Friel, (James) Redmond (1907–79), composer, arranger, teacher, and church musician, was born 13 February 1907 in Duke Street, Derry. His father, Michael, born in the Twins area of Co. Donegal, was an engine driver on the Derry–Killybegs railway line; his mother, Sarah Donaghey, was from Co. Londonderry. Redmond had two younger sisters, Eileen Fitzpatrick and Peggy Barr. The family home was musical, with the playing of Irish traditional music providing a formative environment.
Friel was educated at Waterside boys’ primary school, where he became a monitor. He played piano, cello, and organ, and was taught the clarinet by a local organist, Edward Conaghan, becoming a member of the Waterside brass and reed youth band. The boy showed early promise as a composer, winning several prizes for original composition at the oireachtas. Tutored privately in Belfast by Dr Norman Hay (qv), lecturer in music at Queen's University, he also received encouragement from the composer Hamilton Harty (qv) and from E. Godfrey Brown (qv), then music director of the BBC in Belfast. Commissions from the BBC and RTÉ followed in the wake of Friel's oireachtas successes.
Between 1925 and 1927 Friel trained as a teacher at St Mary's college of education, Strawberry Hill, London, obtaining credits in his final examinations in music and mathematics. Shortly after his return to Derry he was appointed assistant teacher in the Waterside school where he had been a pupil. He remained there throughout his working life, becoming principal in 1960, a post which he held until his retirement in June 1972. Friel was also part-time teacher of music history and theory at St Columb's College, Derry, tutoring pupils for O and A level music examinations. He held this post until June 1979, and in this capacity taught the composer Kevin O'Connell and the songwriter and musician Paul Brady.
As an arranger of traditional melodies Friel was one of the most prolific Northern Irish musicians of the post-partition period, and will be remembered principally for his arrangements for orchestra and choirs. Between 1937 and 1939 he was one of the musicians engaged by the BBC to orchestrate the traditional folk music of Ulster, his arrangements being broadcast in ‘Irish Rhythms’ and other programmes. Invited to become a guest conductor of the BBC Northern Ireland Orchestra, he conducted his own compositions and arrangements on several occasions, and also worked with Irish traditional musicians such as Sean O'Boyle of Armagh to produce arrangements of fiddle and pipe melodies. In 1947 Friel edited Paterson's Irish song book, and nine of his own arrangements of Irish songs were published by An Gúm between 1941 and 1973.
Between 1930 and 1975 Friel was organist at St Columb's church in the Waterside, and took part in several radio broadcasts. He wrote a substantial amount of church music which was performed locally. During these years he developed a strong interest in choral work, forming a close association with local choirs, and in the 1920s and 1930s conducted the GPO Choir, with whom he made several BBC radio broadcasts. The Foyle Singers, for whom he made numerous settings, performed his arrangements of Irish national songs at the Fianna Fáil jubilee concert in the RDS concert hall in Dublin in May 1976. He also had a close working relationship with the RTÉ Singers, and several of his compositions and arrangements were performed by this choir under the direction of Hans Waldemar Rosen (qv). With his keen knowledge of choral music Friel was in frequent demand as an adjudicator at music festivals throughout Ireland: at the Feis Tirconaill in Donegal, the Dublin and Sligo Feis Ceoil, and the Cork International Choral Festival.
Friel produced a varied output: orchestral pieces, works for orchestra and voices and for chamber groups, church, choral, film, and incidental music. But his original compositions adhered to the more conservative school of Irish composition: he concentrated on the arrangement of traditional music and on writing his own music in similar vein. Among his major orchestral pieces are a Symphonic movement (1949) and a ballet and concert suite on The children of Lir, written for the Cork Ballet Festival in 1950. He wrote two masses and several orchestral miniatures, mainly inspired by regional motifs: From the north (1935, twelve minutes) and Ulster sketches (1952, 4 movements, 3 minutes each). In 1968 he composed the soundtrack for Two hours from London (the script for the film was written by John Hume); in 1943 he had composed music for a passion play, The shadow of the cross.
In addition to his professional and creative roles Friel had wider cultural commitments. He served on the music advisory committee of CEMA (1960–76), which after 1963 became the Arts Council of Northern Ireland. A founder member of the North-West Music Society and the North-West Arts Festival and a lifelong supporter of the Feis Doire Colmcille, he served on its executive committee for over twenty years and in 1977 composed a Choral scena for its postponed jubilee celebrations.
In 1940 Friel married Sarah (Sadie) Breslin (1914–2004), who was born in Bunbeg, Co. Donegal, the daughter of John Breslin (d. 1919) a hotelier and general merchant of Glenties, Co. Donegal, and Mary Boyle from Bunbeg. Her brother Cormac Breslin (qv) was a TD and sometime ceann comhairle of the dáil. She had trained in education in the Irish Free State but was not permitted to work as a teacher in Northern Ireland. Throughout their married life the couple lived at Clooney Terrace in the Waterside area of Derry. They had four daughters and one son: Deirdre, Mary, Maeve, Isolde, and Michael.
Redmond Friel died 5 December 1979 and was buried in the Altnagelvin new cemetery, Derry. His Mass for St Columb, specifically composed for the centenary celebrations of St Columb's College six months earlier, was performed during the requiem mass in St Columb's church in the Waterside.