Friel was born in Omagh, County Tyrone, the son of Patrick "Paddy" Friel. His father was a primary school teacher and later a councillor (or "corporater") on Londonderry Corporation (as it was, up until 1970, officially called), the local city council in Derry. Friel's mother, Mary McLoone, was postmistress of Glenties, County Donegal. He attended St Columb's College in Derry, alongside Seamus Heaney, John Hume, Seamus Deane, Phil Coulter, Eamonn McCann and Paul Brady. Friel received his B. A. from St. Pat's College, Maynooth (1945–48), and qualified as a teacher at St. Joseph's Training College in Belfast, 1949–50. He married Anne Morrison in 1954, with whom he has four daughters and one son; they remain married. Between 1950 and 1960, he worked as a Maths teacher in the Derry primary and intermediate school system, taking leave in 1960 to pursue a career as writer, living off his savings. In 1966, the Friels moved from 13 Malborough Street, Derry to Muff, County Donegal, eventually settling outside Greencastle, County Donegal.
He was appointed to Seanad Éireann at the behest of the Taoiseach in 1987 and served until 1989. In 1989, BBC Radio launched a "Brian Friel Season," a series devoted a six-play season to his work, He was the first living playwright to receive such an honour. In 1999 (April–August), Friel's 70th birthday was celebrated in Dublin with the Friel Festival, during which ten of his plays were staged or presented as dramatic readings throughout Dublin. A conference, National Library exhibition, film screenings, pre-show talks, and the launching of a special issue of The Irish University Review devoted to the playwright ran in conjunction with the festival. In 1999, he also received a lifetime achievement award from the Irish Times.
On 22 February 2006 Friel was presented with a gold Torc by President Mary McAleese in recognition of his election as a Saoi by the members of Aosdána. Only seven members of Aosdána can hold this honour at any one time, and Friel joined fellow Saoithe Louis le Brocquy, Patrick Scott, Camille Souter, Seamus Heaney, Seóirse Bodley, and Anthony Cronin. On acceptance of the gold Torc, Friel quipped, "I knew that being made a Saoi, really getting this award, is extreme unction; it is a final anointment—Aosdana's last rites."
In August 2006, on the occasion of the 75th birthday of Friel's wife, Seamus Heaney had a stroke in County Donegal on the morning after the celebration.
In November 2008, The Queen's University of Belfast announced its intention to build a new theatre complex and research centre, to be named The Brian Friel Theatre and Centre for Theatre Research.
His 80th birthday was commemorated in 2009. The Gate Theatre staged three plays (Faith Healer, The Yalta Game, and Afterplay) during several weeks in September. In the midst of the Gate's productions, the Abbey Theatre presented "A Birthday Celebration for Brian Friel," on 13 September 2009 – an evening of staged readings (excerpts from Philadelphia, Here I Come!, Translations, and Dancing at Lughnasa), the performance of Friel-specific songs and nocturnes, and readings by Thomas Kilroy and Seamus Heaney. Although somewhat of a recluse, Friel attended the performance amid regular seating, received a cake while the audience sang "Happy Birthday," and mingled with well wishers afterwards. Also in 2009, the journal Irish Theatre International published a Special Issue to commemorate the occasion with seven articles devoted to the playwright.
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