional depths are in some way alien to his public life as radio mechanic, middle-aged husband and father. Such an understanding devalues his external condition but gives him a touch of artistic detachment and perspective, and makes it possible for him to imaginatively translate a childish awe into an adult sense of beauty. His external world is completely given over to economic struggle, to the needs of his nine children and a wife who does not recognize his deepest emotional sensations (who would consider them laughable extravagances if she could), and to limiting physical panoramas consisting of, for example, the housing estate and the brassiere factory.

Joe's unswerving respect for the pathetically decayed Hogans is not a case of failing perception, nor is it entirely a matter of truth-evading sentimentality. He sees the unmistakable marks of their decline and yet he feels the glamor of his reveries. Joe is filled with admiration for a past that seems superior to his present, for a world of aristocratic might that had given people like the Brennans an adjunct part to play in what seemed a more significant life drama. The Catholicism of the Hogans eliminates the suggestion of political subservience, and instead provides a sense of identification (albeit distant) between the two families. To Joe the Hogans represented achievement in a world that for Catholics had little of it, and now, on a more personal basis, they represent dignity in a world that has precious little of it. There is a sociological meaning to the story, then, but it is qualified by Joe's individual sensibility, one that, for example, clearly differentiates him from his wife.

There is an element of sentimentality, of psychological self-defense, about Joe's response, but his emotions are as creative as they are evasive. Joe has an emotional stake in the Hogans. As Deane states it:

Between the squalor of his own existence and the remembered splendor of theirs he has created a contrast which is both illusory and necessary. His imagination needs to believe in an alternative existence ….


Joe's extreme emotional isolation adds greater intensity to his imaginative experience. O'Brien adds that “it is only in his own mind that Joe can preserve and cherish the family's significance” (17). Joe realizes that he contains within him a lost world that once enveloped him. No longer a servant, he has arrived at an adulthood of the emotions. The story seems to strike its most elegiac note in this sense rather than in its consideration of the fate of the Hogans.

From the beginning to the end of the story, when Joe, in his own house, declares the Hogans “A great family. A grand family,” Friel maintains a delicate balance between evocations of absurdity and beauty, steering his story between satire and sentiment toward a truth about human nature: that although we are very prone to defensive self-deception, we are also capable of an imaginative maturation that enhances individuality.

In its dramatization of the subtle interplay between folly and wisdom, “Foundry House” seems the most Turgenev-like of Friel's stories. It tells us, as do Friel's plays, that there is no absolute truth, only relative, humanized truths which must stand a test of experience and change. When they cannot, their possessors fall into despair and sentimentality. When those individuated truths can adapt to a mutable existence, they provide their keepers with the relative freedom of genuine personality, which, in spite of its limitations, is the ultimate freedom.

O'Brien observes that Friel's stories establish the imagined world that we later find in the plays (29). It is not merely a world of similar externals, but of similar creative response. Because of his artistic maturation Friel finds his own voice and manner most emphatically in his plays; however, having sensed his deeply intellectual vision in them, one can go back to the quieter, less public-oriented stories and find that same vision fully engaged. At first glance, some of the stories may seem no more than delicate, local-color sketches of rural reverie. Some may betray a derivative tonality, suggesting Frank O'Connor, for example, in their burlesque depictions of native extravagance. But their lightness is only apparent, and a good deal more than nostalgia lingers. At the substrata, where the real Friel story lies, there is more intellectual challenge and less emotional catharsis than one finds, to use the same example, in O'Connor. This is so in “Foundry House,” where beauty itself is put to the test of truth.

Friel's stories deserve more critical attention, and not merely as background to the plays. Though clearly in the established European tradition of the modern story, their complex implications stir fresh responses. While evoking the inevitabilities of a particular Irish world, they invest the private experiences of “common” people with uncommon significance. Inherited disadvantage and profound isolation may prevail, yet these stories tell us that the individual remains responsible for his essential condition. Some stories, such as “The Diviner,” “The Flower of Kiltymore,” “A Man's World,” “Stories on the Verandah,” and “Foundry House,” are early gems of a master. In these Friel takes full advantage of the powerful intimacy that is unique to the short story.

Works Cited

Dantanus, Ulf. Brian Friel: The Growth of an Irish Dramatist. Goteborg: Acta Universitatis Gothoburgensis, 1985.

Deane, Seamus. “Introduction” to Brian Friel. The Diviner. Dublin: O'Brien Press, 1983.

Foster, John Wilson. Forces and Themes in Ulster Fiction. Totowa: Rowman and Littlefield, 1974.

Friel, Brian. The Gold in the Sea. Garden City: Doubleday, 1966.

———. The Saucer of Larks. Garden City: Doubleday, 1962.

———. Selected Plays. Washington: Catholic University, 1986.

———. “The Theatre of Hope and Despair.” The Critic 26, 1 (Aug.-Sept., 1967): 12-17.

———. “A Visitation.” Kilkenny Magazine (Autumn-Winter, 1961): 8- 14.

Hickey, Des, and Gus Smith. Flight from the Celtic Twilight. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1973.

Maxwell, D. E. S. Brian Friel. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 1973.

Miner, Edmund J. “Homecoming: The Theme of Disillusionment in Brian Friel's Short Stories,” Kansas Quarterly 9, 2 (Spring, 1977): 92-99.

O'Brien, George. Brian Friel. Boston: Twayne, 1990.

John Cronin (essay date 1992)

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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 significance that one does not tend to think of Friel and his stories in this way. Admirably skilful as many of them are, no great classic of the form leaps to mind at mention of his name. An early reviewer of his second collection, The Gold in the Sea, while he commended the general competence of the performance, also noted that ‘we do not, finally, have much sense of a searching or transforming view of life behind these tales’, and concluded the review with what, in view of Friel's subsequent career, can be seen as a canny perception that it would not be in this genre that Friel would most effectively express his genius:

Although they often impress, they remain disparate and self-contained, and thus their effect, when collected, is a muted one. The talent is there, but it is not yet in full possession of its characteristic and identifying mode.1

The ‘characteristic and identifying mode’ was, as we now know, to be found subsequently in the drama, and the result is that commenting on the short stories a quarter of a century later, from beyond the major achievement of the plays, is a rather daunting task. It is inevitable that, viewed from the impressive heights Friel has scaled in the theatre, the early work in the stories will seem, however unfairly, somewhat diminished and shrunken by comparison. Pointless, ultimately, to view the stories in complete isolation from the plays and yet, enshrined as they are in two neat volumes, The Saucer of Larks (1962) and The Gold in the Sea (1966), they seem somehow to demand separate consideration in their own right.

In the main, the stories precede the plays, if we exclude such early efforts as the two radio plays, A Sort of Freedom and To This Hard House, and two early stage plays which Friel seems keen to disown, A Doubtful Paradise and The Blind Mice. The two radio plays were broadcast by the Northern Ireland Home Service of the BBC in 1958 and both were, as D. E. S. Maxwell indicates, somewhat similar to the short stories:

Friel wrote these plays while he was still primarily occupied with the short story. They recall ‘The Illusionists,’ ‘The Flower of Kiltymore,’ ‘The Gold in the Sea,’ whose characters are similarly engaged in their various degrees of compromise with disappointment and the hard life. The plays, however, do not achieve their design with the authority of the stories. In both of them there is perhaps some uncertainty about their intention … With the disappearance, too, of the stories' narrative and description, the dialogue has to assume new obligations that it is not yet able to fulfil. There is no equivalent to the mediating voice that in the stories suggests directions of understanding and sympathy.2

As this suggests, Friel had yet to achieve an effective transition from the private art of the short story to the public art of the theatre. He himself remarked the distinction between the two kinds of literary endeavour in the course of a public lecture in 1967:

The dramatist does not write for one man; he writes for an audience, a collection of people. His technique is the very opposite of the short story writer's or the novelist's. They function privately, man to man, a personal conversation. Everything they write has the implicit preface, ‘Come here till I whisper in your ear’.3

This echoes both Flann O'Brien's tongue-in-cheek account (in At Swim-Two-Birds) of the play as something ‘consumed in wholesome fashion by large masses in places of public resort’ and Frank O'Conner's description (in The Lonely Voice) of the short story as ‘a private art to satisfy the standards of the individual, solitary, critical reader’, an art which rings ‘with the tone of a man's voice speaking’. Whereas Friel the dramatist was to prove a daring and exciting innovator, as a short story writer he is strictly in the traditional line of development from such as O'Faolain, O'Connor and fellow Northerner, Michael McLaverty. His Field Day associate, Seamus Deane, has noted this:

Brian Friel is, technically speaking, a traditional writer. The dislocations and the nuanced egoism of many modern texts are sternly avoided, even rejected here.4

The reader of the stories, then, experiences first of all a sense of familiarity. Neither matter nor manner is strange in the best modern way. Predecessors in the form come frequently to mind as we read. Friel's first published story, ‘The Child’, scarcely more than a vignette, had appeared in The Bell in July 1952, and his literary debt to that most famous Bell-man, Sean O'Faolain, is evident in a number of the stories. It emerges clearly, for example, in the calculatedly genial tone of the mild, anti-clerical mockery indulged in by Thomas, narrator of ‘The Highwayman and the Saint’, a story which vividly recalls O'Faolain's ‘Childybawn’. ‘The Death of a Scientific Humanist’ is yet another successful venture by Friel into O'Faolain's favourite territory of urbane satire against the inhumane rigidities of Catholic Church dogma. Least satisfying among Friel's stories are the quasi-autobiographical, first-person tales which incline to neatly formulaic closures, often reminiscent of correspondingly contrived climaxes in the stories of Frank O'Connor. O'Connor's favoured comic ploy, the innocent child's viewpoint on the strange world of the adults, is often in evidence, with correspondingly cloying effects. ‘The First of My Sins’ seems to owe much to O'Connor's well-known ‘First Confession’. Stories like ‘The Fawn Pup’, revolving around the remembered teacher-father figure, smack of the incidental hilarities of the ‘R. M.’ stories of Somerville and Ross, while ‘Segova, the Savage Turk’ produces an even flimsier comedy, scarcely lifting the central episode of the boy narrator's disastrous shaving of his body hair much beyond the level of comic triviality. ‘Ginger Hero’, the final story in The Gold in the Sea, inevitably challenges comparison with Michael McLaverty's classic tale, ‘The Game Cock’, though the reticent McLaverty would hardly have found the rather contrived sexual climax of Friel's story much to his taste. A contemporary reviewer of The Saucer of Larks suggested that these early stories suffered from the dictates of a particular house-style:

If the reader is left faintly dissatisfied it is perhaps because too many of the stories fall so neatly into the formula of slightly dotty recollection now so popular with the New Yorker.5

It would, clearly, serve little real purpose to dwell unduly on the weaker, more derivative aspects of prentice work by a writer who had yet to discover his true medium. More to the point to note the emergence in this early work of themes and preoccupations which were to come to full artistic fruition later, in the plays. The best of the stories at once identify Friel's chosen territory of Tyrone and Donegal and also effectively explore his deeply-felt involvement with the shaping themes of love, language and a torturing nostalgia for an irretrievable past. All of these concerns cohere powerfully in ‘Among the Ruins’, a story in which a family sets out together, at the wife's suggestion, to revisit the father's birthplace in Donegal. The serious issues probed here are lightly carried on an eminently credible thread of narrative, with the two children squabbling in the car, the wife efficiently organising the picnic food, and the father, Joe, at first reluctant to risk this trip into his past but gradually becoming more and more excited by the prospect of revisiting once familiar and much-loved surroundings:

‘I don't see the point,’ he had said. ‘I don't see the point at all.’

