The Plays: 'Dancing at Lughnasa' (1990)
- 24 April 1990 at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin.
- Brian Friel - Collected Plays: Volume Three, The Gallery Press / Faber & Faber (2016).
- Ashling Lindsay, commissioned by the Friel Reimagined Project, 2022.
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.
“...what is so strange about that memory is that everybody seems to be floating on those sweet sounds, moving rhythmically, languorously, in complete isolation; responding more to the mood of the music than its beat...” - Michael reflecting on the summer of 1936
Rose and Agnes
Agnes: “It's settled. We're going - the Mundy girls - all five of us together... Like we used to.” Rose: “I love you, Aggie! I love you more than chocolate biscuits!”
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.
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.