The first Brian Friel play I ever saw was performed in our overheated parish hall in Co. Donegal one blustery October night in the 1980's by a talented amateur dramatic group that had driven all the way from Lifford.
Back then Lifford was a world away. I was 15 and the play was called Philadelphia, Here I Come.
Somehow I had heard that it was good and I went to see it on my own because none of my friends had any interest in the theater. It seemed so remote to the concerns of our teenage lives.
That turned out to be a flat wrong, though. Watching the play, 10 minutes in, was like seeing my county, my town and myself for the very first time. Friel knew us from the outside in and it showed.
The people on stage looked and sounded exactly like the people who lived in my town, I quickly realized. He had us down to the quirks and odd mannerisms. It was uncanny and hilarious.
It was the first time I ever realized we could be a powerful subject in our own right. It was a revelation.
At first the play was very funny but then it grew darker and darker. Old people didn't know how to talk to the young, fathers didn't know how to talk to their sons, the well off could not or would not understand the plight of the poor, the lucky had no time for the unfortunate.
The fictitious town of Ballybeg that Friel had created was a stand in for every town within 50 miles of me I discovered. I knew its streets and I knew who walked them like I knew myself.
By splitting the play's reluctant hero Gar O'Donnell into two halves, one public and the other private, Friel signaled that the young men in this nation found it impossible to grow up in an atmosphere that kept them infantilized though the oppressive shadow of religion and a hard diet of economic privation.
The young lads in the play chased after girls who barely knew they existed, because the allure of sex was translated by the disapproving clergy into a soul threatening sin. Fathers encouraged you to date someone else's comely daughter because your prospects would never amount to much. It was breathtaking to watch.
If you really wanted space for your heart and your head you had to leave, it turned out. In this case to the U.S.
But then Friel reminded us that when you go away you always take yourself and your history with you. There is no such thing as a clean escape.
This was heady stuff for a 15-year-old, but I understood every scene in the play. I had already seen what happened to the young hero happen to many of the men and women in the town. One day they were here, the next their suitcase was packed and they were waiting at the bus stop and after a hurried goodbye you'd never see them again.
But of all the heroes and villains Friel assembled on the stage, the one I never forgot was Gar's spinster aunt, who he referred to as “auld fluke feet Madge.”
Madge was a kindly stand in for Gar's mother, who had died young. She represented all the softness and affection that Friel had for Ballybeg and the people in it. Madge showed him a side of the town that was different to the tense and halting relationship he had with his father.
It was Madge who was the key to the play and the country. She embodied what Friel was saying, her's was a half lived life.
She had been ill-served by circumstances and yet there she was, offering kind words and a bit of comfort, even to people she knew were less deserving of it. She was, I relaized, just some old doll making Gar a cup of tea on his last night in Ballybeg, but she broke my heart into a thousand pieces.
Friel was taking the pulse of the nation and gently offering suggestions. He had come to prominence in the worst decade of the near theocracy that Ireland had became in the 20th century. He knew what needed to change.
Writing short stories that caught the attention of literary editors of The New Yorker, he started on a remarkable trajectory that would see him stand shoulder to shoulder with Ibsen and Chekhov by the end of his career.
Having come from the common people he understood better than any other Irish writer how they lived and loved, and what they burned for, because he was one of them himself. His timing was miraculous.
In the process of freeing himself from the nets of history, Brian Friel helped free Ireland itself.