While inspecting documents, FSU professor Kelley Matthews happened upon a collection of previously unpublished correspondence between celebrated Irish playwright Brian Friel and his first editor at the British Broadcasting Company, Ronald Mason.
Matthews spoke about this discovery as part of the FSU’s Lyceum Lecture series on Oct. 24 in the McCarthy Forum. The lecture is named after a method of instruction championed by Aristotle that emphasized education for the public at large, and sponsored by the Center for Excellence in Learning, Teaching, Scholarship and Service (CELTSS).
She described how her original research topic – Irish radio playwrights – became more focused after an unexpected find in BBC’s archives.
Matthews was given a brief introduction by Dr. Elaine Beilin, director of CELTSS. Beilin praised Matthews’ insight at recognizing the importance of what she’d found. “This is at the heart of what we do as academics,” she said.
The letters revealed a professional mentorship between Friel and Mason during Friel’s formative years, and later grew to be more personal, casting insight on the playwright’s early years. Friel won a Tony Award for Best Play in 1992 for his drama “Dancing at Lughnasa” and later was appointed a member of Seanad Éireann, Ireland’s Senate. A discovery this large was unusual, given Friel’s reputation, she said.
Beilin remarked on how Matthews’ research “crossed disciplines,” and said it was “very, very unusual to discover hundreds of letters that haven’t been looked at since they were written.”
Due to the strict manner in which BBC archives are controlled, Matthews worked three days a week under direct observation of an appointed archivist. BBC archives keeps a record of who had accessed which files. She described these records as “meticulous” and used them to confirm her suspicion that she was the first to see these letters in decades.
Matthews is in the process of organizing the letters and navigating BBC’s policies on publication, which she expects to take at least a year.
The lecture concluded with a brief Q&A session, in which Matthews fielded questions from the audience. Both faculty and students alike engaged with Matthews over comparisons with other authors and the rarity of such a find in the archives of an institution with as large a profile as BBC.
Senior Andrew Morin found the presentation engaging compared to other Lyceum events and found the material relevant to his coursework.
Some found the story of Matthews’ trip abroad exciting. “I liked particularly the story of the journey that she took,” said senior Jesse Sannicandro. “She made it very personal.”
Matthews described the find as a “once in a lifetime discovery. …That’s how I felt when I found it. I thought, ‘I’ll never find anything this new and undiscovered, and this significant again.’”