Study Guide to Dancing at Lughnasa by Brian Friel

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Original portrait of playwright Brian Friel by Donegal artist Stephen Bennett

This semi-autobiographical play by Brian Friel was first performed in the Abbey Theatre in 1990.  In 1998 the play was adapted and turned into a very successful, award-winning film,  directed by Pat O’Connor.  The film competed in the Venice Film Festival of 1998. It won an Irish Film and Television Award for Best Actor in a Female Role for Brid Brennan. It was also nominated for 6 other awards, including the Irish Film and Television Award for Best Feature Film and the Best Actress Award for the American actress, Meryl Streep, who played the part of Kate.

 Like many other of Friel’s works it is set in the fictional town of Ballybeg and tells the story of a family unit being torn apart by the many strong forces in society.  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 Ardara, a small town in the Glenties area of County Donegal. Set in the summer of 1936, the play depicts the late summer days when love briefly seems possible for five of the Mundy sisters (Maggie, Chris, Agnes, Rose, and Kate) and the family welcomes home the frail elder brother, Jack, who has returned from a life as a missionary in Africa. However, as the summer ends, the family foresees the sadness and economic privations under which they will suffer and all hope seems to fade.

The play takes place in early August, around the Festival of Lughnasa, the pagan Celtic harvest festival. The play describes a bitter harvest for the Mundy sisters, a time of reaping what has been sown.

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PLOT SUMMARY

In the play, the adult narrator, Michael Evans, recalls the summer of 1936 when as a small boy of seven, he lived with his mother Chris, and his four aunts – Kate, Maggie, Agnes and Rose – in the fictional village of Ballybeg, the setting for many of Friel’s finest plays.  His uncle Jack, a missionary priest, had recently returned from Africa to live with them.  He is suffering from the after effects of malaria and some other more mysterious mental ailment that has made him forgetful and frail.

The Mundy family are not well off.  Kate, a teacher, is the only wage-earner.  Agnes and rose make a little money knitting gloves at home, a cottage industry at the time.  Maggie and Roselook after the hens and household duties, as does Christina, Michael’s mother.

Michael’s abiding memories of that summer are of his Uncle Jack’s return to the family home, linked forever in his mind with hearing dance music on their first ever radio, and the two visits of his father, Gerry Evans.  The play depicts the complexity of the relationships of the adults around him and the changes that came over their lives in that crucial summer, against a deeply traditional and rural backdrop.

The action of the play takes place in August, (the Irish word for August is Lughnasa – the ‘Lughnasa’ of the title), traditionally a time when the pagan Celtic god of the harvest, Lugh, was commemorated and celebrated.  The play is divided into two acts, reflecting the two particular days that stand out in Michael’s memory.  He narrates the action from an adult vantage point, and is, therefore, both part of and distanced from it.  As the illegitimate son of Christina (Chris) Mundy and Gerry Evans he is both a source of joy and shame – all of the sisters have a great affection for him, but in the Ireland of the 1930s a child born to a couple who were not married was seen as a source of shame in the community.

Summary of Act 1

Act 1 depicts four of the sisters as they wait for their sister Kate to return home.  They carry out their everyday tasks – knitting, ironing, making mash for the hens – and they talk in a light-hearted way about ordinary things, a broken mirror, lipstick, the erratic behaviour of the radio that they have nicknamed Marconi, after the famous inventor.  Their relationships are affectionate, occasionally exasperated as in any family.

When Kate returns she brings news of the forthcoming Harvest Festival of Lughnasa that everyone in the town is preparing for.  The excitement of that seems to unsettle the women.  Against Kate’s better judgement they even consider going to the harvest dance, like most of their neighbours.  Another unsettling moment is when they discuss Father Jack’s strange behaviour since he came home from Uganda.  He has returned home to Ballybeg as he is suffering the after effects of malaria, but he also appears confused as to his own whereabouts.  He cannot remember ordinary English words and makes constant references to pagan rituals he seems to have practiced while in Uganda.

Michael’s father, Gerry Evans makes one of his infrequent visits to see him and his mother Christina.  Chris is still in love with him but it is clear that he, an irresponsible charmer, full of empty promises, has no intention of staying in Ballybeg with her and her son.  By the end of Act 1 we learn that Gerry intends to go to Spain to fight with the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War.  By the end of the Act we have also learned a great deal about the lives and personalities of the five sisters and also about their brother, Father Jack.

Summary of Act 2

Act 2 takes place in early September, three weeks later.  Michael still waits for the bike his father, Gerry, has promised to buy him.  Jack continues to speak of strange pagan rites.  He seems to have no interest in Catholic rituals such as the Mass.  This is now becoming a problem for the sisters in the village, especially for Kate as the schoolteacher.