But she had persisted, and that night and the next day his stubbornness gave way to a stirring of memory and then to a surprising excitement that revealed itself in his silence and his foolish grin. And now that they were about to set off, there was added a great surge of gratitude to her for tapping this forgotten source of joy in him. She knew and understood him so well.6

The place names, always of central importance in Friel's writing, come back to Joe as they drive westwards: Corradinna, Meenalaragan, Glenmakennif, Altanure. They recall boyhood vigour and youthful joy in the natural scene. The reality, when they eventually arrive at Joe's humble birthplace in Corradinna, is a dreadful anti-climax—a ruined house, a trickle of water instead of the remembered river, and the ‘bower’ where the child Joe hid with his sister gone forever. The past, full of intensely experienced and vividly remembered joy, is desecrated by the drab, ruined realities of the present. The journey has, clearly, been a frightful mistake:

Was that his childhood? Why, Joe wondered, had he been so excited about the trip that morning? What had he expected to find at Corradinna—a restoration of innocence? A dream confirmed? He could not remember. All he knew now was that the visit had been a mistake. It had robbed him of a precious thing, his illusions of his past, and in their place now there was nothing—nothing at all but the truth.7

Forced by his wife's insistence that he explain to her the youthful fun he so clearly recalls, Joe can only lamely recount what now seem ludicrously silly word games played with his sister in the long ago:

‘What did we laugh at?’ An explanation was necessary. We must have laughed at something. There must have been something that triggered it off.

‘Are you not going to tell me?’ Margo's face had sharpened. She stood before him, insisting on a revelation.

‘Susan and I—’ he mumbled.

‘I know,’ she said quickly. ‘Susan and you in the bower. Once you got there together, you laughed your heads off. And I want to know what you laughed at.

‘She would make up a word—any word, any silly-sounding word—and that would set us off,’ he said, clutching at the first faint memory that occurred to him. ‘Some silly word like—like “sligalog,” or “skookalook”. That sort of thing.’

‘“Skookalook.” What's funny about that?’

‘I don't know if that was one of them. I meant just any made-up word at all. In there, in the bower, somehow it seemed to sound—so funny.’

‘And that's all?’

‘That was all,’ he said limply.8

The story briefly veers towards possible tragedy, with the sudden disappearance of the little boy, Peter, who wanders away to play on his own. The panic-stricken Joe eventually finds the child:

Peter was so engrossed in his play that he was not aware of his father until Joe caught him by the shoulder and shook him. He was on his knees at the mouth of a rabbit-hole, sticking small twigs into the soft earth.

‘Peter! What the hell!’

‘Look, Daddy. Look! I'm donging the tower!’

‘Did you not hear me shouting? Are you deaf?’

‘Let me stay, Daddy. I'll have the tower donged in another five minutes.’9

Impatiently, Joe drags the child away from his game of ‘donging the tower’ and, as they drive homewards, Joe ponders on what the day has brought in the way of disenchantment. He realises that he should not have gone back to Corradinna ‘because the past is a mirage—a soft illusion into which we step to escape the present’. He is saved from despair by the sudden recollection of the odd phrase used by his little son to describe his solitary game at the rabbit burrow, ‘donging the tower’. A seemingly meaningless word embraces a moment of private joy and Joe is granted a consoling sense of a continuity transmitted to him through the child's baby-talk:

Through the mesmerism of motor, fleeing hedges, shadows flying from the headlights, three words swam into Joe's head. ‘Donging the tower.’ What did Peter mean, he wondered dreamily; what game was he playing, donging the tower? He recalled the child's face, engrossed, earnest with happiness, as he squatted on the ground by the rabbit hole. A made-up game, Joe supposed, already forgotten. He would ask him in the morning, but Peter would not know. Just out of curiosity, he would ask him, not that it mattered … And then a flutter of excitement stirred in him. Yes, yes, it did matter. Not the words, not the game, but the fact that he had seen his son, on the first good day of summer, busily, intently happy in solitude, donging the tower. The fact that Peter would never remember it was of no importance; it was his own possession now, his own happiness, this knowledge of a child's private joy.10

The story ends with a brave assertion, and with a neatly generalised simplicity which, later, the plays will constantly call in question:

The past did have meaning. It was neither reality nor dreams, neither today's patchy oaks nor the great woods of his boyhood. It was simply continuance, life repeating itself and surviving.11

This comforting nostrum will be rejected in play after play. In Philadelphia, Here I Come!, Gar struggles in vain to persuade his father that the boat they fished from sixteen years earlier was a blue boat and that his father had suddenly sung ‘All Round My Hat I'll Wear a Green Coloured Ribbono’. His father insists that he never knew that song and that the boat may have been brown in colour, not blue at all. In the play, Friel has found, in the brilliant device of the two Gars, Public and Private, a vehicle for the expression through savage comedy of many painfully conflicting views of the past and, at the end, old Madge, pragmatic voice of present reality, is not permitted any placebo about the comforting continuity of the generations:

When the boss was his (Gar's) age, he was the very same as him: leppin, and eejitin' about and actin' the clown; as like as two peas. And when he's (Gar) the age the boss is now, he'll turn out just the same. And although I won't be here to see it, you'll find that he's learned nothin' in-between times. That's people for you—they'd put you astray in the head if you thought long enough about them.

(SP 98)

Cass McGuire is another stalwart who does battle against the dangerous lure of the past, determined not to be trapped by its delusive seductions. She holds out as long as she can against the pressure from Trilbe and Ingram before she yields to them by sitting in the winged chair and retreating with them from grim reality into a world of fantasy. In Act 2, she had railed against ‘this gawddam going back into the past!’ and asked ‘who the hell knows what happened in the past!’ and had fought against the temptation to flee the unbearable pain of the present:

CASS: (to Trilbe) Leave me alone, will you? (To audience) They think they're going to run me back into the past but by Gawd they're not … I live in the present, Harry boy, right here and now. Where are you? Stick with me.

TRILBE: Catherine!

CASS: Go away! Gooks … real gooks living in the past, but not Cass McGuire.12

In the end, she can accommodate herself to the hideous reality of her existence in Eden House only by joining Trilbe and Ingram in their escapist, illusory world of dream and story-telling.

Crystal and Fox offers perhaps the most ferocious comment of all on the human tendency to retrospection, with Fox setting about the appalling business of refashioning his early idyll with Crystal by killing Pedro's beloved dog and even betraying his own son to the police. ‘Among the Ruins’ is, indeed, uncharacteristically reassuring about the onslaughts of time, and a later story, ‘The Wee Lake Beyond’, provides an altogether bleaker view of the relationships between the generations, a view much closer to that of the plays. Unrepresentative though ‘Among the Ruins’ may be, however, in the optimism of its conclusion, it is entirely typical of Friel's stories in its deeply felt involvement with a beloved locality. As Joe drives back to his birthplace in Donegal, the petty irritations of squabbling children and his wife's nagging objections to his fast driving all fall away, as he sees once again the hills and valleys he roamed as a boy:

At this moment, I don't give a damn, he thought without callousness; at this moment, with Meenalaragan and Pigeon Top on my left and Glenmakennif and Altanure on my right. Because these are my hills, and I knew them before I knew wife and children.13

This note of strong personal involvement with beloved places, this habit of uttering their names in a kind of litany of passionate reminiscence, is everywhere in the stories, as it is also, later, in the plays. As D. E. S. Maxwell notes:

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.14

The Sergeant in the title story of The Saucer of Larks ‘had been twenty years in Donegal but there were times when its beauty still shocked him’, and it is, indeed, the startling beauty of Glenn-na-fuiseog, the ‘valley of the larks’, which moves him to try to persuade the visiting German police officers to disobey their superiors by leaving untouched the grave of the German airman whose body they plan to disinter. The recitation of the names of much-loved places in the stories prepares us for the potent naming and cataloguing of places in plays such as Faith Healer and Translations.

Not surprisingly, when Friel turned to plays in place of short stories, characters, themes and preoccupations made familiar in the stories tended to surface in the new medium as well. Indeed, one can clearly sense the impulse to the dramatic form already manifesting itself in the liveliness of the dialogue assigned to some of the characters in the stories. In ‘Straight from His Colonial Success’, for example, the conversation between stay-at-home Joe and the friend, Bryson, who has returned from abroad bringing with him a tantalising flavour of exotic places and a cosmopolitan sophistication, powerfully presages many of the exchanges between the two Gars in Philadelphia. The vigorous alternation of mood and attitude in the short story is energetically handled and Joe's pathetic efforts to recapture the elusive image of a younger, brasher Bryson bring the occasion much closer to the generally pessimistic mood of the plays than to the rather facile optimism of ‘Among the Ruins’. Some of the memorably dominant characters in the plays have already been given, as it were, a kind of trial run in the stories. Thus, the gallantly despairing Cass McGuire is clearly prefigured by the title character of ‘Aunt Maggie, the Strong One’. Aunt Maggie, like Cass, is consigned to an old people's home at the end of her days. Like Cass, she smokes too much. Like Cass, she professes an unconvincing independence of her relatives. Here again, as in Philadelphia, the past is evoked by mention of a song which the narrator's father used to sing. When story and play are considered together, one can readily sense how the gallant, loud-mouthed, doomed Maggie has broken out of the smaller confines of the story form and mutated into the figure of Cass McGuire, who voices a similarly resolute outlook on life but does so through dramatic encounters with a wider range of characters. The story had allowed Maggie to respond only to her nephew, Bernard, and the smaller form's insistence on concentration and sharpness of focus had required that Maggie be encountered by the reader only at the moment of her death, when all her battles have finally been lost. In the play, in the form of Cass McGuire, she will be given longer to rage against the dying of the light.

