Blue plaque unveiled in Derry in honour of composer Redmond Friel (1907-1979)

Pictured at the unveiling; back row (L-R): Chairman of the Ulster History Circle Chris Spurr; The Mayor of Derry and Strabane District Circle Alderman Graham Warke; Phil Coulter. Front row (L-R): Isolde Watts [née Friel], Redmond's daughter; Dr. Nuala McAllister Hart; Mary Nicell [née Friel], Redmond's daughter; Dr. Kevin O'Connell. Photo courtesy of Dr. Kevin O'Connell.

On Saturday, 19th of February 2022 a blue plaque was unveiled at Chapel Road Primary School in honour of the Derry composer, musician and teacher, Redmond Friel (1907-1979). The blue plaque was organised by the Ulster History Circle and was unveiled at the school where Friel was once a pupil, then teacher and principal.

Speaking at this occasion was former pupil of Friel's and Head of Composition at the Royal Irish Academy of Music (RIAM), Dr. Kevin O'Connell;

One could be forgiven for thinking that Redmond Friel (1907-79) had been consigned to the fate that Ireland reserves for most of its composers: oblivion. You can imagine my delight when I received Dr. Nuala McAllister Hart’s email saying that a plaque was to be erected to him at the school where he was first a pupil, then a teacher and then the headmaster.

My memories of Redmond pertain to the end of his life. I think that my group (class of ’78) must be the last that he ever taught.

People are naturally curious about what it was like to have a composer teach you ‘O’ and ‘A’ level music. Redmond’s pedagogical routine was in fact unvarying. He would first correct the previous week’s assignment. There would follow aural drill and dictation. An exercise in harmony or counterpoint would then be sketched on the board to be completed in class or at home. Finally the set works would be played and analysed. It was here that the composer in Redmond was most evident: his views on the immortals were trenchant and not always flattering. His manner was unintimidating but also formal. Fond as we became of him, he would never be anything but Mr. Friel to us. 

The St. Columb’s orchestra performed one of his works (I think it must have been the Mourne Suite) and here we encountered the essential Redmond. This was the figure who modestly occupied terrain reaching well beyond St. Columb’s and Derry. For all his understated modesty he carried about him the aura of a wide culture lightly worn, of having been places in the world and accomplished things. To youths of seventeen this was the oxygen we breathed.

The sun shone on this convivial and joyful event. I hope he was smiling from somewhere.

Redmond Friel studied privately with the Northern Irish composer Norman Hay (1889–1943) and at St Mary’s College of Education, London. He was headmaster of the Waterside Boys’ School and member of the music staff at St Columb’s College, Derry. His output includes several symphonic, vocal, choral and chamber works, including a Symphonic Movement (1949) and a ballet and concert suite on The Children of Lir (1950). 

For more information on Redmond Friel and his works housed in the CMC Collection, please visit Redmond Friel's CMC Composer page.