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Friel Reimagined

The Plays: 'Philadelphia, Here I Come!' (1964)


  • 28 September 1964 at the Gaiety Theatre, Dublin.

Published in

Illustrations by

  • Fuchsia MacAree, commissioned by the Friel Reimagined Project, 2022.
A record player and Mendelssohn record
A Public and Private Protagonist

In an early scene in Brian Friel’s breakthrough play Philadelphia, Here I Come! a young man imagines being aboard an airplane flying into the west over the Atlantic Ocean.

In this fantasised journey, the placid passenger aircraft becomes a gunner plane, swooping down to the fishing trawlers below. This daydream plays out in a house in Ballybeg, County Donegal, in the bedroom of Gareth (Gar) O’Donnell, the play’s lead character or protagonist – whom Friel quickly establishes as a thoughtful, witty and searching young man. An imaginative vision like Gar’s is a useful way for a playwright to go beyond the confines of the stage and escape the immediate setting of the play. In Friel’s inventive approach, the protagonist is split into two personas played by different actors: Gar Private, who gives voice to the protagonist’s internal monologue; and Gar Public, his external face.

Bottles and glasses of stout

The central dramatic device of Philadelphia, with two actors playing the protagonist on stage – of whom only Public is seen and heard by the other characters in the play – gives Friel a special freedom to reflect on the dilemmas of migration.

This was a vexing matter for young people and their families in 1960s Ireland, and through Gar Private’s thinking aloud, Friel contemplates how the ties that bind a person to the place where they have grown up might be frayed or broken altogether. Where Gar Public is reticent and unsure of himself, Gar Private is forthright, frank and mischievous in sharing his thoughts. He doesn’t hesitate to harangue his upright father – county councillor and shopkeeper S.B. O’Donnell – even if the audience knows that Private’s target is oblivious to his cutting wordplay. He teases and goads most of the other characters around him, too: he questions the motives of his friends, finding flaws in their ordinary, parochial lives; equally, he pokes fun at his brassy American relatives who are back for a visit to the home country.

And yet, for all his assured, sarcastic proclamations, Gar Private also gives voice to the tenderest of feelings, wearing his heart on his sleeve when others, Gar Public included, fail to find the courage to do so. His affection for his sweetheart, Katie Dougan; his admiration for Madge, the housekeeper who effectively raised him; his sentimental memories of time spent with his father – these emotional undercurrents swirl deeply through the play, while the surface is, for the most part, jesting and laughter. As his departure looms, Gar struggles to find any good answers to his soul-searching questions. He cannot be sure he is making the right choice by leaving the only home he has known.

A suitcase and passport

A great success in Ireland and the United States, Philadelphia established Brian Friel as a dramatist of huge promise and the play has become a classic of the twentieth century stage. In Friel, the audience encountered a voice that was unafraid of challenging the conventions of the time. Philadelphia cut to the heart of contemporary problems – taking aim at both the seemingly unchangeable Irish knack for avoiding difficult subjects, and the cocky certitude of a burgeoning American consumer culture. Through Friel’s thoughtful writing, alternatively comical and poignant in finely balanced measure, the audience joined Gar on a personal journey to seek his place in a changing world.


Think... Up in that big bugger of a jet, with its snout pointing straight for the States, and its tail belching smoke over Ireland...

Gar fantasises about his airplane heading out over the Atlantic.

Gar Public and Gar Private sit on a hilltop observing a plane flying overhead
Illustration by Fuchsia MacAree inspired by Episode One of Philadelphia, Here I Come!
I want to go to America – if you’ll have me –

Gar’s Aunt Lizzy, her husband Con Sweeney (both Irish-American) and their American friend Ben Burton, visiting Ireland from the US.

Aunt Lizzy, Con and Ben visiting the O'Donnells
Illustration by Fuchsia MacAree inspired by Episode Two of Philadelphia, Here I Come!
Now! What’ll we chat about, eh? Let’s – chat – about – what?

Unbeknownst to them, Gar Private airs his feelings to his father, S.B. (right), and Canon Mick O’Byrne, the parish priest, while they play draughts.

Gar Private talks to S.B. and the Canon
Illustration by Fuchsia MacAree inspired by Episode Three, Part One of Philadelphia, Here I Come!

More on Philadelphia, Here I Come!

  • Roche, Anthony (2011). ‘Fantasy in Friel,’ in Theatre and Politics, pp. 58-83. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Pine, Richard (1999). ‘The Landscape Painter’, in The Diviner: The Art of Brian Friel, 37-76. Dublin: UCD Press. 

About the Illustrator

Fuchsia MacAree makes character based illustrations. Her work highlights quiet moments of contemplation, details in nature and observations from everyday life, and uses simplified perspectives and a distinctive colour palette. She received a BDes in Visual Communication in NCAD in 2011, followed by an MA in Illustration in Camberwell in London in 2012. In 2018 she illustrated the bestselling and award winning Great Irish Weather Book with Gill Books. She has been exhibited and published worldwide.

  • About the Friel Reimagined Illustration Programme

    The Friel Reimagined Project is delighted to work with five talented Irish and Northern Irish illustrators to help introduce Friel's work. Each of them has each chosen one of Friel's plays to interpret in their own illustration style. Their work will appear on the Friel Reimagined website throughout 2022.

    Fuchsia MacAree Philadelphia, Here I Come!
    Lydia Hughes The Freedom of the City
    Ashwin Chacko Faith Healer
    Dermot Flynn Translations
    Ashling Lindsay Dancing at Lughnasa