Sometimes, an entire story, and not merely a single character, will develop towards dramatic form. ‘The Highwayman and the Saint’ becomes the play, Losers, with remarkably little in the way of additional business or detail. Just one new character, the sickeningly pious Cissy Cassidy, is added, to become Mrs. Wilson's companion in cant, and the poem hilariously recited by the unfortunate Andy during his constantly frustrated attempts at love-making becomes Gray's ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’ in place of ‘The Highwayman’ by Alfred Noyes. The short story, which is very much a satire in the O'Faolain manner on sexual repression and craw-thumping religiosity, is very close indeed to the play it becomes. The move here between the two forms has been accomplished with striking ease, almost as though the near-farce of the story had already achieved as much in the way of dramatic form as was necessary to its somewhat limited targets. On the other hand, the process by which a very different type of story, ‘Foundry House’, was eventually transformed into the play, Aristocrats, seems altogether more complex. Friel is engaging here not with the stock Aunt Sallies already much targeted by such predecessors as O'Faolain and O'Connor, but with concerns closer to his own searching imagination, so that, this time, the move to dramatic form opens up much greater possibilities. While some of the story's most effective details, such as the eerily recorded and tinny voice of the missionary nun in Africa, are retained and developed in the play, Aristocrats casts its net much more widely, to explore at greater length issues which can only be hinted at in the more constricted form of the short story. Here again, the essential distinction is between the short story's necessarily sharp focus on a single character, the subservient Joe Brennan, and the greater freedom granted by dramatic form for the searching exploration of numerous figures and many issues. In ‘Foundry House’, the Hogans are described as ‘one of the best Catholic families in the North of Ireland’ and their decline appears to derive from the decision of their son and daughter to enter the celibate world of the religious, with the daughter finally exiled to distant Africa and the son a priest in another part of Ireland. The ruinous sterility of the offspring of the Big House is clear. We are told about ‘fat, blue-eyed Claire, who had blushed every time she passed the gate-lodge’ and the epicene quality of the son, Fr. Declan, is hinted at throughout. Joe Brennan and Fr. Declan are the same age, thirty-three, but already Joe is the father of no fewer than nine children. When the priest opens the front door of the Foundry House to admit the stolidly matter-of-fact Joe, the contrast between the two men is pointed up sharply:

Father Declan was fair and slight, and his gestures fluttering and birdlike. The black suit accentuated the whiteness of his hair and skin and hands.15

Fr. Declan's fingers are depicted ‘playing arpeggios’ over the recording machine which Joe has brought at Mrs. Hogan's request, and he stands ‘poised as a ballet dancer before the fire’. When the recording sent by Sr. Claire from Africa is being played to the assembled company, the first person addressed is the priest, whose languid pose is noted even by the uncritical Joe:

She addressed the priest first, and Joe looked at him—eyes closed, hands joined at the left shoulder, head to the side, feet crossed, his whole body limp and graceful as if in repose.16

The robust health of Joe's nine offspring is constantly emphasised, being noted in particular by Mrs. Hogan, and contrasts forcefully with the general sterility and decline of the Hogans. The old father, terror of Joe's youth, is by now an almost paralysed hulk. The shocking climax of the story is reached when he utters his one strangled cry on hearing his daughter's voice on the tape-recorder:

The dead purple of his cheeks was now a living scarlet, and the mouth was open. Then, even as Joe watched, he suddenly levered himself upright in the chair, his face pulsating with uncontrollable emotion, the veins in his neck dilating, the mouth shaping in preparation for speech. He leaned forward, half pointing toward the recorder with one huge hand.


For all its powerful contrasts, however, the story suggests no explanation for the Hogans' decline, other than the celibate state of their two unimpressive offspring. When Friel casts this material into play form, he effects radical alterations. To begin with, he shifts the location significantly. Foundry House in ‘the North of Ireland’ becomes instead ‘Ballybeg Hall, County Donegal, Ireland’ and the O'Donnell family, who replace the Hogans here, are professional people, long involved in the legal system of the country at senior level. Traces of the effeminate Fr. Declan survive, perhaps, in the son, Casimir, whose hectic, overstated behaviour creates a kind of feverish excitement throughout. As he tries to explain to Eamon in Act 3, he has long been aware of his own oddity:

I discovered a great truth when I was nine. No, not a great truth; but I made a great discovery when I was nine—not even a great discovery but an important, a very important discovery for me. I suddenly realized I was different from other boys. When I say I was different I don't mean—you know—good Lord, I don't for a second mean I was—you know—as they say nowadays ‘homo-sexual’—good heavens I must admit, if anything, Eamon, if anything I'm—(Looks around.)—I'm vigorously hetero-sexual ha-ha.

(SP 310)

The embittered Eamon, now married to the alcoholic daughter, Alice, though he once loved her older sister, Judith, outlines the family's professional decline to the American researcher, Tom Hoffnung, in caustically comic manner:

And of course you'll have chapters on each of the O'Donnell forebears: Great Grandfather—Lord Chief Justice; Grandfather—Circuit Court Judge; Father—simple District Justice; Casimir—failed solicitor. A fairly rapid descent; but no matter, no matter; good for the book; failure's more lovable than success. D'you know, Professor, I've often wondered: if we had had children and they wanted to be part of the family legal tradition, the only option open to them would have been as criminals, wouldn't it?

(SP 295)

Most significantly, perhaps, Friel suggests in the play that the decline of the O'Donnells is somehow related to their culpable detachment from the violent affairs of nearby Northern Ireland, thereby giving to the issue a political colouring totally lacking in the short story. When Tom Hoffnung quizzes Alice about Eamon and Judith, it emerges that Eamon has lost his Dublin diplomatic post through his involvement with the Civil Rights movement in the North, and that Judith brought about her father's first stroke by taking part in the Battle of the Bogside and fighting with the police. In reply to Tom's question concerning her father's attitude to the Civil Rights campaign, Alice replies:

ALICE: He opposed it. No, that's not accurate. He was indifferent: that was across the Border—away in the North.

TOM: Only twenty miles away.

ALICE: Politics never interested him. Politics are vulgar.

(SP 272)

Direct involvement in the vulgarity of politics runs counter to the family's careful avoidance of commitment in the past, as Eamon's savagely comic account makes clear, when he advises the American that his proposed book about Catholic Big House influence should be turned into fiction rather than fact:

A great big block-buster of a gothic novel called Ballybeg Hall—From Supreme Court to Sausage Factory; four generations of a great Irish Catholic legal dynasty; the gripping saga of a family that lived its life in total isolation in a gaunt Georgian house on top of a hill above the remote Donegal village of Ballybeg; a family without passion, without loyalty, without commitments; administering the law for anyone who happened to be in power; above all wars and famines and civil strife and political upheaval; ignored by its Protestant counterparts, isolated from the mere Irish, existing only in its own concept of itself, brushing against reality occasionally by its cultivation of artists; but tough—oh, yes, tough, resilient, tenacious; and with one enormous talent for—no, a greed for survival—that's the family motto, isn't it? Semper permanemus.

(SP 294)

This comprehensive indictment of the O'Donnells as ‘Castle Catholics’ carefully indifferent to the political struggle of their co-religionists in the North is a far cry from the vignette of the Hogans supplied by the more exiguous short story form. Furthermore, Aristocrats provides Friel with yet another opportunity for airing his favourite view of history as a creation of the fertile imagination rather than a record of identifiable fact. The amiable but literal-minded Tom Hoffnung is peddled a litany of historical improbabilities by all and sundry but particularly by Casimir. His brain reels in the presence of the string of notables who, according to Casimir, visited Ballybeg Hall in its great days. Chesterton, John McCormack, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Cardinal Newman, Yeats … will the line stretch out to the crack of doom? Hoffnung establishes to his own satisfaction that mere chronology makes all this impossible but, when Casimir appeals to Eamon for support for his fantasies, Eamon comfortingly replies that ‘there are certain things, certain truths, Casimir, that are beyond Tom's kind of scrutiny’. That there is a truth greater and more complex than mere historical fact is Friel's most constant assertion, repeated in play after play, from The Freedom of the City to Making History. He had spelt out the notion quite explicitly in the course of an account of his own boyhood, where he recalled a fishing trip on which his father had taken him at the age of nine. This vivid personal reminiscence lies behind many such moments in the plays and powerfully echoes such short stories as ‘The Wee Lake Beyond’:

And there we were, the two of us, soaking wet, splashing along a muddy road that comes in at right-angles to Glenties main street, singing about how my boat can safely float through the teeth of wind and weather. That's the memory. That's what happened. A trivial episode without importance to anyone but me, just a moment of happiness caught in an album. But wait. There's something wrong here. I'm conscious of a dissonance, an unease. What is it? Yes, I know what it is: there is no lake along that muddy road. And since there is no lake my father and I never walked back from it in the rain with our rods across our shoulders. The fact is a fiction. Have I imagined the scene then? Or is it a composite of two or three different episodes? The point is—I don't think it matters. What matters is that for some reason … this vivid memory is there in the storehouse of the mind. For some reason the mind has shuffled the pieces of verifiable truth and composed a truth of its own. For to me it is a truth. And because I acknowledge its peculiar veracity, it becomes a layer in my subsoil; it becomes part of me; ultimately it becomes me.18

The stories occasionally hint at the past's complexities but it is the plays which most memorably provide space for the multiple perspectives required to shuffle the pieces of verifiable truth and extract from them their peculiar veracity. Where the protagonists of the stories assert, sometimes a little desperately, that ‘the past did have meaning’ and seek to recapture that meaning in a phrase such as ‘donging the tower’ or in the chance survival of a name, as in the closing lines of ‘Kelly's Hall’, it was to be in the public art of the theatre that Friel would set in exciting opposition to one another the many voices which would, between them, embrace the complexity of his particular vision of truth.

In a typically self-deprecatory piece of jocosely imagined interview, Friel has posed for himself a set of stock questions and answered them with characteristic modesty:

When did you know you were going to be a writer? The answer is, I've no idea. What other writers influenced you most strongly? I've no idea. Which of your plays is your favourite? None of them. Which of your stories? Most of them embarrass me.19

Embarrassment is needless. The stories, early as they are and, often, clearly derivative in tone and theme, nevertheless contain frequent hints of necessary explorations to come. Reading them, we are, as it were, watching the dancer exercising at the barre before he moves into the spatial freedom of his essential art.


