The Freedom of the City

by Brian Friel

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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

Brian Friel’s satirically named The Freedom of The City constitutes a diatribe against British influence in the six counties of Northern Ireland during the period of the Troubles. The play follows a tragic form, as can be observed in the playwright’s choice to expose the corpses of the dead protesters in the very first scene. This decision diverts the audience from wondering what will happen in the play and instead invites them to consider why it has happened.

Friel’s dramatization of this particular tragedy was perhaps influenced by the diversity of its victims. While Skinner might be an archetypal troublemaker, with his radical politics and troubled history with the police, Michael is shown to be a moderate with aspirations to respectability, while Lily is a wife and mother of good sense and intentions. The personalities of the three are emphasized during their short stay in the mayor’s office, especially by means of the laughing and joking between Lily and Skinner, a device serving to humanize those whom the audience had first seen merely as corpses. Friel’s objective is clearly to show that British tyranny is directed not exclusively towards the Skinners of this world, but toward all the Northern Irish people, regardless of their political persuasions.

The British voices in the play tend toward the unsympathetic. The judge is clearly disposed against the three murdered protesters, as is indicated by his unfounded assertions early in the second act that they had harbored dishonest motives from the start. Meanwhile, though the sociologist Dr. Dobbs makes several accurate claims about the effects of poverty on the people of Northern Ireland, he comes across as pompous and detached from those he is seeking to understand.

Friel’s choice of the mayor’s office in Derry’s town hall for the setting of his play’s climax perhaps encapsulates best of all his view of the British in Northern Ireland. The room’s opulence in contrast to the poverty of Lily and Skinner in particular—in addition to its failure to provide for the innocent protesters’ sanctuary—suggests that corruption exists not merely at the fringes, but at the very heart of the British and unionist institution in the province of Ulster.

Meanwhile, the “Irish” voices in the play—especially that of the Balladeer—present the protesters in a more positive light. The singer uses the quintessential Irish medium of folk music to elevate the three protesters, perhaps in order to suggest parallels between their deaths and those of the three Fenians executed a century earlier in Manchester for their efforts to obtain independence for Ireland.

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