Slowly but surely events begin to unfold and we hear that she will lose her job.  Agnes and rose will also lose their jobs as home knitters, due to the opening of a knitting factory in the area.  Gerry abandons Chris again, this time forever.  Money is scarce in the household.

Michael then narrates what transpired in the following weeks.  Rose and Agnes have to leave Ballybeg and go to London to find work.  He tells us that they lose contact with the family and it is twenty-five years later when he tracks them down – Agnes is dead by then and Rose is dying in a hospital.  Father Jack, who doesn’t resume his ministry as a Catholic priest as was expected, dies of a heart attack a year after the action of the play.  Gerry Evans is wounded in Spain, but survives to form a new family in Wales.  Chris spends the rest of her life working in the knitting factory, and hates it.  Kate finally gets a job as a private tutor.

The play ends as it began, with Michael remembering what happened that summer, particularly the sights and sounds of his mother and his aunts dancing in the kitchen.

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The famous ‘Gander Scene’ with Meryl Streep and young Michael

THE HISTORICAL AND POLITICAL SETTING OF THE PLAY

Dancing at Lughnasa captures a time and place where great changes are about to take place – both in the Mundy household and in the wider world where all is about to change forever with the ominous rumblings of war to be heard in many parts of Europe.  The unspoken backdrop is Ireland and its emerging Republic which at the time was dominated by very strict social morality and the repressive influence of the Catholic Church.  The play seems to suggest that this traditional rural society, dominated for so long by communal values, will be changed forever by the power of the radio. 

From a twenty-first century vantage point giving the radio a name – Marconi – seems absurd, but it highlights the point that the radio will be like another presence in the play, giving people a window to what is going on in the outside world probably for the first time.  It is interesting that the predominant political movement in Ireland in the previous quarter of a century before 1936 was that of Sinn Féin which translates as Ourselves Alone – Ireland could survive on its own, isolationism was a good thing.  Ironically, a century later and our near neighbours have stolen our ideas with their obsession with Brexit.

It is significant that the tune to which the sisters dance so wildly to at the beginning of the play is the old Irish reel, The Mason’s Apron.  Towards the end of the play, however, the tune that plays when Gerry dances with Chris and her sisters is Anything Goes, with its faintly shocking lyrics:

In olden times a glimpse of stocking

Was looked on as something shocking

Now heaven knows

Anything goes.

This may indicate that the old traditional moralities are also changing fast.

Michael, the narrator, tells us at the beginning of the play that he is remembering ‘that summer of 1936’ and the events that took place in Ballybeg.  As a boy of seven at that time, he clearly had very little understanding of the historical and political context in which he lived.  Throughout the play, however, Friel alludes to several specific events that took place in 1936 in both Ireland and Europe.

In Act 1, rose, one of the five Mundy sisters, sings,

‘Will you come to Abyssinia will you come?

Bring your own cup and saucer and a bun.

Mussolini will be there with his aeroplanes in the air

Will you come to Abyssinia will you come?

Shortly afterwards Maggie joins in with, ‘Will you vote for De Valera will you vote?’, to the same tune.  They are both referring to highly topical issues at the time: the invasion of Abyssinia by the Italian Fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini, and the success of Eamon de Valera, leader of the Fianna Fáil Party in the Irish General Election of 1933.  There was another General Election in the offing and this took place on 1 July 1937. A plebiscite on whether to approve the new Constitution of Ireland was held on the same day. This was a very significant event and it is interesting that here in Dancing at Lughnasa as in  Philadelphia Here I Come the important date to remember is 1/1/1937.  This was the day the new Irish Constitution came into effect and some critics suggest that Friel is here passing a harsh judgement on the Ireland that had emerged under that Constitution. 

Many critics and scholars also suggest that Friel is here giving a barbed rebuff to De Valera’s notorious St. Patrick’s Day radio broadcast of 1943 in which he fantasised about a rural Ireland ‘joyous with sounds of industry, the romping of sturdy children, the contests of athletic youths, the laughter of comely maidens; whose firesides would be the forums of the wisdom of serene old age’. 

Later in the play, Gerry Evans, Michael’s father, decides to join the International Brigade, a group of socialists who opposed Franco in the Spanish Civil War in 1936.  All these events point to the fact that in the world outside Ballybeg great change and upheaval is happening – the Mundy family can’t but be caught up in and affected by these great changes also.

However, the most important change, according to Friel, is the rise to power in Ireland of Eamon de Valera.  De Valera’s celebrated view of Ireland as a predominantly rural society, peopled by frugal, contented people, clearly applies to the lifestyle of the five Mundy sisters – in fact, they are the very epitome of de Valera’s vision for the new Republic: comely maidens dancing at the crossroads or in their frugal kitchens.