  1. TLS, 28 April 1966, p. 361.

  2. D. E. S. Maxwell, Brian Friel (Lewisburg, Bucknell University Press, 1973), p. 50.

  3. Brian Friel, ‘The Theatre of Hope and Despair’, Everyman, 1 (1968), p. 19.

  4. Seamus Deane, Brian Friel: Selected Stories (Dublin, The Gallery Press, 1979), Introduction, p. 9.

  5. TLS, 19 April 1963, p. 261.

  6. Brian Friel, The Saucer of Larks (London, Victor Gollancz, 1962), p. 20.

  7. Ibid., pp. 27-28.

  8. Ibid., pp. 24-25.

  9. Ibid., p. 26.

  10. Ibid., p. 29.

  11. Ibid., p. 30.

  12. Brian Friel, The Loves of Cass McGuire (Dublin, The Gallery Press, 1984), p. 49.

  13. The Saucer of Larks, op. cit., pp. 21-22.

  14. Maxwell, op. cit., p. 31.

  15. The Saucer of Larks, op. cit., p. 57.

  16. Ibid., p. 63.

  17. Ibid., p. 65.

  18. Brian Friel, ‘Self-Portrait’, Aquarius, 5 (1972), p. 18.

  19. Ibid., p. 17.

Richard Bonaccorso (essay date June 1996)

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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 “The Theatre of Hope and Despair,” Friel makes a distinction between the strategies of the playwright and those of the storywriter, between engaging a collective audience and a solitary reader. In doing so he reveals a determination to maintain an artistic faith with himself that he had established in the writing of short fiction. Friel considers that the playwright must employ a kind of stealth in order to evoke a fresh response from the conventional and often complacent mentality of theatre audiences. But storywriters, he states, “function privately” as in “a personal conversation. Everything they write has the implicit preface, ‘come here till I whisper in your ear’.”1 This air of intimacy—a characteristic of the story tradition—is a condition toward which all of Friel's art aspires and tends. Friel's stories, however, provide a direct path to the writer's inner ground. They approach the reader as a co-conspirator, one who is invited to discover the real story existing beneath appearances, in the undercurrent of the writer's technique.

Mainly gathered in two collections published in the sixties, Friel's stories introduce the small-town social world of the plays and the inner orientations of Friel's dramatic characters; they also anticipate the subtle manner of the playwright, particularly in his well-noted reticence, spareness of direct commentary, and reliance on dialogue to carry implications. The stories also display Friel's special talent for the most intriguing dialogue of all, the silent interchange within the individual.

In Friel's tales technique is ultimately embodied in subtleties of characterization. With what seems a quiet inevitability, the Friel story progresses from considerations of outer roles to those of inner identities. Beneath ordinary concerns and routines, the hidden interchanges between individuals and their communities come to be seen as crucial encounters. Without pronouncement the story gradually arrives at the threshold of a profound individual consciousness. Through a protagonist captured at a point of personal reconsideration, a moral pressure is recognized among the old debris of experience and memory. Though not usually autobiographical projections, these characters and these situations represent the patterns of Friel's personal concerns. Like a Wordsworth in prose, Friel excels at elapsed time reflections, and his stories explore the modifications of identity that aging produces. With each modification come new mysteries and responsibilities. These are the personal equations hidden beneath the common contexts of community and family life. To answer the call of self in such circumstances, to overcome the inertia of static myths, one must rely upon personal devices.

Friel's people live in an Irish village culture that is fading into obsolescence, yet one which maintains its grip upon the psyches of its citizens and demands conformity to its questionable codes. His fictional small towns, such as Ballybeg, Beannafreaghan, and Coradinna, represent, as Mel Gussow observes, “the small towns around the world,” their “emotional environments” becoming adjuncts of character.2 While casting a sometimes sardonic eye upon the community culture, Friel also acknowledges its significance in the lives of his people and, by implication, in the life of his own imagination. Speaking of the autobiographical aspect of his art, he has called himself “the miner and the mined.”3 As in the work of Sean O'Faolain, Friel's flirtation with nostalgia becomes a creative strategy, a way of engaging the heart into what is essentially a critical assessment of the familial and cultural inheritance of his childhood in Tyrone and Donegal, where the stories are generally set.

The characteristic Friel tonality is comic-elegiac, wherein irony checks charm and bitterness underlies humor. Though humorous and nostalgic, these works seriously examine the costs of sentimentality, how it can falsify history and stall personal development. Seamus Deane has pointed out that since history has made Friel's provincial world “anachronistic,” that world can also become “susceptible to sentimentality, self-pity, and, in the last stages, to a grotesque caricaturing of what it had once been.”4 Though Friel's nostalgia genuinely evokes the charms of place and past, he also reveals how emotional passivity challenges the freedom of the character, the intellect of the writer, and the understanding of the reader. At the same time, genuine sensitivity to place and past is one measure of humanity and balanced discrimination. Feeling is part of understanding. While communal failures bear heavily upon Friel's characters, he does not define reality along deterministic lines. Deane states that Friel's “transactions” between character and community elicit “the recognition that the formal structures of social life are what we live by, not what we live for. Yet what we live for is clarified only by the insufficiency of what we live by.”5 Place need not determine one's identity, but inevitably bears upon the self.

A good example of these dynamics between society and the individual is “The Flower of Kiltymore,” an ironically titled story from The Gold in the Sea. Friel begins this tale of a clownish, rural police sergeant named Burke with what seems a simple narrative. Nevertheless, it is a passage filled with defining nuance:

The calm and peace that the death of Lily, his wife, brought to Sergeant Burke's life were an experience so new and so strange to him that the only explanation he could imagine was that he must be ill himself, the unnatural tranquility he had often heard about that frequently forebodes the end. And this knowledge was a vague comfort. Not that he wanted to die—he was, after all, only sixty-two, as strong as a bull, and within sight of retiring from the police force—but he felt guilty at having her lying all alone up there for the past four weeks in the new graveyard, the only grave in the cemetery, with not even a wall around it yet to keep the wandering sheep out.6

In this subdued manner and with a language that mimics Burke's, Friel evokes a double view of the character's personality. Mundane, simple-minded responses accompany hints of emotional depth and individuality. This method of characterization, probing regions of exotic sensibility under unexceptional behavioral facades, is one of Friel's signatures. In this case, Burke himself does not understand his own feelings, and he reduces them to a kind of social problem—his dead wife's isolation in the graveyard.

Bungling and absent-minded, the sergeant is superfluous as a social being except as an object of community laughter. Even Lily had nagged and mocked him. Since her death, however, he has grown indifferent to his clownish reputation, preoccupied as he is with his sense of alienation from himself. Lily's lonesome resting place is hardly more removed from the community than is the sergeant's mood, and he goes off to consult with a doctor, leaving the incompetent and slyly dishonest Guard Finlan on duty at the police station. Though a ludicrous figure himself, Finlan, like many of the younger members of the community, likes to make fun of the sergeant. The Blue Boys, a group of young hooligans, devise false alarms to keep the sergeant in a perpetual state of foolish and meaningless activity. Since the death of Lily, however, they have been quiet. Significantly, Burke misses the self-renewing stoicism that their mockery inspires in him. When an actual emergency takes place, the mockers are themselves mocked by reality itself, and, ironically, by means of another of his outward blunders, Burke ascends to a higher level of inner freedom.

Finlan ignores what he considers to be a prank call—a warning that a mine has washed up on Kiltymore's beach. In fact the mine is real, and the Blue Boys, fooling with it as they have fooled with the sergeant, cause it to explode. Two are killed and several are maimed. The sergeant, who will be blamed for the disaster, belatedly arrives at the scene, heralded by a local madwoman: “The flower of Kiltymore!” she excitedly cries, “The flower of Kiltymore—all gone!”7 The mock-heroic aspect of her words anticipates the absurd public hysteria that is now turned against Sergeant Burke.

But the crisis has a happy effect upon him. As he prepares to face an inquiry by his superiors and whatever public disgrace that may follow, he senses an unexpected renewal within himself:

They might dismiss him right away; or they might question him for hours, for days, and then dismiss him; or they might make a “case” of him, compile a file on him, keep him on tenter hooks for months, and then demote him, and send him to the back of beyond. It must be a terrible offence, he thought, that would bring the Commissioner all the way from Dublin tomorrow.

And yet, although he knew that his future was in the balance, he was neither afraid, nor even anxious. Because for the first time in four weeks he felt normal again. There was the fatigue, yes; but it was a healthy exhaustion. But the emptiness in his stomach had evaporated, and his head was clear, and his heart—his heart was gay, sure, vibrant.8

It is interesting that this simple man should reach this emotional plateau without the aid of indignation against his accusers. He does not rebel against the injustice of his situation nor does he rail against the hypocrisy of the inquiry. As the comic butt of the community he had been alienated. He is therefore now able to find refuge within himself, when the community is accusing him of failure in his societal role. He also has another humble but unique satisfaction:

But even more important, in a few days' time Lily would be alone no longer; she would have company in the new cemetery, the eternal company of the two Blue Boys, and that was a great relief to him. It might not have been the company she would have chosen, but they would have a lot in common, he felt. At last he had been instrumental in making her happy, even once.9

Burke is not conscious of being subversive; he does not sense the air of retribution clinging to his considerations. His personality turns bitterness into atonement, and, without a trace of vainglory or deviousness, he finds personal solace in the public disaster.

Friel effects a complex of ironies here. By means of a satire on the community, Friel elevates the sergeant, not just despite his social blundering, but because of it, and the story evokes the inviolate aspect of his heretofore underrated individuality. Yet the sergeant remains a social being in his own mind. Having considered himself a failure as a husband, he finds satisfaction in his imagined usefulness to his dead wife, thinking as he does of the growing little community of the graveyard. While Friel exposes the hypocrisies of communal life, the story also acknowledges people's imaginative need for each other.

Small-town mentalities are not necessarily small mentalities. Rich implications can exist in unexceptional lives, simple situations, and ordinary consciousness. Friel adapts himself to the mentality of his characters, and his generally inarticulate and isolated protagonists have their moments of grace and eloquence. In these moments we sense that they speak for the artist, though the message is usually indirect or disguised. “It is through his self-effacement,” comments George O'Brien of Friel, “that we become aware of him.”10 Ultimately, as Seamus Heaney has pointed out, Friel is a writer engaged in a “quarrel with himself, between his heart and his head. …”11 Like Turgenev's gentle provincials, Friel's country folk seem alternately silly and shrewd. Though they do not act the cosmopolitan, they are often more canny than naive, and they embody a complex dynamic with their surroundings.

