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.

Free Resources for Leaving Cert English 2021

 

 

river
The Good Old Days!

This week the Government announced that schools would remain closed until February 1st, and that Leaving Cert students would be able to attend school for three days a week, beginning on Monday January 11th. That Government decision remained in force for all of twenty-four hours!   Because of this continuous  disruption and uncertainty, no doubt caused by the Covid-19 upsurge in the community, but not helped by Government indecision, I have brought together here in one post links to a series of relevant notes which you may consider useful in your English course studies for 2021. These notes are not exhaustive but focus mainly on  Single Text, Comparative and Poetry Sections.

Caveat Emptor! Leaving Cert Student Beware !! These are resources which you should use wisely. They are personal responses to the various texts and you should read and consider them if you find them useful.

IN OTHER WORDS, MAKE YOUR OWN OF THEM, ADD TO THEM OR DELETE FROM THEM AS YOU SEE FIT. ALSO, YOU MIGHT SPREAD THE WORD, DON’T KEEP THEM ALL TO YOURSELF!

THE SINGLE TEXT  AND A SELECTION OF TEXTS PRESCRIBED FOR THE COMPARATIVE STUDY 2021

(You know the drill, click on the link!)

King Lear (H/O)

Single Text Study Notes on King Lear

Study Notes on King Lear

Some Central Themes in Shakespeare’s King Lear

Image Patterns in King Lear

Wuthering Heights (H/O)

Major Themes in Wuthering Heights

Imagery and Symbolism in Wuthering Heights

The Depiction of Childhood in Wuthering Heights  Some Observations on Characterisation in the Novel

Grace Notes on Wuthering Heights

Philadelphia Here I Come (O)

Characters and Relationships in Philadelphia Here I Come!

The Theme of Communication in Philadelphia Here I Come!

The Theme of Escape in Philadelphia Here I Come!

Persuasion

Some Themes in Persuasion by Jane Austen

Characterisation in the novel Persuasion

Fairy-Tale Motifs in Persuasion by Jane Austen

Silas Marner

Themes in Silas Marner

Imagery in Silas Marner

Silas Marner The Characters

Fairy-Tale Elements in Silas Marner

 

A FEW OBSERVATIONS ON THE COMPARATIVE STUDY QUESTION IN 2021

MODES OF COMPARISON
For each Leaving Certificate course, three modes of comparison will be prescribed. This means that the texts chosen for comparative study must be studied under these particular modes (headings).

This year the modes of comparison at Higher Level and Ordinary Level are as follows:

Higher Level

  • Theme or Issue
  • Cultural Context
  •  General Vision and Viewpoint

Ordinary Level

  • Theme
  • Social Setting
  • Relationships

This year there will be two questions on EACH of these modes of comparison.  In reality this means that because of the time constraints and limited time given to you to study the syllabus properly you only need to focus on ONE mode of comparison.

FYI the following  adjustments have been made to the Comparative Section in the Leaving Cert English Syllabus for 2021: next June the Comparative Section will include questions on all three modes prescribed for examination in 2021 – namely, Theme or Issue, Cultural Context, and General Vision and Viewpoint.

Candidates will be required to answer on one mode only. This will allow you to concentrate your efforts because in effect, if you wish, you can simply concentrate on one mode of comparison only and you can be guaranteed that there will be a choice of two questions for you to answer on that chosen mode of comparison.  Remember, the standard required won’t alter but you are being given greater choice this year in your Comparative Study.

The internal question choice within modes will remain the same. Single questions (marked out of 70) will require candidates to refer to AT LEAST TWO texts in their response. The same criteria for assessment will apply to candidates irrespective of whether they refer to two texts or to three texts when responding to 70 mark questions. Two-part questions (marked out of 30 and 40) will require candidates to refer to ONE text in answer to part (a) and to TWO other texts in answer to part (b).

Theme or Issue

This involves comparing texts on a prescribed theme(s). These would have to be themes that were pervasive and central to the texts chosen for study e.g.

Isolation and Loneliness
Relationships
Family
Childhood
Fantasy and reality

These themes/issues will be the messages or concerns that the writer or film director wishes to impart to the audience. In most texts, there will be a number of themes/issues worth considering

Your task, therefore, in this section is to compare and contrast the same theme as it is treated by different authors or film directors.

Cultural Context

Compare the texts focusing on social rituals, values and attitudes. This is not to be seen as a sociological study of the texts alone. It means taking some perspectives, which enable the students to understand the kind of values and structures with which people contend. It amounts to entering into the world of the text and getting some insight and feel for the cultural texture of the world created. This would imply considering such aspects as the rituals of life and the routines of living, the structures of society, familial, social, economic, religious and political: the respective roles of men and women in society, the position of children, the role and nature of work, the sources and structures of power and the significance of race and class.

Vision and Viewpoint

The term, general vision and viewpoint, may be understood by candidates to mean the broad outlook of the authors of the texts (or of the texts themselves) as interpreted and understood by the reader  – excerpt from Marking Scheme, 2003

When approaching this mode of comparison it is important to examine each text to discover what particular vision or view of life is presented by the novelist, playwright or film director.  We need to find the overall view of the writer as it is reflected through the themes and issues raised in the text.  We will probably realise that we as readers or as an audience have been given a privileged position by the author and that we often know more than the characters in the novel or the actors on the stage or film set.  We are, after all, entitled to our own viewpoint also!  Commonly, we are expected to judge whether the text is positive or negative, optimistic or pessimistic, realistic or dystopian, etc., etc.

IN SUMMARY….

When you answer a question in the Comparative Section remember that you have to be selective in emphasising the most meaningful similarities and differences between texts. The more similar they appear to be, the more provocative and challenging it is to contrast them and to draw out differences between them. Remember also that when you draw out surprising or disputable similarities or differences, you require detailed support from the texts.

In a Comparative answer, it is vitally important to compare and contrast these different ways of looking at life, or to examine if there is coherence or a lack of coherence between all these differing viewpoints.