Limited Opportunities

The limited opportunities available to the five Mundy sisters was typical of Irish society in the 1930s.  Conversation revolves around local gossip – who’s marrying who, the forthcoming harvest festival for the Festival of Lughnasa – and family issues; Father Jack’s strange behaviour since his return from Africa; the visit of Chris’s ex-lover Gerry Evans, the father of her child.  Their activities are equally confined to looking after the hens, baking, knitting and ironing.  They are barely making ends meet.  Crucially, it is Kate who does the shopping.  Their only source of entertainment is the radio, which fails to work more often than not.

From their conversations it is clear that the society of Ballybeg is small, not only literally but also metaphorically.  Michael tells us that Ballybeg was proud of his uncle and his work in the Ugandan leprosy hospital.  The local newspaper called him ‘our own leper priest’.  As he says:

‘it gave us that little bit of status in the eyes of the parish.  And it must have helped my aunts to bear the shame my mother brought on the household by having me – as it was called then – out of wedlock.’

The Influence of the Catholic Church

Religion had an enormous influence in 1930s Ireland.  In 1932 the great Eucharistic Congress took place in Dublin and it is obvious that religion directly affects the lives of the characters in the play.  To have a priest in the family, especially a missionary priest, was considered a great honour.  It is Kate who expresses the most orthodox religious views for most of the play.  Indeed, Friel deliberately juxtaposes those views with the paganism associated with the Lughnasa festival bubbling away beneath the surface.  Early on Kate thinks it would be ‘sinful’ to give the name of the old pagan god, Lugh, to the new radio.  Any talk of the ‘pagan practices’ that take place back in the hills during the Festival of Lughnasa are not to be heard in ‘a Christian home, a Catholic home’, which for her is the ultimate ideal.  She reminds the others that ‘this is Father Jack’s home – we must never forget that – ever’.

Going to the harvest dance, as her sisters suggest, is for young people with ‘nothing in their heads but pleasure’.  In Catholic morality of the day, the idea of ‘pleasure’ was associated in a negative way with sex.  In the 1930s, attempts were made to prevent people going to what were called ‘pagan dances’.  These rigid attitudes extended to anything that might encourage personal vanity or loose behaviour and we can see from the play that the Mundy sisters have only an ‘oul cracked thing’ of a mirror to see themselves in.

Although he does not appear directly in the play (and only fleetingly in the film version), the power of the parish priest to fire Kate from her job in the village school because her priest brother does not conform to religious expectations, is another measure of the desire of the Catholic Church authorities to exert control in society. 

Friel returns to this theme many times in his plays.  In Philadelphia Here I Come! for example, religion is represented through the figure of the Canon. It is clear that he is an inept and ineffective one-dimensional character. Gar satirises his ineptitude when he comes in one evening to play his usual game of cards with S. B.,

“Sure Canon what interest have you in money? Sure as long as you get to Tenerife for five weeks every winter, what interest have you in money?”. 

In Philadelphia Here I Come!,  the Canon is seen as a very shallow man who is constantly being ridiculed by Gar Private.  He is not a pastor, he waits until, ‘the rosary’s over and the kettle’s on.’ And, in the end,  he proves to be as predictable and one-dimensional as S.B.  Indeed, both men are cruelly caricatured by Friel and the priest, in particular, is seen as a sad figure without influence or a constructive role to play in modern society.

We can also sense what a blow it must have been to the Mundy household when Chris became an unmarried mother.  De Valera and the Catholic Church at the time emphasised the role of marriage and the nuclear family – mother, father and ‘sturdy’ children – as a force for moral and political stability.  This ideal was best expressed in De Valera’s radio broadcast to the nation on St. Patrick’s Day 1943 when he said:

The ideal Ireland that we would have, the Ireland that we dreamed of, would be the home of a people who valued material wealth only as a basis for right living, of a people who, satisfied with frugal comfort, devoted their leisure to the things of the spirit – a land whose countryside would be bright with cosy homesteads, whose fields and villages would be joyous with the sounds of industry, with the romping of sturdy children, the contest of athletic youths and the laughter of happy maidens, whose firesides would be forums for the wisdom of serene old age. The home, in short, of a people living the life that God desires that men should live. With the tidings that make such an Ireland possible, St. Patrick came to our ancestors fifteen hundred years ago promising happiness here no less than happiness hereafter. It was the pursuit of such an Ireland that later made our country worthy to be called the island of saints and scholars.