The protagonist of “The Saucer of Larks” is another aging police sergeant. (Curiously, his assistant is named Burke, the sergeant's name in “The Flower of Kiltymore.”) This tale's sergeant protagonist is also a man whose sensibility is belied by the gruff externals of looks, behavior, and speech (all typical trappings of his social status). He and Guard Burke escort two German officials of the War Graves Commission out to a lonely but beautiful Donegal valley, Glennafuiseog, a name which means “the valley of the larks.” They go there to locate the grave of a German pilot who crashed near the spot during the war. A stout man with a pipe between his teeth, the sergeant comments with self-deprecating irony as they drive out into the country: “This is my kingdom as far as you can see.”12 But in a way he means it, for he responds to the beauty of the place so intensely that he feels compelled to speak, albeit roughly, of his emotions:

“Dammit, could you believe that there are places like this still in the world, eh? D'you know, there are men who would give fortunes for a place like this. Fortunes. And what would they do if they got it? What would they do?”

“What, Sergeant?” asked Burke dutifully.

“They would destroy it! That's what they would do! Dig it up and flatten it out and build houses on it and ring it round with cement. Kill it. That's what they would do. Kill it. Didn't I see them myself when I was stationed in Dublin years ago, making an arse of places like Malahide and Skerries and Bray. That's what I mean. Kill it! Slaughter it!”13

His alienation from society's affairs deepens his private bond with this wild place. Indignant against the modern world, he is keen to escape from its obligations, some of which extend to him in his duties as a policeman. But as if to spite him, and in keeping with a questionable general policy, the German officials have come to exhume the body and take the remains to a mass grave in County Wicklow. Without fully realizing it, the sergeant has been made a grudging servant of blunt and narrow systemization. Nevertheless, his heart rebels within him as he surveys the surrounding beauty. On a moment's impulse, he turns to the German officials and makes an appeal that surprises them and, indeed, himself:

“I'm going to ask you to do something.” His breath came in short puffs and he spoke quickly. “Leave that young lad here. Don't dig him up.”

Herr Grass stiffened.

“Let him lie here where he has all that's good in God's earth around about him. He has been here for the past eighteen years; he's part of the place by now. Leave him in it. Let him rest in peace.”14

These words might as well be a plea for the sergeant himself, for he has been in these same regions for many years (he was called in when the pilot crashed and was buried by local fishermen eighteen years ago), and his impulse comes out of his long-formed piety for the place.

But he senses that the Germans do not understand his feeling, for he hardly understands it himself. They go about their duties, exhume the remains of the body and effectively violate the connection that time and nature had established with the human remains. The sergeant seems to sag within his uniform, and, contrasting with his exultation of a few moments before over the soaring of a flock of larks (a “confirmation of his humanity,” as George O'Brien puts it), he descends into his officer's manner:

“I think that is everything,” said Herr Grass. “Now we are prepared.”

“Right,” said the Sergeant irritably. “We'll go then. This bloody place is like an oven. My shirt's sticking to my back.”15

The job is done, but it is certainly not “everything.” The sergeant feels depressed in his isolation but also angry that he has been foolish enough to compromise it. When Guard Burke tries to draw him out later by criticizing the Germans, he shuns the overture and threatens Burke against speaking of the episode by the pilot's grave. The sergeant has gained a bitter wisdom. On another rare day his spirit may ascend with the larks again, but if it happens, no one else will know of it. Even as the larks fill up the untravelled valley, the sergeant, like all of us, fills his fated isolation with his own sensibility.

In Friel's stories, imposed values of social, historical, or ethical circumstance bear upon each human impulse, but not with a paralyzing inevitability. By depicting characters in situations that seem overpowering. Friel invests greater value upon those traces of autonomy that do arise, at least as a missed option. Typically, as these two stories illustrate, the Friel protagonist stops short of overtly subversive behavior, but, in a sense, Friel defines each character to the degree that the heart is not scripted and the mind is not programmed.


  1. The Critic 26.1 (Aug.-Sept. 1967): 15.

  2. “From Ballybeg to Broadway,” New York Times Magazine (Sept. 29, 1991): 55.

  3. Ibid., 30.

  4. “Introduction,” Selected Plays of Brian Friel (Washington: Catholic Univ., 1986), 13.

  5. “Introduction,” The Diviner (Dublin: O'Brien, 1983), 5.

  6. The Gold in the Sea (Garden City: Doubleday, 1966), 129.

  7. P. 139.

  8. P. 143.

  9. P. 144.

  10. Brian Friel (Boston: Twayne, 1990), 22.

  11. “Digging Deeper,” Times Literary Supplement (March 21, 1975): 806.

  12. The Saucer of Larks (Garden City: Doubleday, 1962), 12.

  13. Pp. 12-13.

  14. P. 14.

  15. P. 16.

Works Cited

Deane, Seamus. “Introduction.” The Diviner. Dublin: O'Brien, 1983.

———. “Introduction.” Selected Plays of Brian Friel. Washington: Catholic Univ., 1986.

Friel, Brian. The Gold in the Sea. Garden City: Doubleday, 1966.

———. The Saucer of Larks. Garden City: Doubleday, 1962.

———. “The Theatre of Hope and Despair.” The Critic 26.1 (Aug.-Sept. 1967): 12-17.

Gussow, Mel. “From Ballybeg to Broadway.” New York Times Magazine (Sept. 29, 1991): 30, 55-57, 60-61.

Heaney, Seamus. “Digging Deeper.” Times Literary Supplement (March 21, 1975): 806.

O'Brien, George. Brian Friel. Boston: Twayne, 1990.

Honor O'Connor (essay date 1999)

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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 occasionally lifted out of their relative obscurity for specialists—rather like objects of archeological interest. In this article I propose to look at the ten stories which first appeared together in 1979 as The Diviner: The Best Stories of Brian Frielwith an introduction by Seamus Deane, and which are currently available, minus the introduction, as Selected Stories (1979, 1994). Friel is a story-teller, whether telling the story on the page or on the stage. He tells, in the sense of feeding the story to his audience, giving the settings all the vividness and the characters all the individuality that together make them live in the reader's mind. Authorial comments are so woven into the fabric of the stories that they are not obvious. But they are there all the same and may be discovered by looking at Friel's choice of theme, situation or character. He was very conscious of the personal, domestic and social/political problems that faced the people he knew best in their daily lives. My article aims to show this and to argue that Friel's stories are far more radical than they appear to be. Their quiet apolitical scenarios and traditional form belie their power to provoke the thought which is necessary before any kind of amelioration may begin. Like a diviner's hazel-twig, each story is sensitive to the underground water or the hidden Ireland of the mid-twentieth century.


Friel's Ireland is the north-west of Ulster which straddles the Border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. It takes in Co. Tyrone and Derry city, both under the jurisdiction of the United Kingdom, and the beautiful, wind-swept county of Donegal which is part of the Irish Republic, where he lives and where he spent many holidays as a boy. “Friel Country” is steeped in history because Tyrone is the hereditary land of the O'Neills, Donegal that of the O'Donnells and Derry the city of St. Columcille. After the defeat of the leading chieftains of the Irish/Gaelic resistance to the forces of Elizabeth I of England, Hugh O'Neill, and Red Hugh O'Donnell, at the battle of Kinsale in 1601, Ulster was systematically planted by English and Scots settlers in the early seventeenth century. Ulf Dantanus in Brian Friel: A Study outlines Friel's family background:

The name Friel/O'Friel carries distinct local connotations. Statistics relating to the modern distribution of the population show that it is seldom met with outside County Donegal and the contiguous areas. It is the anglicized form of the Irish O Firghil (pronounced and often written Frighil, with the same meaning as Farrell/O Fearghail “man of valour” and can be traced back to Eoghan, brother of St. Columcille. The Chief of the leading Friel family had the hereditary right to inaugurate the O'Donnell as lord of Tirconnell (Donegal).


Dantanus also researched Friel's immediate family background, pointing out that his paternal grandparents were Irish-speaking and that his father was involved in Nationalist politics in Derry, and making connections between these facts and Friel's political plays (32-43). He associates Friel's great love of Donegal with his childhood visits to his mother's family home near Glenties, one of the wildest and most beautiful parts of the county and an area that qualifies most of all as Friel country, and the hinterland of his composite Ballybeg/Small Town.

George O'Brien in Brian Friel, Dantanus, and Neil Corcoran have mapped Friel's transition from the short story to the stage and how he worked out certain themes in ways that the stage allowed or inspired. Corcoran's essay, “The Penalties of Retrospect: Continuities in Brian Friel” in The Achievement of Brian Friel edited by Alan Peacock deals with this transition in the light of what Seamus Deane says in his introduction to Selected Plays of Brian Friel and the ideas of Edward Said in his book Beginnings. Corcoran qualifies Deane's and the generally accepted account of Friel's transition from his early work as a repudiation of its “almost unexamined Irish and Irish-American emotionalism and commercialism” for sailing out “dangerously into the uncharted waters of a more deeply perturbing and perturbed consciousness of self and society.” Corcoran sees another dimension of the process:

But in thinking […] about Friel's beginnings as a playwright, I want to think too about those elements in his work which have retained a continuity from origin to protean present. Deane adumbrates an account of how the later Friel is a re-writing of the earlier; in this essay I want to retain a consciousness of that perception, but also to enquire more closely into the possibilities for interpretation of what Edward Said, the pre-eminent theorist of textual origins, puts at its pithiest in his book Beginnings (40): “The beginning as primordial asceticism has an obsessive persistence in the mind, which seems very often engaged in a retrospective examination of itself.”


The steady flow of commentaries on and the interchange of ideas between critics about Friel's work are concrete evidence of how much there is in it to be mined. O'Brien sketches Friel's beginnings as a writer in his study of the stories:

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 heart” […]. The appeal of the rural hinterland of Donegal was enhanced by the relocation of the family in Derry city when Friel was ten, his father having transferred to a teaching position in the Long Tower school there.