 

THE POETRY SECTION IN 2021

I include links to SIX of the eight poets on your course here – simply click on the link.  Again, in this area, the Department and the Examinations Commission have made very generous adjustments to the Syllabus for 2021.  So, this year, ONE additional poetry question will be included i.e. candidates will be required to answer one of five questions instead of the usual four.  In reality, therefore, instead of having to have at least FIVE  poets prepared for examination, you now will need to have at least FOUR poets studied at Higher Level this year.  (Two extra poems will also be included in the Ordinary Level paper).

Seamus Heaney

The Poetry of Seamus Heaney: Some Recurring Themes

Analysis of The Forge by Seamus Heaney

Analysis of The Harvest Bow by Seamus Heaney

Bogland by Seamus Heaney

 

Elizabeth Bishop

Themes and Issues in the Poetry of Elizabeth Bishop

Elizabeth Bishop: The Poets Poet

 

Eavan Boland

Major Themes in Eavan Bolands Poetry

The Beauty of Ordinary Things  In the Poetry of Eavan Boland

Child of Our Time by Eavan Boland

 

Robert Frost

AN ANALYSIS OF THE POETRY OF ROBERT FROST (1874  1963)

Commentary on A Tuft of Flowers by Robert Frost

Analysis of Spring Pools by Robert Frost

Some Personal Thoughts on The Road not Taken by Robert Frost

 

Gerard Manley hopkins

The Poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins

Analysis of The Windhover by Gerard Manley Hopkins

Commentary on Pied Beauty by Hopkins

An Analysis of Inversnaid by Gerard Manley Hopkins

 

Sylvia Plath

The Poetry of Sylvia Plath

 

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Characters and Relationships in ‘Philadelphia Here I Come!’

 

 philadelphia-here-i-come-by-brien-friel

Since Gar is the central character in this play it is important to consider his character in relation to the other characters.  What first strikes us about the play is, perhaps, the dominance of the male characters. There are only three female characters in the play – Madge, Kate Doogan, and Lizzie Sweeney – and they take up only a small part of the plot.  We could see this absence of women as an important aspect of the play – and of course, it is a failing which Friel rectified in later plays such as Dancing at Lughnasa.  Here, however, it points, we could suggest, to the absence of even greater things – warmth, love, affection, tenderness, sincerity – and this is partly correct. Gar, we notice, is motherless.  His only love affair has ended in failure.  He looks to his father for affection only to be disappointed.  Madge can only partly fulfil this need for affection which Gar so strongly expresses.  Significantly one of the few uses of the word ‘love’ in the play is in a casual and incidental context, namely, in the letter Gar has written to his Aunt Lizzy accepting her invitation (p. 56).  It would seem, therefore, that Friel is attempting to describe a world in which the ordinary affections that bring people closer together are absent.

So, we have established that female characters are missing from this play and so too are the human qualities they represent.  But a close reading of the text reveals that women seem often to be hovering in the background.  They appear as topics of conversation on more than one occasion.  Some of these occasions are slight, although others are more important.  At different instances in the play,  Gar thinks of ‘the gorgeous American women’ he will meet in Philadelphia.  In more serious moods, however, he questions Madge about his mother, and he recalls in detail his ‘love-affair’ with Katie Doogan.  Each of these occasions is accompanied by a sense of loss.  The Canon also – the epitome of the single male – is a totally emotionless character.  When ‘the boys’ come in to visit Gar, the conversation soon turns round to women.  Ned relates a story of a rather crude sexual adventure, and the boys all join in and laugh.  However, Private gives the true version of Ned’s story.  After that, Ned’s comments about ‘picking up a couple of women’ at the dance sound hollow and even pathetic.

With these points in mind, we can now consider Gar’s character in more detail.  Gar is the protagonist of the play and the entire action revolves around him.  At the start, we get a sense of his enthusiasm and his youth.  He looks forward to his departure with a keen sense of delight.  His old life is over, and he looks on his release from his father’s shop as an escape.  Typically, he thinks of America in extravagant terms: the cities, the women, the affluence, the tremendous opportunities.  These are the things he wants to experience.  But they are also the things he has no real affection for.  When Private makes his first entrance (p. 17), little episodes from the past begin to crop up in the play, past events which begin to dim Gar’s bright future.  As he thinks of his life in Ballybeg, Gar says with relief, ‘It’s all over’ (p. 17).  To this Private adds, ‘And it’s all about to begin’.  This simple sentence, Private’s first statement in the play, is truer than it first appears.  For Gar, everything does begin again, and before the play is over he relives many important episodes in his life.  From this point, the play goes on to describe his mother’s death, then the episode with Katie Doogan.  Later he will remember his childish affection for his father, the day they spent in the blue boat, as well as the nights and days he spent with ‘the boys’.

As all these memories come back to Gar his enthusiasm for America begins to wane.  When he feels hurt or threatened his principal defence is to pass it off with a laugh.  During the tea-time episode, while he sits with his father in silence, Private moves about the stage with comments directed at S.B.: ‘O God!  Priceless!  Beautiful!  Delightful!  Isn’t he a scream!’  We see the same sort of behaviour during the game of draughts, and when ‘the boys’ come to visit.  On other occasions, however, Gar’s enthusiasm deserts him.  He feels humiliated, alone, threatened, unable to laugh at his situation or to deflate it with humorous comments.  There are numerous instances of this in the play.

For example, towards the end of Episode Two, after the scene with Katie Doogan, Gar is feeling upset and confused.  Her cosy description of family life – ‘Mammy and Daddy.  They’re all at home tonight’. – is strangely disturbing to Gar who has no experience of these things.  As is usual for Gar he tries to hide his feelings, to laugh and to whistle.  His mind races over the day’s happenings and we get a confused speech from Private describing a mixture of past, present and future events.  He tries to console Gar that his situation ‘isn’t as bad as that …. Isn’t as bad as that’.  Then suddenly Gar’s mind turns back to S.B. and we get a poignant climax to the speech just before the curtain drops, ‘….say something!  Say something, father!’