It is clear from the concern of the five Mundy sisters that they too value marriage and family.  Circumstances have caused them all to be single.  Only Chris has had sexual experience.  Given their ages – from twenty-six to forty – it appears that they have lost their chances of finding suitable men to marry.  But that does not mean that all desire for romance or sexual relationships has been crushed.  In different ways, each of the women in the play reveals a longing for love that goes beyond their actual circumstances.  Chris is still very much in love with Gerry Evans, the father of her child.  His visits cause emotional havoc to all in the household but especially to Chris and her young son.  He represents for all of them a different sort of life – there are hints that Agnes too is in love with him – even if Kate sees him as a sort of threat.  In her jokes and songs such as ‘The Isle of Capri’, Maggie reveals a sentimental side to her tough exterior.  Even Rose, described as ‘simple’, has a romantic interest in Danny Bradley, a married man.  Later in the play she joins him in ‘the back hills’, although we do not find out what, if anything, happens between them.  Even Kate, who is described as ‘a very proper woman’ and more negatively as a ‘self-righteous old bitch’, has had some hopes of attracting the attentions of Austin Morgan.  However, we later learn that he goes and marries a ‘wee young thing from Carrickfad’.

Dolores Keane sings ‘Down by the Sally Gardens’ backed by the Irish Film Orchestra … and then the climactic dance of wild and free women.

The Dancing Metaphor

Throughout the play the metaphor of dancing is used to suggest romance, escape and sexual freedom.  For a short while the sisters entertain ideas of going to the harvest dance as they used to in their youth.  Kate, the authority figure in the family, makes it clear that this is out of the question, ‘do you want the whole countryside to be laughing at us? – women of our age? – mature women, dancing?’

Maggie has fond memories of going to dances with her friend Bernie O’Donnell, when she was sixteen and in love with Brian McGuinness, who later went to Australia.  The relationship between Gerry Evans and Chris is also depicted very much in terms of dancing.  And of course, the wild dance that the sisters engage in in their kitchen is a crucial moment in the play.  It allows them to get in touch with their inner selves, the sensuous side of their nature that is held in check by the dominant social attitudes of the Ireland in which they live.

Conflict in the Play

As already mentioned Friel juxtaposes in Dancing at Lughnasa the conflict between the repressive social and religious attitudes of Ireland in the 30s with an older, freer pre-Christian way of life.  This pagan way of life was one of celebration, wild dances and rituals held in the ‘back hills’ far away from the influence of the Catholic Church.  The Festival of Lughnasa traditions that Rose describes take place ‘up there in the back hills’, among people that Kate refers to as ‘savages’.  There are numerous references to Lugh, the pagan god, to voodoo, to omens of good and bad luck, to the devilish faces that Michael has painted on his kites.  Sweeney (the boy who was burnt in the festival bonfire) bears the same name as the legendary Sweeney who defied Christian authorities and was punished by being condemned to fly around like a bird for the rest of his life.

Father Jack embodies this conflict too.  His experience as a missionary in Africa has caused him to lose his sense of what is appropriate in the context of Ballybeg.  From an Irish cultural point of view, sending priests as missionaries to Africa was seen as benefitting the native Africans by teaching them and enabling them to participate in the rituals of the Catholic Church.  But Father Jack no longer appears to believe that Christian ritual is superior to the rituals he observed in ‘pagan’ Africa.  In fact, after his time spent as a missionary, he now sees Catholic rituals such as the Mass as synonymous with the sacrifice offered to ‘Obi, our Great Goddess of the Earth’.   Rather amusingly, he fails to live up to his expected role as moral judge of Gerry Evans (‘Father Jack may have something to say to Mr. Evans’ says Kate at one point).  Instead, he sees Michael as Chris’s ‘love-child’ and he asks her if she has any more ‘love-children’, and he pronounces that in Uganda ‘women are eager to have love-children’.  He even suggests that if they were in Uganda he would be able to provide at least one husband for all of his sisters, ‘That’s our system and it works very well’.

Father Jack’s view of religion now corresponds more to the goings-on at the pagan festival of Lughnasa than it does to the norms of the Catholic Ireland, ‘the island of saints and scholars’.  There is one telling statement he makes about the African people that seems to recognise the underlying truth of this.  He declares, ‘In some respects they’re not unlike us’.  It is clear, however, that his views would not be acceptable in the Ireland of the 30s to which he has returned.  This is sadly borne out by his own forced return to Ireland and the treatment meted out to his sister Kate by the local parish priest.

Change in Society

The over-riding impression we get from the play, however, is that changes are taking place, the world is sliding towards war and the old certainties are losing ground.  This is made even more evident with the return of Father Jack from Africa.  This event suggests that the domestic world of the Mundy’s faces disruption from the outside.  Father Jack brings with him from Uganda hints that Catholic ritual may not have universal appeal.  His obvious respect for native Ugandan rituals gives us a reverse view of the traditional role of the missionary priest!