What is notable in the formative years of Friel's career is his commitment to writing, which cannot have been easy while carrying on a full-time teaching career and becoming a family man (he married Anne Morrison in 1954, and they have four daughters and a son). Clearly he was helped by a contract with the New Yorker, which had first refusal on his stories. By 1960, the year Friel quit teaching to write full-time, he had published many of the short stories collected in The Saucer of Larks (1962), and he had had his first dramatic efforts—for radio—accepted. At this point Friel was preeminently a short story writer, working in the essentially pastoral mode of the Irish short story in the interwar period, whose best known exponents are Frank O'Connor and Sean O'Faolain, though Friel's work is nearer in tone and touch to the lesser known and unjustly neglected Ulster story writer, Michael McLaverty.



It is paradoxical that Friel's stories are more dramatic than some of his plays. Reading “The Diviner,” for instance, is imagined theatre; watching Faith Healer (1979) was being read to—and in a way that limits the listener to the timbre of a particular voice in each monologue. Molly Sweeney (1994) also falls into an equivocal category somewhere between telling and showing—a view that verges on the heretical in relation to these plays, but which throws the dramatic qualities of the stories into relief. The stories have an immediacy of impact, vivid characterization as much through dialogue as through action, and underlying tensions that make them both entertaining and thought-provoking.

First of all they have a strong sense of locale. Whether this is the wind-swept headland off Donegal that makes the sergeant in “The Saucer of Larks” exclaim: “Dammit, it's lovely, isn't it?” or the pigeon loft of the terraced house in “The Widowhood System,” we get a setting as concrete as any stage set and then changes of scene as we read. This quality of Friel's technique was there right from the very beginning. From the child listening on the stairs to the sounds of his parents fighting downstairs in “The Child” to the vivid descriptions of the hospital grounds in “Everything Neat and Tidy,” the reader is seeing and hearing in the theatre of the imagination. “The Child” leaves an indelible impression on the memory. It has never been republished because Friel expressly forbade this, though it is seminal in demonstrating the dramatic turn of his imagination and his preoccupation with the gulf that divides the world of men from that of women, with unhappy consequences for themselves and their child—it generally is an only child or a child that lives in a world of his own. It is not far thematically to Philadelphia, Here I Come! nor to “The Illusionists” and other stories where lack of communication is central.

The settings and scenes of Friel's stories are defined in simple, clear language, like uncluttered stage sets. Sounds “off” and on stage are both evocative and realistic. There is no vagueness or any kind of doubt about the characters' being people immersed in the mundane realities of life which, I would argue, become universal for the reader, like Jane Austen's Hampshire. “The Potato Gatherers” begins:

November frost had starched the flat countryside into silent rigidity. The “rat-tat-tat” of the tractor's exhaust drilled into the clean, hard air but did not penetrate it; each staccato sound broke off as if it had been nipped. Hunched over the driver's wheel sat Kelly, the owner, a rock of a man with a huge head and broken finger-nails, and in the trailer behind were his four potato gatherers—two young men, permanent farm hands, and two boys he had hired for the day. At six o'clock in the morning, they were the only living things in that part of County Tyrone.


This is scene one: location. It is followed by introduction of characters whose chat then feeds the reader information and gives each a distinct personality. The second scene is the potato field and the beginning of the gathering:

The field was a two-acre rectangle bordered by a low hedge. The ridges of potatoes stretched lengthwise in straight, black lines. Kelly unfastened the trailer and hooked up the mechanical digger. The two labourers stood with their hands in their pockets and scowled around them, cigarettes hanging from their lips. […] The tractor moved forward into the first ridges, throwing up a spray of brown earth behind as it went.


Scene three divides the story into “morning” and “afternoon/evening” and into “hope” and “doubt,” to be followed by “exhaustion” and “disappointment.” The stark writing matches the bleak field and dwindling strength of the boys, especially the younger boy, Philly's. The closing scene is at dusk and the exhausted boys are in Kelly's trailer. Philly is now painfully aware of how hard potato-gathering really is and in his heart he knows that very little of the money Joe and he have earned will be theirs to spend; his realization that Joe knew this all along makes his disappointment all the keener. The contrast between the relaxed labourers and the boys at the end is the climax of both the plot and the juxtaposition by which Friel strengthens the form of this story.

This division of a story into clearly defined scenes is not, of course, peculiar to Friel but, coupled with his ear for dialogue, it enables the reader to experience the story as an imagined play. In “The Potato Gatherers” the difference between Joe and Philly is brought out by Philly's wild western expressions and bravado: “Nor me neither, mistah. Meet you in the saloon” (53). Joe is guarded in what he says in reply to Philly's questions about what he'll buy with his money: “Aw, naw. Naw … I don't know yet” (52). The labourers are laconic throughout the story, while Kelly's lines are direct commands or short but not unkind comments. All in all, this story ranks with the best of Friel's contemporaries and could hold its own farther afield. It is the story that I associate with him as a writer in this genre, thus disagreeing with John Cronin in “‘Donging the Tower’—The Past Did Have Meaning: The Short Stories of Brian Friel,” one of the essays in The Achievement of Brian Friel:

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 significance that one does not tend to think of Friel and his stories in this way. Admirably skilful as many of them are, no great classic of the form leaps to mind at mention of his name.


Friel's outlook on life as ascertained from his stories is overtly neither searching nor transforming. He does not create characters who consciously probe into the sociological/historical or psychological backgrounds of the situations they find themselves in. He presents the situations as given, to be lived in rather like the physical setting of the story, while his characters fall into two main categories—those who endure and those who react. They are observed rather than analysed or themselves given to analysis. In this respect I would describe Friel as a presenter of TV documentaries which leave conclusions and assessments to their audience, but which draw the audience into the personal predicament of the principal character(s) in an entertaining way. This is precisely what short stories are best able to do; they do not, perhaps should not, intend to be analytical for this is where novels are in their element. His stories singly or collectively do not examine the reasons which cause the conflict between the protagonist and his/her circumstances, so they are not searching in the sense of overtly looking beneath the surface of the mid-twentieth century Ireland presented to the reader. Cumulatively, however, Friel's stories reveal his awareness of the social and economic limitations which hemmed in the lives of his characters.

This is the point that Valerie Shaw makes in her The Short Story: A Critical Introduction when discussing the place of the short story in the late nineteenth and early twentieth-century literary pantheons. Was it journalism? Was it apprentice work of would-be novelists? Was it comforting entertainment for the leisured readers of magazines? Shaw refers to Henry James's appreciation of the short story as a genre in its own right with two particular aptitudes: the ability to bring a facet of life to a reader's awareness and collectively to illuminate a society. As an artist James worked to perfect the short story and, though conscious of its limited scope, he also thought that “a collection of short stories could be made to reflect life's diversity” (12). Shaw goes on to stress James's conviction that the short story could mirror contemporary life and epitomize modern conditions (17). Such observations have been validated by Friel's stories which, as I argue below, reflect the society he lived in and wrote about. This was a task made all the harder by its being largely a society of negatives: not losing one's dignity or not having one's dreams fulfilled, and the grinding force of poverty.

The ability of a short story to reflect anything, let alone a society, accurately and with emotional power depends on the intensity of the writing coupled with the capacity to “see” and then present the story as a coherent whole. Shaw is quite clear about this, having little patience with stories that tend to either of the extremes: bland entertainment at one end and at the other “specific kinds of formal intricacy, sometimes treating short fiction as though it were always at its best when aspiring to the complex condition of a metaphysical lyric poem.” She concludes that “the qualities needing emphasis are the immediacy, compression and vitality which the short story shares with journalism of the highest standard” (8).

These qualities may be found in stories of such diverse formal structure that make form relatively unimportant when it comes to assessing the merits of a particular short story. Friel used the form of the Irish Short Story which in the hands of O'Connor, O'Faolain, O'Flaherty and Lavin had already won critical and editorial approval. His stories are well shaped and chronological, with a clear beginning-middle-and end. Form for Friel the author of short stories was structurally necessary but hardly an end in itself; his interest was focused on his subject matter. His dramatic gifts, however, seem to have been latent as if waiting for the chance to break out of the restrictions of the page. He uses “scenes” rather than the gradual flow of time to move the plot forward, a technique that not only prefigures his plays but also suggests adaptation for TV drama. Though most of his stories are told by an omniscient but unobtrusive narrator, sometimes impartially as in “The Diviner” and sometimes clearly from one character's angle as in “Foundry House,” he is there only to let the characters act and speak for themselves. The narrator in “The Gold in the Sea” has the curiosity and detached interest of an observer which lets the story unfold unimpeded, whereas the voice in “The Illusionists” is that of the adult who as a child was powerless to interfere in the domestic situation he is now describing. Friel as a writer was himself observing the circumstances of people's lives which he personally could not change, but which he could bring to the surface for scrutiny. In this sense he was a diviner in a closed and secretive society.


As they are presented to us, the characters in Friel's stories feel trapped in situations that they make little or no effort to understand, not because they consciously do not want to but because they are not able. The normal leaders of a rural society, the local gentry, priests, teachers and politicians give no help in this regard. On the contrary, such priests and teachers as appear in the stories are paternalistic and reinforce the conventions and ignorance that made Irish society so narrow in the 1940s and 1950s. Life was hard then in rural Ireland, rarely above subsistence farming for most. In country towns it was, if anything, worse for anyone below what Friel calls “the better-off”; there would not have been space to keep a cow or grow enough potatoes to eke out wages or pensions. The generally depressed state of the Irish economy after World War II has been documented by historians, including Joe Lee in Ireland 1912-1985: Politics and Society. He gives the relevant chapter the title: “Malaise: 1945-1958” (271-328), and points out that lack of imaginative initiative and the political will to carry out such plans that might have been hatched were significant factors of the economic stagnation of the country. Up to 1967 formal education stopped at the age of fourteen for the majority of Irish children. There were a few County Council scholarships to enable clever ones to go on to secondary schools; otherwise families had to be able to afford fees. Though these were generally not high since most secondary schools were run by religious Orders, they were beyond the reach of the majority. In pre-television Ireland the sociological effects of such limited educational opportunities were profound. Not only were people divided by relative material wealth and poverty, they were divided even more so by their education or lack of it. Granted that such education as was offered by nuns and Christian Brothers was itself academically narrow, single-sex, and often puritanical, it was still a pathway to University, Training College and the Civil Service. This is the world of Friel's stories, a world which he documents faithfully and with a degree of admiration for the courage, imagination or sheer endurance of his protagonists who try to break out of it or at least be distracted from it in whatever way they can. He is aware of how personal freedom and feelings, especially those between men and women are stunted or thwarted by convention and respectability. The word “dignity” sums up the most precious part of many of his characters—as if that alone is all they can maintain in a stern world.