For the rest of the play, Gar struggles to regain his composure.  In the rosary scene he diverts his attention by thinking of ‘those Yankee women’ and of girls with exotic names, ‘Karin and Tamara’ (p. 88).  But memories from the past keep crowding into his mind.  He remembers, ‘that wintry morning in Bailtefree and the three days in Bundoran….’  He also recalls his most precious memory, the day he spent fishing with his father on the lake, ‘and you were happy too, you began to sing….’

Music and song are important aspects of Gar’s world, indeed of the play in general.  The play’s title comes from the words of a song, and music and singing are introduced on several occasions in the play.  These musical interludes have several functions.  In the first place, they add realism to the action and are an important bridge between the characters and the audience.  Secondly, they suggest the contrast that exists within Private and Public.  While Public’s affection is for Mendelssohn and for softer Irish ballads, Private prefers ceili music and coarser Irish songs.  Thirdly, musical interludes serve to recall past events to Gar’s mind, events that he had hidden away in his memory but which music and song evoke again.  One particular touching example of this is the evocative ballad, ‘All round my hat I’ll wear a green coloured ribbon O…’.  Gar recalls this song with tremendous affection.  His father sang it at the end of their fishing trip on the lake.  For Gar, it symbolises the happiness of that day so long ago.  At the end of the play, he shyly approaches his father about this song, feeling sure that it would rekindle his memories also.  As usual, however, Gar’s efforts end in disappointment, ‘All round my hat?  No, I don’t think I ever knew that one….’.

One important aspect of Gar’s personality is seen in his relationship with the other characters in the play, particularly his father.  He criticises and parodies his father’s behaviour, and makes him the subject of humorous comments.  But he still feels a strong bond of affection for him.  It is necessary that Friel should depict Gar in this way.  If Gar rejected his father outright, his friends, and his past life in Ballybeg, then much of the drama would be lost.  The success of the play comes from the tension in Gar’s feelings towards his father, his friends and his past life.  Thus, he can laugh at his father, make fun of him verbally, but he can never reject him.  Gar calls him ‘Screwballs’, and that, if anything, is certainly a term of abuse.  But he also refers to him affectionately as ‘father’ on numerous occasions in the play.  All the efforts at reconciliation are made by Gar.  When he is rejected, we find him using words like, ‘It doesn’t matter… It doesn’t matter.  Forget it’ (p105).  W might reasonably expect that this rejection might lead to a complete loss of affection on Gar’s part.  But in fact, it never does.  Right up to the end of the play we never lose our esteem for him.  Even in the last lines, we find him expressing his concern to Madge about his father’s welfare:’….you’d led me know  if – if he got sick or anything?’

This very human side to Gar’s character is seen also in his relationship with other people in the play.  When Master Boyle enters, for example, Gar thinks: ‘God, but he’s a sorry wreck too, arrogant and pathetic’ (p.44).  In spite of this, however, he proceeds to treat Master Boyle with tremendous courtesy and respect.  The Master is in trouble with the Canon, but Gar affectionately takes his side (‘Sure everyone knows the kind of the Canon, Master’ (p.44).  He also accepts the present of his poems and helps him out with the loan of some money.  Finally, he agrees to send the Master the names of newspapers and magazines where his poems might get published.

We get an extended look at this aspect of Gar’s character in his dealings with Madge throughout the play.  We notice, for example, that he never once criticises her in any way.  Neither does he treat her as a figure of fun as he does his father and Canon 0’Byrne.  His behaviour towards her is always good-natured and affectionate.  When she tells him the news about her niece’s new baby, Gar is delighted for her sake. In Episode One we get a long speech in which Gar’s affection for Madge is clearly expressed.  Private addresses Gar with the following words: ‘And now what are you sad about?  Just because she lives for those Mulhern children, and gives them whatever few half-pence she has.  Madge, Madge, I think I love you more than any of them.  Give me a piece of your courage, Madge’ (p.38). The final scene of Episode Three provides a touching conclusion to Gar’s affection for Madge in the play.  As usual Gar’s feelings are hidden under his casual, indifferent comments, just as Madge’s true feelings are camouflaged by her gruffness.  But Gar watches her attentively in a way that he will remember for the rest of his life: ‘Watch her carefully, every moment, every gesture, every little peculiarity: keep the camera whirring; for this is a film you’ll run over and over again..’(p.110).

In the scene with ‘the boys’ Gar’s polite, submissive character is again shown quite clearly.  At the beginning of this scene, Gar is flattered that ‘the boys’ have come to see him: ‘They were on their way when I ran into them’ (p.69), he says, happily.  Soon Ned, the loudest and most boorish member of the group, dominates the conversation.  He belches, slaps his knees, talks in a loud aggressive manner.  His behaviour to Gar is somewhat uncivil, and at one point he turns on him gruffly: ‘Are you calling me a liar?’ (p.70.).  Yet Gar tries to raise our esteem for his friends by saying: ‘The boys….They  weren’t always like this, were they?  There was a hell of a lot of laughing, wasn’t there?’ (p.71).  In particular, Gar is polite and civil in his comments on Ned.  When Private tells the true version of Ned’s story (p. 73), he does so without verbal censure or abuse.  Indeed whatever element of criticism there is in this speech, it is directed at Gar himself as well as at ‘the boys’.  In the end, he accepts and is impressed with Ned’s present (‘the broad leather belt with the huge brass buckle’).  In the speech that concludes this scene, Gar thinks of his friend in amiable terms (‘Joe and Tom and big, thick, generous Ned..’). His memory of them is ‘distilled of all its coarseness; and what’s left is going to be precious, precious, gold..’ (p.79).