Gerry Evans also brings a sense of the changing world of Ireland when he talks of giving ballroom dancing lessons, or of gramophone sales in Dublin.  When he decides to join the International Brigade in Spain, it is seen as part of a desire to experience the big bad world outside of Ireland.  There is a suggestion that Ireland’s cultural landscape is beginning to change ever so slowly.

One of the clearest indications of change takes place when Agnes and Rose can no longer make their living from home knitting, due to the opening of the new knitting factory in Donegal Town.  As the narrator says: ‘The Industrial Revolution had finally caught up with Ballybeg’.  Their subsequent emigration was typical of the large-scale emigration from Ireland that took place in the first half of the twentieth century.  As in Philadelphia Here I Come!, Ballybeg is depicted here as a backwater, a stagnant place of despair and routine.  Escape through emigration is the only safety valve.   Like many an Irish town in the late thirties, forties and fifties Ballybeg has maintained its economic stability at a terrible price, the constant exportation of human beings!  It is an example of a town that is alive because the young leave, a town that would most certainly be ruined if those same young people stayed at home en masse

Faraway hills are said to be greener but when Agnes and Rose leave they possessed little education, few skills, and in reality their opportunities in London were limited to menial cleaning jobs.  Sad though this is, the narrator nevertheless suggests that they wanted ‘to get away’, to experience change and novelty, with all their challenges and disadvantages.  Someone said once that the only people who welcome change are babies with wet nappies but there may be a positive side to change as countless numbers of Irish emigrants discovered as they made new prosperous lives for themselves in foreign lands.

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Family Relationships

Family is important to the Mundy sisters.   Within the family there may be disappointment, resentment or anger, but they will always present a united and brave face to the outside world.  Kate, in particular, insists that problems with Father Jack must be kept within the family, ‘not a word of this must go outside these walls’.

It is this family solidarity that causes them to unite in the face of the shame that Chris must have brought on them as an unmarried mother in a small town, baile beag, in 1930s Ireland.  Throughout the play we see the genuine affection each of the aunts feels for Michael: Kate brings him presents, Maggie jokes with him, Rose even says, ‘I wish he was mine’.  Clearly, he has never been made to feel unloved or unwanted.  It almost seems as if any or all of them could have been his mother. 

Similarly, their love and care for Father Jack outweighs any disappointment they may have felt at his ‘disgrace’.  Kate’s surprising acceptance of his religious beliefs and her grief when he dies reveal that family feeling overcomes conventional morality.  Each of the family members watches out for ‘simple’ and vulnerable Rose, as we see when she goes missing for an afternoon with Danny Bradley.  When Kate is sacked from her teaching job, it is ‘Rosie’ she worries about most.

However, despite the obvious closeness and the obvious loneliness and lack of fulfilment that they all feel, they rarely speak about their intimate feelings.  When Kate confides to Maggie that she feels ‘it’s all going to collapse’, for instance, Maggie declines to engage with her fears and simply says, ‘Nothing is about to collapse, Kate’.

Despite this, however, the family is capable of expressing negative feelings.  Hurtful things can be said.  Kate points out rather meanly to Agnes that neither she nor Rose made much money to contribute to the upkeep of the household.  Agnes retorts that she and rose are like ‘two unpaid servants’ in the house.  At another stage Agnes calls Kate ‘a damned self-righteous bitch’.

Ironically, the Mundy family of five sisters, one brother and their young nephew would not have corresponded to De Valera’s ideal nuclear family unit consisting of father, mother and their children of the time.  Tragically, too, the family grouping will disintegrate, as Michael the narrator tells us:

  • Poverty and economic change force Agnes and Rose to emigrate to London to find work;
  • Father Jack will die within a year;
  • Chris settles for a job she hated, working in the knitting factory;
  • Gerry Evans will visit less and less, until his visits stop altogether;
  • Michael himself will leave.  As he says, ‘In the selfish way of young men I was happy to escape’.

In many ways, then, it can be said that circumstances in the end have conspired to defeat the Mundy family.

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CHARACTER ANALYSIS IN DANCING AT LUGHNASA

Kate

Kate is the mother-figure and matriarch in the Mundy household.   She is the main bread-winner, respected in the community and the leader of the Mundy sisters.  She is a very religious and puritanical woman.  She has no time for ‘pagan’ ideas and is very prim and proper.  She doesn’t agree that the radio should be given a name, and definitely not the name Lugh because of its pagan origins.  She teaches in the local Primary School and would have been seen as a pillar of the community – especially in 1930s Ireland.  She had been involved in the War of Independence and she is very firm in her Christian attitudes.

