Brian Friel's Dancing at Lughnasa Cottage Glenties
Saving an Important Literary Landmark in Donegal
Late last summer when Brian Friel was seriously ill, I thought about, not only the days and nights I had enjoyed in the playwright's company in Glenties at the MacGill Summer School which Brian and his wife, Anne, attended frequently on opening nights but also about the times we had celebrated Brian and his wonderful work. In particular, the memory of Brian addressing the audience and introducing his highly acclaimed and award winning play, Dancing At Lughnasa, on a summer's evening in August of 1991 had left its indelible mark. It was a rare moment of magic on an occasion that will not be forgotten by any of those people from Glenties and much further afield who had the good fortune to be present.
Since then, I had often thought about the cottage, The Laurels, on the outskirts of Glenties which has lain empty for decades. This is the house in which the five McLoone sisters, the Mundy sisters of Dancing At Lughnasa, lived. They were Brian's aunts and have, of course, been immortalised by the playwright in his wonderfully warm, tender and emotionally powerful masterpiece.
I was spurred on by these memories and by the fact that this was a place dear to Brian's heart and hugely important to him. It was a place he had often visited as a boy and his affection for his aunts and his admiration of them is revealed in his dedication to them in the play. He writes: In memory of those five brave Glenties women. When I went to see the then owner of the property I was received with great courtesy and, after a visit to the cottage a few days later, it was agreed that we would acquire it. With the help of a generous donor, a great admirer of Friel and his work, I was in a position to proceed. What a pity that Brian had just passed away but he reposes peacefully not far away and there is his wonderful wife, Anne, and his family who have been hugely supportive of this initiative.
However, the acquisition of this important cultural and literary landmark is only the beginning. The house is in a dilapidated state and there is much urgent work to be done if what remains of the house is to be saved but the possibilities are great. The house stands on a wooded site of one acre a few hundred metres from the town of Glenties. As a first phase, the roof needs to be replaced urgently if what remains is to be saved and restored which will require a great deal of work-and funding.
Apart from the restoration of the house, there is considerable potential for the creation of a Brian Friel Centre in Glenties which would be a permanent monument to Brian and a place where the work of one of Ireland's greatest dramatists, would be experienced, celebrated and discussed. There is, however, no way in which this project could be undertaken exclusively at a local level and, in any case, this is a project of national and international significance. We need help from public and private bodies and people locally, nationally and internationally who know the work of Brian Friel and its impact on world theatre and the important physical and metaphorical place that Glenties/Ballybeg is in understanding him as a playwright of universal significance.
We now have an enthusiastic Board of Trustees, friends and admirers of Brian and his work which includes writer and academic, Prof Thomas Kilroy, producer and Chairperson RTE, Moya Doherty, Director of the Arts Council, Orlaith McBride, film producer and former Chairperson, Abbey Theatre, Noel Pearson, former Attorney-General and barrister, Michael McDowell SC, Chairperson of Gate Theatre board, former CEO and former Chairperson, RTE, Mary Finan, librarian, Mary Friel Bateman who is a daughter of Brian Friel, Donegal CEO, Seamus Neely, former Director of the Guthrie Theatre and theatre director, Joe Dowling, poet and publisher, Peter Fallon, Glenties estate agent, Francis Brennan and myself. The wonderful recipient of the T.P. O'Neill Diasporo Award in Donegal last year, Loretta Brennan Glucksman, whose grandfather hailed from Greencastle where Brian Friel lived for decades, and the distinguished actor, Liam Neeson, who performed in the first production of Translations, have agreed to be patrons.
Work on the the Dancing At Lughnasa cottage will have to begin soon if it is to be saved and a campaign to raise funds from public and private sources will be initiated shortly.
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In July, the extraordinary legacy of Brian Friel will be celebrated at this year's MacGill Summer School in Glenties.