There are two scenes in the play, which describe Gar’s relationship with Katie Doogan.  Each of these scenes is completely different to the other.  In the first (pp. 27-32), Gar thinks of Katie with tenderness and blames himself for the failure of their relationship.  As he looks at her picture, all the details of their courtship come back to his memory.  Some of the few manifest displays of affection in the play are shown in this scene.  Gar thinks of Katie as ‘gentle and frail and silly’.  Here they make plans for their future, the money they will have to live on, the number of children they will have.  There is a lot of tender kissing and cuddling as they discuss and exchange ideas.  But the scene suddenly changes its tone when Gar goes to visit Katie’s father.  This is apparently Gar’s first experience of upper-class society and he feels self-conscious and ill-at-ease.  Surveying the affluence of Katie’s house, Gar’s plans for her future suddenly seem pathetic.  Even before he hears about Francis King, the rich medical student, Gar’s confidence is deflated and he is suddenly stuck for words.  Friel is obviously making an important social comment at this point.  Senator Doogan welcomes Gar quite courteously, but he doesn’t want Gar to marry Katie.  Though Gar and Katie have tremendous affection for one another, a strong class barrier separates them.  It is the prerogative of the rich to manipulate their sons’ and daughters’ lives, and that is what happens here.  Marriages are arranged with a view to money and status; emotional issues are irrelevant.  In such circumstances, Gar’s relationship with Katie was a failure from the beginning.

Katie’s second entrance in the play in Episode Two and here Gar’s behaviour is in complete contrast to their first appearance together.  Kate has since married Francis King, ‘the king of the fairies’, just as her father had planned.  Gar’s conversation at this point revolves around references to money.  He tells Katie how he hopes to study medicine, to make a lot of money, to come home when he has made his first million.  All of this is a cover-up, a pretence, as the comments of Private make clear.  Gar suddenly gets loud and aggressive.  His words and his behaviour are in complete contrast to his tender exchanges with Katie in Episode One.  The division between them is now complete.  Yet the tragedy of the situation is that he still has some feelings for her, despite his outward behaviour.  When he leaves, he is in a state of confusion.  He repeats her name and thinks about what might have been (‘seven boys and seven girls – and our daughters will be all gentle and frail and silly like you…Kate… Sweet Katie Doogan…my darling Kathy Doogan’) (p. 82).

Throughout the play, Gar’s feelings are a mixture of jubilation and misery.  By subjecting him to these conflicting emotions, Friel ensures that Gar retains the audience’s attention and sympathy.  In the play, Gar’s character is drawn in a very human and believable manner.  He is a typical, exuberant youth, prepared to take risks, unwilling to let life’s opportunities pass him by.  But there is also a deeply emotional side to his character.  He feels the need for affection, recognition and sympathy.  His character is far from perfect, as his aggressive treatment of Katie makes clear, but his relationship with others is always courteous and affable.  Katie reminds him of his past, of what might have been, and he is bitter for this reason.  She is also wealthy and established in life, while he is forced by circumstances to emigrate.

The emigration theme was a popular one in Irish literature before Friel returned to it again in Philadelphia, Here I Come!  He gives this theme tremendous emotional interest.  Gar’s reasons for emigrating have only partly to do with financial matters.  When he speaks of money or affluence his words are hollow.  So too are his numerous references to ‘the American women’.  Somehow, the image of Gar as a wealthy paramour – ‘as American as the Americans themselves’ – does not seem to fit his character as it is presented to us in the play.  His outward statements and behaviour are often belied by his inward feelings.  In his aggressive conversation with Katie, for example, he utters the following words: ‘All this bloody yap about father and son and all this sentimental rubbish about “homeland” and “birthplace” – yap! Bloody yap!  Impermanence – anonymity – that’s what I’m looking for; a vast restless place that doesn’t give a damn about the past’ (p. 81).

Gar’s words here are in complete contrast to his own personal outlook in the play.  On this statement, he is actually describing the things he cares about most, while apparently rejecting them.  If we look at individual items in Gar’s statement we see how this is true.  This ‘bloody yap about father and son’: yet he spends the greater part of the play trying to communicate with S.B., and his childhood memories of his father are all precious ones.  Gar says he wants a place ‘that doesn’t give a damn about the past’: yet in the play, we see that the past is still very much alive for him and he carefully reconsiders it at different moments.  He rejects ‘homeland’ and ‘birthplace’ as meaningless sentimental words: yet he listens attentively to Madge’s account of his own birth, and on one occasion he gives a poignant description of Ballybeg, ‘watching the lights go out over the village…’ (p. 78).  Similarly, Gar’s quest for ‘impermanence’ and ‘anonymity’ (Master Boyle’s words) is totally belied by his character in the play.  What he wants, in fact, is the exact opposite to these words: a permanent home, an individual identity, to be wanted and cared for.  In particular,  he needs to feel that he is his father’s son.

We get an interesting glimpse of Gar’s need for affection in the ‘returned emigrants’ scene in Episode Two.  Outwardly Gar rejects these people.  They are wealthy, vulgar and loud.  But what he responds to is their offer of affection, in particular, Lizzie’s gushing exuberant words: ‘My son, Gar, Gar, Gar….’ (p. 64).  Private points to this occasion as the real beginning of Gar’s wish to emigrate: ‘and this was your mother’s sister, remember.  And that’s how you were got!’  But we also feel that Lizzie Sweeney will be a poor substitute for the affection that Gar needs.  While S.B. shows too little emotion, Lizzie shows too much, and both are disconcerting to Gar.  He is put off by her mawkish kisses and her constant groping and touching.  Her physical appearance is also slightly repulsive to him.  She is small, overweight, and heavily made-up.  She is also slightly tipsy and incoherent.  Yet her display of affection for Gar is better than no affection at all and he accepts (though with certain reservations) her invitation to go to America.