She is very concerned with the way the people in the community view her and her family.  She would prefer the Mundys to be viewed as a decent family with a strong sense of dignity and strong religious faith.  She is, therefore, embarrassed by Father Jack’s return from Africa and feels that he has brought some shame on the family following his exploits in Uganda.  She has also been disappointed and hurt when Chris became pregnant outside of marriage and she does not want people to look down on the family.  When it is suggested that the sisters go to the harvest dance she is horrified at first.  She is very concerned about keeping up appearances and showing restraint both emotionally and socially.

Despite being part of a large family, Kate feels isolated and lonely in some way.  Perhaps she feels that she has to shoulder the burden of looking after the family on her own.  When the sisters dance together she dances alone.  This highlights her loneliness and isolation as she deals with her feelings by herself.

Maggie

At first Maggie seems to be the joker of the family.  She is always ready with a song, dance or joke.  However, on closer inspection we discover why she seems to be so bubbly.  Whenever there are moments of tension, or the possibility of any conflict, Maggie intercedes with some humour to help diffuse the situation.  In this way she keeps the peace and helps keep the family together because the family bond is very important to her.  She is a very likeable character and of all the sisters she is least prone to sarcasm and attempts to hurt others.  She is also generous spirited and kind and she adores young Michael.

Behind this apparent happy façade, however, Maggie is hiding deep unhappiness.  At one point Kate describes her meeting in Ballybeg with an old friend of Maggie’s by the name of Bernie O’Donnell.  It was Bernie O’Donnell who could attract the men that Maggie couldn’t when they were young.  Bernie later left Ballybeg and made a new life for herself somewhere else.  When Maggie hears this story from Kate she is quiet for once, which is very unlike her.

It is Maggie who is the first to start dancing in the climactic scene in Act 1.  She initiates the dance because she feels angry and frustrated with her small, lonely life in Ballybeg.  As described in the text her dance is ‘defiant’ as if she is trying to show life that it can throw anything at her and she will bounce back.

She is also a tower of strength for others when they need help.  She is there for Kate when she breaks down over her fears of not being able to keep the family together.  Maggie is possibly the most emotionally strong of the Mundy sisters, and she hides her secret pain much more effectively than the others.

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Catherine McCormack as Chris and Rhys Ifans as Gerry Evans in Dancing at Lughnasa.

Chris

Chris is a strong-willed character whose one great weakness is Gerry Evans.  She cannot help but love him despite all his false and empty promises.  Like all the Mundy sisters she fights off despair with humour and a defiant attitude.  She tries very hard not to let anything get to her.

When Gerry arrived back for the first time in over a year she tries to resist his advances by refusing to engage him in conversation.  He responds by dancing with her and she cannot resist the romance of this.  She returns to the house a changed woman, full of life and happiness, having conveniently forgotten what an unreliable rogue Gerry is.  She obviously craves romance in her life, otherwise she would not give in to Gerry in this way.  There are moments when she thinks back silently on her dance with Gerry, and it is obvious from her happy reaction that it has had a profound effect on her.

Throughout the play, however, she seems to be very jealous and suspicious of Agnes.  It becomes obvious to her that Gerry is also attracted to Agnes and visa versa, particularly after they both dance together.  This enrages Chris who probably feels deep down that Gerry loves Agnes more than he loves her.

However, her main claim to fame – or infamy – in the play is the fact that she is Michael’s mother.  He is obviously the apple of her eye and she is fiercely protective and proud of her son.  We have to remember also of course that this story is being narrated to us by her son Michael as he remembers with nostalgia the events of that momentous summer of 1936.

Agnes

Agnes is the most reserved and quiet of the five sisters, but she is also perhaps the strongest willed and the one with the greatest hidden reserves of strength.  She tends to listen when the others banter and poke fun at each other.  She is not the kind of person to start a conversation, yet despite her quiet and shy nature she is never afraid to stand up for herself or others.  She becomes quite angry when Kate refuses to use Gerry Evans’s name when referring to him.

She is the first to suggest that they could all go to the harvest dance and she is the one who makes the most emotional plea when she says she wants to dance and feel alive while dancing.  Despite being very quiet Agnes is not afraid at certain points in the play of revealing what her true emotions are.  However, normally she tends to bottle up her emotions and say very little, but when she does let go what she says is usually of great importance.  When she dances with her sisters in the famous kitchen scene she is very graceful and proud but also defiant at the same time.

Agnes is obviously very taken by Gerry Evans.  When she dances with him she is as graceful as ever and she dances like a woman who has been dancing with this man all her life.