The Sergeant in “The Saucer of Larks,” who cannot understand why he felt so strongly about the disinterment of the German airman that he suggested that orders be disobeyed, feels that he has to redeem his dignity in the eyes of his subordinate, Burke. When the papers are signed, and the Germans gone, he turns to Burke's duties: dog licences and tillage returns. Burke takes the hint and promptly snaps to attention:

“Good,” said the Sergeant. “That'll be that, then.” The moment of efficiency died in him as quickly as it had begun. His shoulders slumped and his stomach crept out. “I don't know a damn what came over me out there,” he said in a low voice, as if he were alone.

“What's that, Sergeant?”

“What in hell came over me? I never did the like of it in my life before. Never in all my years in the force. And then before foreigners too.” He raised his cap above his head, slipped his fingers under it and fumbled with his scalp. He lowered the cap again. “I'm damned if I can understand it. The heat, maybe. The heat and the years … they're a treacherous combination, Burke, very treacherous.”

“What are you talking about, Sergeant?” said Burke with exaggerated innocence.

“You know bloody well what I'm talking about. And I'll tell you something here and now, Burke.” He prodded the guard's shoulders with his index finger. “If ever a word of what happened out there at Glennafushog breaks your lips, to any mortal man, now or ever, as God's my judge, Burke, I'll have you sent to the wildest outpost in the country. Now, get along with you and distribute them hand bills.”

“Very good, Sergeant.”

“And report to me again when you come back.”

“Righto, Sergeant. Righto.”

The Sergeant turned and waddled towards the building. For a man of his years and shape, he carried himself with considerable dignity.


This excerpt demonstrates Friel's sensitivity to the embarrassment of allowing feelings to surface in public and to the effort to appear as society expects. Here the distinction between “dignity” and “respectability” is blurred: is the Sergeant dignified in Burke's eyes, in ours, or in his own? Many of the stories are variations on this theme. One such is “The Diviner” which begins:

During twenty-five years of married life, Nelly Devenny was ashamed to lift her head because of Tom's antics. He was seldom sober, never in a job for more than a few weeks at a time, and always fighting. When he fell off his bicycle one Saturday night and was killed by a passing motorcycle, no one in the village of Drumeen was surprised that Nelly was not heartbroken. She took the death calmly and with quiet dignity and even shed a few tears when the coffin was lowered into the grave. After a suitable period of mourning, she went out to work as a charwoman, and the five better-class families she asked for employment were blessed for their prompt charity, because Nelly was the perfect servant—silent, industrious, punctual, spotlessly clean.


The division between the five “better-class families” and the rest of the village is the order of the day, as is the division between respectability and its opposite. In setting the scene Friel uses irony to establish his authorial stance. “Prompt charity” and double negatives let us know that there is more being told than the facts of the case; we see the village from the auditorium as the story of Nelly's second husband moves from scene to scene to the climactic arrival of the diviner and the dragging of the lake lit in stripes by the headlights of cars, lorries and tractors. This story stands out from the others by its ironic tone, as well as being in itself a metaphor for Friel the storyteller and forerunner of Faith Healer. The latter's dramatic ending contrasts with the understated ending of the former. When McElwee, the diviner, reluctantly produces the two dark-green pint whiskey bottles that he finds with the drowned man—instead of the rosary beads the priest piously expects—Friel shows us Nelly's reaction: she mourns the death of her respectability. The diviner is no longer centre stage; the ordinary must win:

While they prayed, Nelly cried, helplessly, convulsively, her wailing rising above the drone of the prayers. Hers, they knew, were not only the tears for twenty-five years of humility and mortification but, more bitter still, tears for the past three months, when appearances had almost been won, when a foothold on respectability had almost been established.

Beyond the circle around the drowned man, the diviner mopped the perspiration on his forehead and on the back of his neck with a soiled handkerchief. Then he sat on the fender of a car and waited for someone to drive him back to County Mayo.


The development of themes or situations from the short story to the stage is an aspect of Friel's work that has invited study as he added play to play. Some stories are obvious forerunners of plays; others hint at ideas later more fully treated.

Two such forerunners are “Foundry House” and “A Man's World,” the latter not included in Selected Stories—understandably, in my opinion, for its transformation into Dancing at Lughnasa would make any writer want to bury the story in a literary museum. “Foundry House,” on the other hand, is a wonderful story in its own right and as forerunner of Aristocrats. The Hogan family is seen through the eyes of Joe Brennan, who has returned with his family to live in the gate lodge, where he had grown up. His memories of the Hogan family as it was in his childhood are juxtaposed with his shocked discovery of its present decay. The contrast between Joe's respect and humility towards the Hogans and his wife's no-nonsense attitude underlines the story's theme: life goes on and the past has to give way to the present. Her remark: “Aren't they supposed to be one of the best Catholic families in the North of Ireland?” is meant to strengthen her insistence that Joe mention their nine children in his letter asking for the tenancy of the gate lodge on his parents' death. The vitality of these children impresses old Mrs. Hogan whose celibate son and daughter spell the end of the family and make her husband's illness and their decline from former wealth all the more poignant. Sister Claire in Africa and Father Declan, a Jesuit, are no substitute for the confusion of a large, struggling family. Joe realizes this, yet cannot bring himself to explain his disillusionment to Rita:

The kitchen at home was chaotic. The baby was in a zinc bath before the fire, the three younger children were wrestling in their pyjamas, and the five elder were eating at the table. Rita, her hair in a turban and her sleeves rolled up, stood in the middle of the floor and shouted unheeded instructions above the din.

“So you came home at last! Did you have a nice afternoon with your fancy friends?”

He picked his way between the wrestlers and sat in the corner below the humming gas jet.

“I'm speaking to you! Are you deaf?”

“I heard you,” he said. “Yes, I had a nice afternoon.”


Each time his answer to her eager questions is similarly vague: “Very nice,” “a fine priest,” “a lovely room.” At last Rita understands that she is not to get any gossipy details, and we understand that Joe's disappointment will be suffered in the silence of his heart.

Elmer Andrews in his study The Art of Brian Friel comments on Friel's ability to chart the silent deserts that separate people from each other: “It is the paradox of art that Friel's finely articulated and beautifully crafted story can convey the breakdown and failure of communication, the loss of coherence and fluidity, the sense of a pathetic, lonely entrapment” (40). In particular Friel exposes the separate worlds of men and women. His men are dreamers, often impractical to the point of irresponsibility; his women are worn out by bearing and rearing children, poverty and their husbands' improvidence and/or irresponsibility. The mother in “The Illusionists” is at first seen in the harsh light of her opposition to all that M. L'Estrange, the illusionist, stands for. To her he is temptation personified, waiting to lure her son away from her world of practical realities as he already has lured her husband farther into alcoholic self-glorifying memories. The boy is fascinated by L'Estrange and his tawdry tricks and feels himself helpless as the battle between his parents gives way to the drunken argument between his father and L'Estrange. In the end it is the mother's illusions that work on the boy's mind, not because what she said was true, but because he was convinced by her certainty. Here Friel touches on a point that, if more fully worked out, could lead to some form of common ground between husband and wife: they each need their illusions, however flimsy, and if they could talk to each other about them instead of using them to escape from each other they would be happier people—though if they could talk to each other they might not need such illusions. As far as the story is about lack of communication between adults, it is unresolved. Friel's concluding lines here are too pat to be a conclusion and, instead, underline his point that men and women see the world differently and are condemned to unbridgeable misunderstanding. Each has as much a need for an illusion of escape as the other; the pity is that neither can begin to understand this, let alone begin to share a common illusion. Friel is here, as elsewhere an uncompromising writer, a fair one too in that he allows us to see each person's point of view. Maybe in this story his bias towards the boy comes out in the boy's being the narrator. He certainly captured the child's need to feel secure in stressing the shaky grounds of his belief in his mother's certainties.

“The Widowhood System,” though it also deals with marital relations and the need for escape, contrasts with “The Illusionists” not only in its happy resolution but in the way this grows out of the interaction of characters and the plot. For once there is a good-humoured, warm-hearted and quick-witted woman playing against a trio of bachelors, not quite musketeers but romantic in their passion for racing pigeons. The story has a lightness of touch that belies its serious theme: life can slip by without ever having been fully lived. Judith takes the initiative to teach this lesson to Harry through the very racing technique that he was engrossed in perfecting. She uses the pigeons to get what she wants: Harry and herself into their matrimonial bed. The story builds up to this through the interplay of Judith's unspoken longing for marriage and Harry's use of sexual attraction between pigeons to fulfill his ambition to breed a champion racing pigeon. At the beginning we are in Harry's situation and feeling his impatience:

From the very day his mother was buried, Harry Quinn set about converting the two attic rooms, from which she had ruled the house for the last nineteen years of her impossible dotage, into a model pigeon loft, so that he could transfer his precious racing birds from the cold, corrugated-iron structure in the back garden. The house, at 16 Distillery Lane, in chaotic condition, already consisted of Harry's ramshakle grocery shop on the ground floor and the flat of Handme Levy, a tailor, on the second. Handme—short for Hand me Down the Moon (he was six and a half feet tall if he was an inch)—helped with the task of reconstruction … Fusilier Lynch gave a hand, too, out of the goodness of his heart. For six days the three men worked, stopping only to eat the meals that Judith Costigan, who lived next door in Number 15, made for them.


The job done, there is the celebratory drink and Harry's declaration that he intends to tell them something “that's been in my nose for nineteen years.” Although Handme's guess: “You're going to marry Judith!” is rebutted by Harry's “I'm going to produce the best racing pigeon Mullaghduff has ever seen” (33), it is truer than the men suspect. Friel works out the plot from this scene, using dialogue to carry it forward and to make the characters live. His ability to paint the set is matched by his portraiture, exemplified here by his descriptions of Handme, Fusilier Lynch and Judith:

Handme's face was permanently fixed in the expression a man has immediately before he sneezes—mouth open, teeth bared, eyes wide, forehead wrinkled. On him, it became a look of wild delight and anticipation. That, on top of a thin, gangling body, made the young girls of the town scared stiff of him. […] The Fusilier was short, stocky, silent. He was in his late forties, the youngest of three bachelors. He was better at greyhounds and whippets than at birds, but a good all-rounder. […] It was a funny sight to see Harry swaying in the middle of the kitchen floor, his hand on his chest, his cheeks streaming with tears, and Judith, plump, smooth, hazel-eyed, fresher-looking than her forty-four years, nodding her head and laughing generously at him.


