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Friel Reimagined

The Plays: 'Dancing at Lughnasa' (1990)


  • 24 April 1990 at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin.

Published in

Illustrations by

  • Ashling Lindsay, commissioned by the Friel Reimagined Project, 2022.
‘Women of our years? Mature women, dancing? What’s come over you all?’

Ballybeg, Brian Friel’s imagined ‘small town’ in rural Donegal, features numerous times in his plays. In Dancing at Lughnasa, set around the harvest festival in August 1936, the action centres on a house two miles outside of town, home to the five Mundy sisters: Kate, Agnes, Maggie, Rose and Chris. Chris, the youngest, is the mother of the narrator Michael, who appears as a seven-year-old boy and a middle-aged man looking back on his childhood.

Friel conjures an atmosphere of aching nostalgia in Dancing at Lughnasa – an interplay between present-day reminiscence and the main action set decades earlier. The adult Michael is quietly meditative as he attempts to reconstruct past times and past lives. While he can only replay fragments in his mind, the audience is treated to a wonderfully vibrant spectacle of the sisters’ everyday lives. Their joys and heartaches play out on stage, alongside their everyday worries, their tight-knit bonds with each other and their connections with the local community.

The sisters’ precarious lives (only Kate, the eldest, makes a wage as a teacher) become even more complicated that summer.

First, they must make room in the house for their brother, Fr Jack, just returned from a 25-year missionary posting in Africa. Then there is a surprise appearance from Gerry, Michael’s father. Friel balances the tensions in the womens’ lives by introducing another new arrival in the Mundy kitchen: the ‘Marconi’ wireless radio set. Almost with a mind of its own, the wireless interjects Irish dance music into the Mundys’ kitchen, conjuring a new vitality in the sisters. Giving themselves over to dancing offers a sense of release and a connection to the mysterious rituals - both pagan and Christian - in which rural Ireland is steeped.

The sisters dancing in the kitchen. Illustration by Ashling Lindsay inspired by Dancing at Lughnasa.
For about ten seconds - until the sound has established itself - the women continue with their tasks. Then Maggie turns round. Her head is cocked to the beat, to the music.

The beginning of Brian Friel's stage directions for the Mundy sisters' dance to The Mason's Apron, a céilí playing on the Marconi wireless.

Michael with his kites. Illustration by Ashling Lindsay inspired by Dancing at Lughnasa.

About the Illustrator

Ashling Lindsay is an Irish artist and writer from Belfast. She has an MA in Design and a BA in Visual Communication, both from Belfast School of Art. Ashling’s first authored picturebook, ‘An Unexpected Thing’, was published in 2022. Ashling teaches illustration at Belfast School of Art, is a member of Children’s Books Belfast and the Illustrators Guild of Ireland.

  • 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.

    Illustrator Play
    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