Ultimately, Agnes is fearless despite her quiet nature.  She knows that when a crisis hits that hard decisions have to be made.  This is most obviously shown in her decision to go to London with Rose.  Of all the sisters, Agnes is the closest to Rose and she sees it as her life-long job to look after her sister.

Rose

Rose is very childish and innocent.  At that time, she would have been referred to as being ‘a bit simple’.  She is full of fun and life, but she is by no means a weak character who can be walked all over.   She has intelligence when required and like a child who wants something she knows cunning ways and means of getting it!

The other sisters are very protective of her, especially her sister Agnes.  They see her as the child of the family and it is their task to make sure she comes to no harm.  She takes a fancy to Danny Bradley, a local rascal with a bad reputation.    Despite her sisters’ insistence that she shouldn’t meet with him, rose concocts a plan to spend a day with him.  The fact that she does this shows her cunning and determination and also shows how underestimated she is, even by her own sisters.  Rose’s key character moment arrives when she defiantly stands up to Kate and is honest about her meeting with Danny Bradley.  In this moment she appears most adult-like and willing to be independent.

She has no shame, unlike Kate who is obsessed with the family’s good name and status in the community.  She is honest and pure and sees no harm in enjoying life.  She is a warm and endearing character with many childlike traits, but ultimately she is depicted as a strong, independent woman.

Brian Friel uses both Rose and Agnes to represent a generation of young Irish women (and men) who were forced by limited opportunities, poverty and economic depression top leave their small towns and villages in rural Ireland to seek work in London and elsewhere during the 1930s.

Gerry Evans

Gerry Evans is feckless, weak and irresponsible.  He is a scoundrel and a liar, but he manages to get away with it and gets by on his easy charm and a way with words.  This allows him to worm his way back into Chris’s life.  Gerry seems to be a drifter: unwilling or incapable of settling down, but later in the play we learn that he has been living a lie, and that he has another family in Wales.

Despite his flaws there is something likeable at times about Gerry.  He can get away with almost anything.  He is a child unwilling to take on real responsibility and merely puts on a show of enquiring about his son Michael’s well-being.

We also get the sense that Gerry is searching for something.  He goes off to fight in the Spanish Civil War but is not sure why he made that decision.  Gerry is also quite possibly in love with Agnes and he seems to have a problem asking after her when he is speaking to Chris.

He is a rogue who cannot be depended upon for anything.  He is a restless character with a great ability to charm all those around him with his easy words and his dancing skills.

Father Jack

Father Jack has obviously suffered deeply, both physically and mentally, as a result of his time spent as a Catholic missionary priest among the leper colonies in Uganda.  Despite his evident weaknesses and illnesses, we get a sense that he was once a great and determined man who deserved his reputation as a great missionary priest.

Father Jack is also quite unconventional.  This part of his nature is slowly revealed in the play until we get the ultimate revelation that he almost discarded his own Catholic beliefs to become one with the natives at his mission.  Unlike Kate he is tolerant of others beliefs, so much so that he took part in many tribal celebrations and rituals when he was in Uganda.  He is a very non-judgemental man who accepts everyone for what they are.

He is a good man with everyone’s best interests at heart.  He is a man of great humanity and strength and he quickly regains his physical strength after returning to his home in Ballybeg.  He is not a man who feels shame and is quite happy about how his African experiences have changed him.

Knockaderry Clouncagh Drama Group’s Production of “The Loves of Cass McGuire” Reviewed

Sue Mullins as Cass McGuire

Following their  hugely successful production of Jim Nolan’s ‘Moonshine’ last year, the Knockaderry Clouncagh Drama Group, directed by Johnny Corkery, are back once again, this time with yet another poignant Irish play, Brian Friel’s ‘The Loves of Cass McGuire’.  The audience  were  highly entertained but were also at times brought close to tears at the opening performance in The Resource Centre, Knockaderry  of this powerful and deeply moving production of Brian Friel’s play. The play tells the sad delusional story of Cass, (played magnificently by Sue Mullins pictured above),  who is a tired and tipsy woman, who has spent  fifty two years working in a ‘speakeasy’ – a bar of sorts, a block from Skid Row, among downbeats, bums and washed up people in New York city.

Cass McGuire returns to Ireland after all those years in America and her remaining family – a brother (and his family) and her mother – welcome her back but then place her in a nursing home, Eden House, when she gets too difficult to handle. The play focusses on and explores the psychology of Cass as she returns from her emigration and exile and her search for ‘home’.   Gripping, often humorous, but steeped in compassion, Friel scripts a rich and complex portrait of a marginalised emigrant returning home.   We are only too aware of the different perceptions our relatives in America, ‘the Yanks’, have of ‘the ould sod’; the land of leprechauns, Arran sweaters and thatched cottages. We can, therefore, easily empathise with Cass’s dilemma.  She has returned to a world she cannot recognise and the play explores the difficulties she has in coming to terms with a life not as she imagined and the exclusions society now imposes upon her.  Whereas  Friel’s, Philadelphia Here I Come dealt with Gar’s physical act of emigration, this play deals with the psychology of returning and this  marks it out as a very relevant work – indeed, it can be said of Cass, like many a returning exile, she comes back to a home that does not exist except in her fantasy.