For all its light-heartedness this story deals with one of the most deeply felt results of the lack of education and the general economic depression of Ireland in the post-war years. Countless men and women could not afford to marry or, if they could, there was often an ageing parent to make marriage either impossible or very unattractive. This state of unwilling celibacy has been the subject of many Irish writers, from Brian Merriman's savage attack on it in his satire, Cuirt an Mhean-Oiche/The Midnight Court (c. 1780) to Patrick Kavanagh's The Great Hunger (1942) passionate in its plea for sexual fulfilment. William Trevor's well-known short story, “The Ballroom of Romance” (1972), depicts this yearning from a woman's point of view. Friel in his story makes a woman's natural desire for a family the energizing force that brings about the resolution of the plot and, we are led to believe, the personal happiness, sexual and otherwise, of Harry and Judith. To underline her role, Friel gives the actual lines of the marriage proposal to Judith: “The only clear memory of their reunion that would always remain sharp and clear to him was of her whispering to him, at some stage, ‘Will you marry me, Harry?’ and of himself kissing her on the mouth in love and gratitude, because somehow, at that moment, the question seemed apt. More than apt—inspired” (47). While his mother still “ruled the house” (32) Harry would have been as unfree to marry Judith as he was to re-house his pigeons, nor would she have found the prospect of being “ruled” congenial. The fact that Friel explicitly tells us that the Fusilier “in his late forties was the youngest of the three bachelors” (33) and that Judith is forty-four points to his awareness of this far from satisfactory aspect of Irish society until economic expansion began in the mid-sixties. Figures in Lee provide the sociological context:

Total population which fell from 2.96 to 2.82 million between 1951 and 1961, then rose to 2.98 million by 1971. Lemass (the then Prime Minister) prated little about the sanctity of “the family.” But 4 percent economic growth and a rise of about 50 percent in material living standards during the 1960s at last made it feasible for the number of families to increase. […] The number of marriages rose from a trough of 14 700 in 1957 to 16 800 in 1966 and 22 000 in 1971. […] Mean age at marriage for men fell from 30.6 to 27.2 years, and for women from 26.9 to 24.8 years, between 1961 and 1973.


The alternatives to celibacy were emigration or marriage. Emigration in the Selected Stories is a backdrop; marriage as it comes under Friel's scrutiny is not a happy state. Poverty, large families and lack of communication between husband and wife were factors largely outside their control, with the first two of these interdependent and very likely the cause of the third. Birth control was forbidden by the Catholic Church so that the size of a family was related to the age at which a woman married, rather than to the family's means and least of all to conscious decisions about having children. Friel's reticence about such matters does not indicate that he was unaware of how they affected family life in general and the relationship between couples in particular, but that he was in tune with the period he was writing about and the time of the stories' composition. In “Foundry House,” for instance, Joe at thirty-three has nine children so it is no wonder that Rita pushes him to mention them in his letter to Mrs. Hogan and when he returns from his visit expects him to take over from her at home: “She sat resolutely on the opposite side of the fireplace, to show that she had done her share of the work; it was now his turn to give a hand” (69). Such domestic tensions were part of the hidden Ireland of the mid-twentieth century. Tom, the first-person narrator of “Ginger Hero,” is acutely aware of what marriage has done to his wife Min, whom he chose as “softer” than her sister Annie. Ten years and eight children later, he compares the sisters: whereas the childless Annie is a cheerful woman, his wife is worn and tired from child-bearing. Nevertheless, Tom thinks that if Billy “had not had such an obsession about being childless, he could have been the happiest man in Donegal” (84). These stories say a great deal about married life, and not just in Ireland, before contraception and any form of fertility treatment were available. It also says a great deal about Friel that he dealt with this intimate side of marriage with compassion and delicacy and as directly as society permitted at the time.

If cock-fighting is a form of compensation for Billy, Annie and Tom, Friel does not labour the point. Instead, here as in so many of his stories and plays, he shows how having something to hope for—even if this is as “trivial” as winning a cock-fight—can make the vital difference in lives otherwise dulled by circumstances. Racing pigeons for Harry Quinn, the magic of the illusionist for the boy in “The Illusionists,” Joe's memories of the vanished grandeur of the Hogans in “Foundry House” and the submerged bullion in “The Gold in the Sea” have their counterparts in many of Friel's plays, though these become more abstract or complex as the plays themselves did. Whereas for Gar O'Donnell in Philadelphia, Here I Come! (1964) there is a concrete place to escape to, the alternative “place” in Translations (1980) is not specified. Right through his work Friel shows how people need to feel that there is an escape route, an alternative to the sense of being trapped. In his stories these feelings and hopes are private; whereas in his plays they became increasingly public and/or political as the tensions within Ulster broke out into open violence. As the political situation became more and more intractable, Friel was among those who saw that asking questions could be as positive as providing answers or immediate remedies. In this regard his work with that of his colleagues in Field Day was part of the slow groping towards peace which led to the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, to which the people of Ireland gave their assent by their resounding “Yes” vote in the referendums held simultaneously North and South on 22nd May 1998. Reading his stories to-day one can see the same process: awareness leading to reflection which may be either a means of healing or of evasive action.

“The Gold in the Sea,” the title story of his 1966 collection and included in Selected Stories, is thus a metaphor for Friel's work in being about giving people hope when they have nothing or very little else. It is a graphic story, a candidate for TV drama with its scenic setting off the coast of Donegal and its opportunities for character acting, particularly the part of Con the much travelled skipper, who is central to the story. The Regina Coeli, a “twenty-footer of graceless proportions, without sails, and with two sets of oars,” plays her part well in providing the props for the illegal fishing expedition and responding to the movements of sea and wind in the silent hours of the night. The crew consists of Con, his nephew Philly, another young man, Lispy, and the Friel-like summer visitor, who tells the story:

All three men were full-time farmers and part-time fishermen, and by any standards they were very poor.

Two miles out from the harbour, free from the shelter of the headland, we were struck by a brisk Atlantic wind. We were now part of an inpenetratable blackness.

“At this very moment, friend,” Con proclaimed, “you're sitting on top of more gold than there is in the vaults of Fort Knox.”

“We'll get our share,” I said, thinking he was referring to the salmon, which he had described earlier as being so plentiful that you could dance a reel on their backs and not wet a toe.

“Real gold!” he said. “At this very spot, on an August morning in 1917, the Bonipart was sunk by a German submarine on her way from England to the USA. Fifty fathoms straight below us. A cargo of bullion.”


The narrator's misunderstanding prepares us for the ending of the story. When Con eventually admits to him that the gold has in fact been salvaged by a Dutch crew, he adds: “I don't want Philly or Lispy to know this. It's better for them to think it's still there. They're young men … they never got much out of life. Not like me” (31). Hope is more important than knowing the truth; it is better to have dreams than to sink into the inertia of despair or alcohol. These ideas as dramatized in the stories are like a watermark that they share with the plays. He works them out, though, in a variety of ways, some of them quite critical of unquestioning hope.

In “Everything Neat and Tidy,” for instance, hope takes the shape of a farm belonging to the well-to-do MacMenamins, the family of Johnny Barr's wife. It is not, however, an El Dorado to Johnny, the local taxi-driver. It had been neglected by the MacMenamins whose carelessness simultaneously baffled, annoyed, attracted and unsettled him. But for Johnny it meant a waste of good farming land that was shameful and wrong, even if it had a certain glamour. The story is thus different from “The Gold in the Sea” and others where whatever stands for hope in the protagonists' lives is accepted blindly and clung to. Johnny's story is his discovery of what he really feels about the MacMenamins' way of life that contrasted with his family's in a way that he could not at first understand:

The whole set-up confused and annoyed him, and yet fascinated him. When he was with them, he was conscious only of importance. What a business he would have made of that place! How he could have run it! Yet when he went home to his own house in the town—before he married, he lived in three rooms as natty and precise as a doll's house, above the bakery where his father was night-watchman—he forgot the chaos and decay and remembered only the tranquillity of their lives. He would look at his mother, birdlike, shrivelled, sharp with the lifelong battle against poverty, and think of Mrs. Mac, who had floated serenely above hardships. […] The contrast between the life he had been reared to and the life he now tasted made him dissatisfied with both.


The story is resolved by a dawn of understanding very similar to that which resolves “Among the Ruins.” Both Johnny and Joe realize that they have to come to terms with the past. Its power has to be engaged with, either through a long and mostly unsettling process of thought like Johnny's, or through a sudden recognition of an insight like Joe's as he was driving home from the outing to his old family home: “The past did have meaning. […] It was simply continuance, life repeating itself and surviving” (109).


The meaning of Friel's stories and his work as a whole could be summed up by this last sentence. We inherit a past in the form of character, family, landscape, and history and at each level it needs to be understood before it may be accommodated in the present or used as the foundation for a better future.

His short stories testify to how early in his career as a writer Friel looked below the surface of people's lives to their psychological needs. Though these needs took different and sometimes pathetic forms—a yearning to be respected, distracted, uplifted, excited, or given a utopian dream of finding gold in the sea—his tone never slights the individual for feeling as he or she does. Whatever satire there is in the stories is directed at the petty differences to be found in the society they reflect so perceptively. Even then it is gentle, as if implying that society itself has been formed by its past and has yet to understand the forces that made it the way it is. The stories raise no serious moral/ethical issues or depict life-or-death situations; no scintillating ideas race through the heads of the characters. Yet they are profoundly moral in being about the mores of a particular society, and about how to survive when circumstances hem one in. What makes them scintillate is the tension between the vitality of the writing and their hard core of meaning. For this reason Friel may be described as a water diviner who is able to reveal the underground water below the surface of the society he writes about.

Works Cited

Andrews, Elmer. The Art of Brian Friel. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1995.

Cronin, John. “‘Donging the Tower’—The Past Did Have Meaning: The Short Stories of Brian Friel.” The Achievement of Brian Friel. Ed. Alan Peacock. Gerrards Cross: Smythe, 1993.

Dantanus, Ulf. Brian Friel: A Study. London: Faber, 1988.

Friel, Brian. Selected Stories. 1979. Meath: Gallery, 1996.

Lee, Joseph. Ireland 1912-1985: Politics and Society. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1989.

O'Brien, George. Brian Friel. Dublin: Gill, 1989.

Peacock, Alan, ed. The Achievement of Brian Friel. Gerrards Cross: Smythe, 1993.

Said, Edward. Beginnings: Intention and Method. New York: Columbia UP, 1985.

Shaw, Valerie. The Short Story: A Critical Introduction. London: Longman, 1983.


Friel, Brian (Drama Criticism)


Friel, Brian (Vol. 115)