His decision, however, is not irreversible.  One feels that if S.B. responded to Gar’s tentative efforts at communicating, the latter would reverse his decision, and the play would end differently.  As it is, however, the play avoids this happy resolution.  There is no easy reconciliation between father and son.  Gar, the play’s hero and victim, remains in a state of confusion to the end. Public, Private and S.B. take up the greatest part of the play.  All the important focus is centred on them, and other characters, by contrast, are less significant.  Madge occupies a position between the major characters on the one hand (Public, Private, S.B.) and the minor ones on the other hand (Canon, Master, ‘the boys’).  In Madge, Friel presents a portrait of a typical good-natured housekeeper.  She is hard-working, sometimes surly and often taken for granted.  She is also given her own distinctive voice.  Her characteristic manner of expression is through short, curt, orders.  We notice this on her first entrance in the play (‘Gar!  Your tea!…..Ah! will you leave me alone….Let me get on with my work!’).  She is constantly organising the male characters, fussing over them, yet often reprimanding them with sharp remarks.  Canon O’Byrne is obviously impressed with Madge’s witty comments (‘She’s a sharp one, Madge’).  Her function in the play is to be much more than a simple housekeeper, preparing meals, and the like.  She is also an independent voice; she stands back and assesses the principal statements and actions.  Often when the male characters are getting carried away in their conversations (as, for example, the rather loud conversation between Gar and ‘the boys’), Madge’s presence serves to dampen their enthusiasm slightly with her short, sarcastic interjections.  On other occasions, her statements point to even larger issues in the play.  In Episode One, for example, as Gar and his father sit together in total silence, Madge enters and says with cutting irony: ‘A body wouldn’t get a word in edgeways with you two’.

Madge is gruff and somewhat domineering but there is also a delicately human side to her.  She has an obvious affection for Gar, while he, is kind and gentle with her.  He confides in her, asks her questions about the past, particularly about his mother.  She is obviously saddened by Gar’s decision to leave for Philadelphia, but she puts a brave face on it and keeps her feelings hidden.  Close attention to the play shows how Friel balances Madge’s roughness with her more gentle characteristics.  Apart from her conversations with Gar, there are two other occasions in the play where we get a glimpse of the human side of Madge.  In Episode Two, after the second entrance of S.B. in the play, Madge watches his predictable movements with indifference.  Then suddenly, ‘on the point of tears’, she accuses him: ‘You sit there night after night, year after year reading that oul paper and not a tooth in your head!  If you had any decency in you at all you would keep them plates in while there’s a lady in your presence’ (p. 67).  This outburst comes as a surprise to S.B. and to the audience also.  S.B. looks on Madge in simple, functional terms.  She is his housekeeper and nothing more.  But Madge articulates the need for recognition and human contact, which the play presents so forcefully, here.  Even she has a human side to her that needs to be recognised.

The second occasion in the play when we see Madge in a similar light is in Episode One when she announces to Gar ‘with shy delight’ that her niece Nelly ‘had a baby this morning…and they’re going to call this one Madge’ (p. 37).  She is obviously elated at this simple gesture of recognition.  But later in the play, her happiness turns to disappointment.  In Episode Three she returns from her visit to Nelly’s.  She is very weary and upset.  Even S.B., who is generally not sensitive to other people’s feelings, senses that something is the matter.  ‘There’s nothing wrong is there?’ he asks.  Hesitantly Madge tells him, ‘They’re going to call it Brigid’.  There are many occasions in the play where Friel is a master of understatement, and this is certainly one of them.  He does not exaggerate Madge’s disappointment here.  But by giving it a quick fleeting mention he nevertheless draws attention to it in quite an important way.  Even gruff ageing housekeepers like Madge, he suggests, are subject to human emotions also.

Postscript: Reflecting on my first sentence in this essay a thought struck me.  The sentence reads, ‘Since Gar is the central character in this play it is important to consider his character in relation to the other characters’,  Brian Friel is very innovative in his presentation of Gar’s story and he uses the Public and Private voices of the central character in much the same way as Shakespeare used the soliloquy in his great plays.  So, the audience is given the added advantage of being able to hear the inner voice of Gar – his alter ego –  giving us an added insight into this repressed individual.  However, the thought that struck me was: what if SB was given the same facility?

 

You might also like to read ‘The Theme of Escape in Philadelphia Here I Come!here

You might also like to read ‘The Theme of Communication in Philadelphia Here I Come! here

 

 

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Portrait of Irish playwright and dramatist Brian Friel by Donegal artist Stephen Bennett

 

 

 

 

 

The Theme of Communication in ‘Philadelphia Here I Come!’

 

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Joe Dowling, who directed productions of ‘Philadelphia Here I Come!’ at the Abbey and Gaeity Theatres has said that the play deals primarily, ‘with the failure of people to communicate with each other on an intimate level.  It also makes us examine the nature of Irish society dominated by the church, the politician and the schoolmaster’.  Gar is being forced to leave Ballybeg because Ballybeg (and Ireland) has failed him and his generation. However, Friel is too subtle to allow us to imagine that the world Gar is about to enter in Philadelphia will be any better.

One of Brian Friel’s most important and most visited themes is that of communication. We are all familiar with the phrase ‘non-verbal communication’ and whether we are watching the referee demonstrate that he wants the TMO to view an incident at a rugby match or whether we empathise with Patrick Kavanagh as he visualises the ‘wink and elbow language of delight’ in Billy Brennan’s Barn, we can see its value.  Friel, however, introduces us to a wholly different type of communication in his plays, and especially here in ‘Philadelphia Here I Come!’.  This type of communication, almost exclusively Irish in origin, is what I would call ‘verbal non-communication’!

There are many striking examples of this throughout the play, probably best encapsulated by S.B. in such phrases as ‘Sure, you know I never take a second cup’ during his unchanging evening routine and  also ‘Did you set the rat traps?’ or ‘How many coils of barbed-wire came in on the mail-van this evening?’.  There are also many examples, as Gar Private reaches sensory overload, when he regresses and recites a rather quaint and obscure mantra which he obviously learnt in school during English class!:  “It is now sixteen or seventeen years since I saw the Queen of France, then the Dauphiness, at Versailles”.  This oft-repeated phrase has no context or meaning within the play as a whole and its only function is as a perfect example of verbal non-communication!