The ‘loves’ referred to in the title of the play meanwhile are not love affairs, but rather the love Cass has for people in her life.  Among them Cass’s mother played by Mary Angela Downes, her brother Harry (Colman Duffy), his wife  Alice (Rachel Lenihan) and four children to whom down the years she has sent money and presents and cards,  doing what ‘the Yank’, was expected to do.  She believes her sacrifice for her family will be appreciated, and she dreams of a happy homecoming, but sadly finds she has been deluding herself.   The reality was much different, however, and she wasn’t much thought about in her absence and when she came home, she was seen as a bawdy, loud, embarrassment and put into a home,  the ironically named Eden House.  Eventually this loveless scenario is replaced by a fantasy world of make-believe where a new vision of happiness is constructed from her past.  Cass and the other residents, particularly Trilbe Costelloe (Mary Geaney) and Mr. Ingram (Paddy Mulcahy),  begin rhapsodising about a past that never happened – they lay their dreams before us and ask us to thread softly..  The play, therefore, combines pathos, humour and truth – it is tragic but there is also scope for humour and, typical of Friel, and this production at times, the humour and comedy is of the type that brings the audience to the verge of tears.

This production gives full voice and exposure to the myriad of theatrical devices and innovations used by Friel to push the boundaries of theatre.  In this play Friel plays with conventions of theatre and memory. Cass, (Sue Mullins at her mischievous best),  breaks through the ‘fourth wall’ constantly, emerging on to the stage from the body of the audience.  Furthermore, she  refers directly to the author and title of the play, and she works hard to deny memories of how she got into her current situation, repelling the eerie draw of the other patrons of Eden House, superbly captured in the performances of Mary Geaney and Pat Mulcahy in particular.   My only genuine regret on the night was that Friel was not present to see the production for himself!

Sue Mullins was amazing as Cass and her shouts of bawdy joy and puzzled moments of stillness as she peered out into the audience and a deserted banquet hall, were all part of a memorable tour de force.   Colman Duffy was splendid as the weak but well-meaning Harry and he was well supported by Rachel Lenihan, recently returned from her successful trip to The Globe Theatre in London.  Paddy Mulcahy as Mr. Ingram  and especially Mary Geaney as Trilbe were essential and excellent in establishing and maintaining the poetic mood of this play and in easing Cass’s adjustment to Eden House ‘truth’.  John Young brought much needed laughter (if ironic and knowing) to the story as Pat Quinn.  Owen McMahon as Dom and Alison Lenihan, (in her first live role for the Drama Group),  brought the innocence and dreams of youth to the production.

This production by the Knockaderry Clouncagh Drama Group  gives full rein to a cast lead by strong, forceful female characters, especially the lonely, isolated figure of Cass McGuire played with aplomb by Sue Mullins.   This role and the role of Madge in Philadelphia Here I Come, foreshadows  Friel’s later success with the Mundy sisters in Dancing at Lughnasa – actually if Knockaderry Drama Goup are considering a production for next year’s drama circuit they could do worse than turn to Dancing at Lughnasa – casting would not be a problem anyway!

This is a very powerful play, both humorous and sad, but ultimately uplifting. The play deals with identity, the notion of truth and communication, and how memories both public and private enable us to ride the highs and lows of life. Throughout the play, images from the past flood into Cass’s head and the story unfolds when, she returns to an Ireland and family which have changed utterly from what she had imagined all those years ago. To save herself from these changes, she eventually shares her life, work and experiences with us and those around her – continuously bursting through Friel’s  ‘Fourth Wall’ to engage the audience.  We also meet her brother and family who have remained at home, and we hear their stories. On her entry to Eden House, a “rest home” for older people, Cass encounters Trilbe Costellooe, Mr. Ingram and the new arrival Mrs. Butcher (played by Betty O’Sullivan), who help her see her way to survival.   Those sad stories and memories of other days came home with me after this production.  This is a  powerful and engaging production, not to be missed. Directed deftly by Johnny Corkery,  it combines excellent stage craft, a classic Friel set and a vibrant cast which  brings Friel’s characters to life.

 Rachel Lenihan as AliceMr. Ingram, Trilbe Costelloe and Cass