Dancing at Lughnasa is a 1990 play by dramatist Brian Friel set in Ireland’s County Donegal in August 1936 in the fictional town of Ballybeg. It is a memory play told from the point of view of the adult Michael Evans, the narrator. He recounts the summer in his aunts’ cottage when he was seven years old. This play is loosely based on the lives of Friel’s mother and aunts who lived in the Glenties, on the west coast of Donegal.
Set in 1936, during the summer before de Valera’s new constitution was approved by referendum, the play depicts the late summer days when love briefly seems possible for three of the Mundy sisters (Chris, Rose, and Kate) and the family welcomes home the frail elder brother, who has returned from a life as missionary in Africa. However, as the summer ends, the family foresees the sadness and economic privations under which they will suffer as all hopes fade. The play takes place in early August, around the festival of Lughnasa, in Celtic folklore, the festival of the first fruits, when the harvest is welcomed.
The play describes a bitter harvest for the Mundy sisters, a time of reaping what has been sown. Plot The five Mundy sisters (Kate, Maggie, Agnes, Rosie, and Christina), all unmarried, live in a cottage outside of Ballybeg. The oldest, Kate, is a school teacher, and the only one with a well-paid job. Agnes and Rose knit gloves to be sold in town, thereby earning a little extra money for the household. They also help Maggie to keep the house. Maggie and Christina (Michael’s mother) have no income at all. Michael is seven years old and plays in and around the cottage.
All the drama takes place within the sisters’ cottage, with events outside being reported, either as they happen or as reminiscence. Recently returned home after 25 years is their brother Jack, a priest who has lived as a missionary in a leper colony in a remote village called Ryanga in Uganda. He is suffering from malaria and has trouble remembering many things, including the sisters’ names and his English vocabulary. It becomes clear that he has “gone native” and abandoned much of his Catholicism during his time there.
This may be the real reason he has been sent home. Gerry, Michael’s father, is Welsh. He is a charming yet unreliable man, and is always clowning. He is a traveling salesman who sells gramophones. He visits rarely and always unannounced. A radio nicknamed “Marconi”, which only works intermittently, brings 1930s dance and traditional Irish folk music into the home at rather random moments and then equally randomly ceases to play. This leads the women into sudden outbursts of wild dancing. The poverty and financial insecurity of the sisters is a constant theme.
So are their unfulfilled lives, none of the sisters has married although it is clear that they have had suitors whom they fondly remember. There is a tension between the strict and proper behavior demanded by the Catholic Church, voiced most stridently by the upright Kate, and the unbridled emotional paganism of the local people in the “back hills” of Donegal and in the tribal people of Uganda. There is a possibility that Gerry is serious this time about his marriage proposal to Christina.
On this visit he says he is going to join the International brigade to fight in the Spanish civil war, not from any ideological commitment but because he wants adventure. There is a similar tension here between the “godless” forces he wants to join and the forces of Franco against which he will be fighting, which were supported by the Catholic Church. The opening of a knitwear factory in the village has just killed off the hand knitted glove cottage industry which has been the livelihood of Agnes and Rose.
The village priest has told Kate that there are insufficient pupils at the school for her to continue in her post in the coming school year in September. She suspects that the real reason is her brother Jack, whose heretical views has become known to the Church and has tainted her by association. There is a sense that the close home life the women/girls have known since childhood is about to be torn apart. The narrator, the adult Michael