The principal theme in ‘Philadelphia Here I Come!’ is, therefore, the breakdown of communication between Gar and his father, S.B.O’Donnell.  This theme is the centre around which the entire play revolves.  At times it is presented very directly and forcefully.  On other occasions, it is hinted at indirectly and very subtly.  In all cases, however, it is the principal focus of attention in the play.

The communication theme is presented very dramatically in the description of Gar’s relationship with his father.  In Episode One, we saw the following exchange of dialogue between Gar and Madge:

MADGE:      He said nothing since I suppose?

PUBLIC:      Not a word.

PRIVATE:    The bugger.

MADGE:      But he hasn’t paid you your week’s wages?

PUBLIC:      £3.15S – that’ll carry me far.

MADGE:      He’ll have something to say then, you’ll see and maybe he’ll slip you a couple of extra pounds.

PUBLIC:      Whether he says goodbye to me or not, or whether he slips me a few miserable quid or not, it’s a matter of total indifference to me, Madge.

In this short dialogue, certain essential items of information are communicated to the audience.  S.B. has not yet appeared in the play, so it is necessary that we get some preliminary description of his character.  The picture that emerges here is of a person that is cold, uncommunicative, and slightly (!) miserly.  Also, we get the first indication of the conflict between Gar’s outward behaviour and inward thoughts.  While outwardly Gar pretends that his father’s lack of communication is a ‘matter of total indifference’ to him, his inward comments express anger and bitterness.  Madge arouses Gar’s expectations, and those of the audience as well, when she says, ‘He’ll have something to say….you’ll see’.  This is precisely the climax to which the whole play is directed.  The audience’s attention is engaged from the outset.

This theme becomes more obvious as the play progresses.  Its first emphatic expression is during the tea-time routine – a perfect example of what we have referred to earlier as verbal non-communication.  S.B. enters from the shop and goes through his nightly routine.  He hangs up the shop keys, he looks at his pocket watch and checks its time with the clock on the wall, he takes off his apron, folds it carefully and leaves it on the back of his chair.  Then he sits down to eat.  During all these ponderous jobs Private keeps up an endless chatter.  As the meal commences Private says, ‘ Now for a little free conversation’ (p 39.).  The tone of this is ironic, but with a touch of bitterness and sarcasm.  What we get is not, ‘a little free conversation’ at all, but precisely the opposite.  S.B. converses sporadically on boring impersonal topics.   He directs no personal remarks at Gar, nothing whatever that is even slightly intimate – this on the night before he leaves for Philadelphia, possibly forever.  As the scene continues all trace of humour fades from Private’s voice, and he makes a direct plea for communication (‘So tonight d’you know what I want you to do?  I want you to make one unpredictable remark…Go on Say it! Say it! Say it!).  This scene gives the first prolonged description of Gar and S.B. together.  What should be an occasion for communication and contact becomes, in fact, a series of embarrassing moments.   In this scene and elsewhere in the play Friel uses stage silence very skilfully.  This use of silence, of intermittent conversation only, is somewhat missed in reading the play, but it would be an important ingredient in the play’s performance. During a performance, we would notice how the tea-time scene is punctuated by long silences –  silences that are filled by Private’s comments or by the tick of the clock in the background.  This would serve to underscore the communication theme in a dramatic way by drawing attention to the large gaps in the tea-time conversation.  It also explains Madge’s ironic comments to S.B. and Gar,  ‘The chatting in this place would deafen a body.  Won’t the house be quiet soon enough – long enough?’  (P. 41).

The first of Gar’s attempts to bridge the gap between himself and his father is made in this scene, though in a slight and hesitant way.  It also meets with the usual rejection from S.B.  After a slight contention about money Gar tries to extend a hand of friendship to his father by offering him more tea. This meets with the following, predictable, remark: ‘Sure you know I never take a second cup’ (p. 41).  Gar accepts this rejection and thinks,  ‘You can’t teach new tricks to an old dog’.  Following this, Private launches into a long speech that is full of obvious humour, but which has an important serious core: ’Let me communicate with someone… communicate.. pour out your pent-up feelings into a sympathetic ear.  So all I ask for the moment is that you listen  – just listen to me…’ (p. 43)By means of such comments as these, Friel keeps the theme of communication to the forefront of our attention.

We next see S.B. and Gar together at the start of Episode Three, during the rosary sequence, and the game of draughts that follow it. There is an interesting juxtaposition of past and future events in this scene.  As the rosary is being said Gar’s mind wanders.  He thinks of the future in America, and characteristically, his ideas are all exaggerated and somewhat unreal: ‘Swaggering down 56th Street… with this big blonde nuzzling up to you.  You’d need to be careful out there boy; some of those Yankee women are dynamite…’ (p.87-8).  The reverie continues with statements comparable to this.  Things of this sort are, however, remote from Gar’s experience and for this reason they fail to engage his feelings.  The real interest of Private’s speech here, is his surmising on a life in America without intimacy or friendship: ‘But you’ll never marry; never; bachelor’s written all over you.  Fated to be alone, a man without intimates; something of an enigma’ (p.88).

From here, Gar’s mind wanders back to previous incidents in the past, and his feelings are engaged more fully.  In this part of the speech, Gar’s boyhood affection for this father is the centre of interest:  ‘Do you ever dream of the past, Screwballs, of that wintry morning in Bailtefree, and the three days in Bundoran? ‘ (p. 89). Gar goes on to give the first of many descriptions in the play of the fishing trip with S.B.  He doesn’t, he admits, remembers every detail, ‘but some things are as vivid as can be’.  This occasion recalls to Gar’s mind the former sympathy between himself and his father, which is described in highly emotive terms: ‘between us at that moment there was this great happiness, this great joy – you must have felt it too – it was so much richer than a content – it was a great, great happiness, and active, bubbling joy…’  (p. 80-90).

Following this magnificent speech, one of the most poetic in the play, Gar decides to force the issued by asking S.B. if he remembers this fishing trip also.  He adopts his usual nonchalant tone as if the matter was one of indifference to him, when in fact, it’s his most precious memory: ‘‘Whatever happened to that aul boat on Lough na Cloc Cor… an old blue thing – do you remember it? (p.9).  This hesitant attempt at communication is interrupted by the Canon’s entrance. During the draughts game, Gar slips into the background.  Only one passing comment is directed at him (‘It’s getting near your time, Gareth’).  Here again, Friel makes use of silence to underline the communication theme.  Apart from the chatter of Private, the Canon and S.B. sit in almost total silence making only sporadic, predictable remarks about insignificant topics.  Private, meanwhile, hovers in the background commenting on the scene from his usual witty perspective.  But always in his speeches, there is an explicit earnestness that points to wider issues: ‘there’s an affinity between me and Screwballs that no one, literally, no one could understand…….’ (p.96).  As the Canon and S.B. sit motionless and in silence, oblivious to Gar’s presence, Private relates again the story of the fishing trip.  As often in the play, music excites Gar’s memory, reminding him of previous occasions, so also in the touching speech that ends this scene: ‘Listen! Listen! Listen! D’you hear it? D’you know what the music says? It says that once upon a time, a boy and his father sat in a blue boat on a lake on an afternoon in May, and on that afternoon a great beauty happened, a beauty that has haunted the boy ever since..’ (p.98).  For Gar, time is slowly running out.  He has patiently, waited for S.B. to make some sort of gesture towards him, some small demonstration of affection.  But as the play moves into its final scenes, the lack of communication is still firmly established.

In the last episode of the play Gar makes one final effort to reach out to his father.  Throughout the play, their spoken comments to each other have been impersonal and superficial. Now, in ‘the small hours of the morning’, Gar takes up the issue of the fishing trip in a final attempt to provoke a reaction.  Gar and S.B. are surprised and slightly embarrassed to be in each other’s company.  At the start, their conversation falls back onto the usual impersonal topics.  They talk about fencing posts, plug tobacco, tinker’s cans, ‘cookers and ranges and things’.  All personal issues are carefully avoided.  Also, we notice the same irritable behaviour on S.B.’s part.  When Gar asked him will he have more tea, S.B. gives his typical response: ’Sure you know I never take a second cup’ (p.101). Yet there is some slight hint of affection in S.B. at this point.  Here, as so often in the play, Friel is a master of understatement, and in this scene, his description of S.B. is delicately and skilfully drawn.  S.B. is unable to sleep, and though we are never told why, the implication is that he is disturbed by Gar’s departure.  He awkwardly tells Gar the day’s weather forecast and he has at least enough interest in his welfare to advise him to ‘sit at the back’ of the plane, in case there was ‘an accident or anything’.  Gar notices the slight affection suggested by these remarks and he tries once again to introduce the subject of the fishing trip and the blue boat.  For a short space, their conversation takes on a new dimension.  Gar describes his memories with growing enthusiasm and S.B. listens attentively.  Then comes the final important question, and the inevitable let-down: ‘D’you remember?… No.. No.., then, I don’t.. ‘(p.105).  Here Friel raises our hopes slightly so that he can demolish them again.  This is the final appearance together of Gar and his father in the play. The same communication problems, the same misunderstandings are apparent up to the end.

Throughout the play, S.B. is depicted as a cold, uncommunicative character.  This is the picture that emerges from his initial entrance, and this picture of him lasts throughout the play.  Lizzy Sweeney’s comments in Episode Two contain brief but appropriate reference to S.B.: ‘That was the kind of us Gallagher girls wasn’t it…either laughing or crying….you know, sorta silly and impetuous, shooting our big mouths off, talking too much, not like the O’Donnell’s – you know – kinda cold…’ (p. 64).  But before the end of the play, Friel gives one last look at S.B. which shows him up in a different perspective, and which arouses the audience’s sympathy for him in a way that was not done in the rest of the play.  Indeed, S.B.’s comments in his conversation with Madge are all the more pathetic because they are unexpected.

In this final scene (pp. 106 – 108) S.B. is shown to be very human.  Because of Gar’s departure, he will have a lot more work to do himself, but he insists that he’ll ‘manage rightly’.  Suddenly we see the extra chores which Gar had to do (p. 16) in a different perspective.  In Gar’s absence, a lot more responsibility falls on S.B.’s shoulders, but he still doesn’t go against Gar’s wishes by asking him to stay.  There is also a slight hint that S.B.’s business is going into decline, ‘It’s not like in the old days when the whole countryside did with me; I needed the help then, but it’s different now…’ (p. 107).  In this matter also S.B. looks to Madge for reassurance, ‘I’ll manage by myself now. Eh?  I’ll manage fine, eh?’

The most striking reversal of sympathy for S.B. comes about through the description he gives of Gar’s first day at school.  S.B.’s memories of this event are as sharp in focus as Gar’s remembrance of the fishing –trip.  S.B. describes how he and Gar went ‘hand in hand’ to school, ‘as happy as larks, and him dancing and chatting beside me…’ (p. 107).  Their easy spontaneous communication in this scene from the past is in sharp contrast to their predicament in the play as a whole: ‘You wouldn’t get a word in edgeways with all the chatting he used to go through…’.  S.B. is aware of the sad decline in their relationship, but he places all the blame on his own side: ’Maybe, Madge, maybe it’s because I could have been his grandfather, eh?….I was too old….’.  S.B.’s last words in the play again refer to Gar, in another image of happier days: ‘In the wee sailor suit – all the chatting he used to go through…’  Both Gar and S.B., so unlike in many ways, have one common characteristic: they both hold memories of the past and of each other, but unfortunately they are different ones.  The contrast in the play is not between depth of feeling on the one hand and absence of feeling on the other.  Communication is the real problem in this play, namely the channels through which personal feelings are expressed.  Gar wrongly assumes that S.B.’s failure to remember the fishing trip suggests a lack of feeling or affection.  In fact, S.B. has his own private memories that Gar knows nothing of.  The tragedy of the play is that they are unable to communicate these memories to one another.

The communication theme of the play is principally expressed through the relationship of Gar and his father.  But it is also seen in the presentation of other episodes and characters.  A close look at the language of the play reveals an interesting feature of Friel’s use of dialogue.  Conversation is difficult for the play’s characters.  Communication of personal feelings is almost totally impossible.  The most prolonged dialogue in the play is that between Gar and his private self.  Dialogue with other people is much more difficult to achieve.  In fact, what Friel presents us with in the play is not really dialogue at all, but a series of monologues.  Characters who start talking to each other usually end up talking to, or about, themselves, and what they say is usually untrue.  We can see examples of this interesting technique on two important occasions in the play.

The first of these is in the scene with Master Boyle.  Ostensibly, the Master has called to pay his farewell to Gar.  But after a brief mention of Gar’s departure, ‘Tomorrow morning, isn’t it?’ (p. 44), Boyle’s conversation is completely given over to matters concerning himself.  He talks about his controversy with the Canon, about his poems and his own possible emigration to America.  He is also slightly formal and ill-at-ease, though we detect that unspoken feelings lurk just below the surface.  The problem of self-expression, so dominant throughout the play, is evident here also.  After a very awkward handshake and quick embrace, Boyle makes a hasty exit from the stage.

We notice a comparable use of dialogue and self-expression in ‘The Boys’ scene.  Here again what we get is not so much a dialogue but a series of short monologues punctuated by silence.  Gar’s friends speak loudly and enthusiastically about insignificant matters.  They relate stories and episodes (mostly untrue) in which the principal characters are themselves.  When they are not engaged in these personal monologues, embarrassing silences develop, which they desperately try to fill by even louder and more exaggerated accounts of their adventures.  These silences occur ‘like regular cadences’, and to defeat them, someone always introduces a fresh theme.  However, when the time comes to say good-bye to Gar, they are all pathetically stuck for words.  Tom leaves without any word of good-bye at all, whereas Ned’s farewell is embarrassed and awkward.  He stands casually at the door and says, ‘So long, Gar’ (p. 75).  He then throws his parting gift – the belt with the big brass buckle – across the room to Gar.  Despite all the loud talk about his exploits, Ned is incompetent when it comes to real displays of affection.  Here again, the problem is not that he feels no affection for Gar, but that he is unable to communicate it properly.  Joe, the youngest member of the group, makes the only sort of proper farewell to Gar.  When the others have left, Joe stays behind as a gesture of his friendship.  But even his final words to Gar are casual and superficial: ‘Send us a card, Gar, Sometime, Eh?…..Lucky bloody man….so long….’ (pp. 77-78).

The communication theme can also be seen in the episode describing Gar’s visit to Senator Doogan.  Here the theme is placed in a slightly wider context.  The scene in Doogan’s house describes not only the breakdown in communication between individuals but also between different social classes.  (Is this similar to Patrick Kavanagh’s ‘thick-tongued mumble’ in his poem, ‘Stony Grey Soil’?).  The conversation with Senator Doogan is presented as a monologue.  Doogan wanders on about his personal successes and his important family connections.  He also wants the same successes and connections for Katie.  Consequently, Gar is excluded from this upper-class world.

The most extended ‘monologue’ in the play, however, is Lizzy Sweeney’s prolonged description of the events that brought about Gar’s decision to emigrate.  Like other characters in the play, Lizzie is garrulous and she is also the centre of her own conversation.  She wanders through her story about her past life, speaking incoherently, and often losing her train of thought.  She is also irritated when someone interrupts her, and even casual interjections cause her annoyance.  While she speaks, the other characters sit quietly.  Eventually, she breaks down, starts to cry, and stumbles into silence.

What makes Gar O’Donnell’s situation so tragic then is not so much that he is so publicly inarticulate towards his father but that he fails to allow for a similar complexity in his father!  All the lines uttered by Private on Gar’s behalf might just as easily have been said on behalf of his father.  As Declan Kiberd has said, ‘Language is what comes between Gar and his freedom of expression – his education has left him fluent but not articulate and so his skill with words is greatly in excess of his emotional development’.

Friel’s concern with communication is, therefore, central to this play.  Gar has this crazy notion that language and talking and dreaming about something is the equivalent to living life.  On the one hand, Friel presents us with characters who speak too much, and on the other hand with those who speak too little. Gar’s mistake is that he foolishly equates emotion with its expression: if a feeling isn’t stated by his father, he won’t believe it’s there at all.  This has impeded their relationship and so genuine communication is virtually impossible and the end result is tragic.  The final words of both Gar and S. B. – “I don’t know” – captures their shared bewilderment and the sad fact that it is precisely this bewilderment that both connects and separates them.

You might also like to read “Characters and Relationships in ‘Philadelphia Here I Come!'” here

You might also like to read ‘The Theme of Escape in Philadelphia Here I Come!here

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The Theme of Escape in ‘Philadelphia Here I Come!’

 

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One of the most frequently recurring themes in Anglo-Irish literature is the flight or escape from a harsh environment.  The linked themes of escape, exile and emigration are frequently found in drama, prose and poetry.  One of its well-known representations is Stephen Dedalus in Joyce’s,  A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, who chooses exile from his native land because he cannot come to terms with the authorities that hold its people in their grip.  So, Stephen sets out, ‘to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.’  In Philadelphia Here I Come!, Friel also explores the nature of Irish society fifty years after Joyce’s novel was written.  This society is still governed by the church, the politician and the schoolmaster.  The society that Gar is leaving has failed him and his generation.  The question is will things be any better for Gar when he moves to Philadelphia?

Similarly, in an article in The Irish Times in the 1970’s local poet Michael Hartnett turns his hand to social commentary when he stated that Newcastle West in County Limerick,

‘is an Irish town that is not dying.  It has kept its economic stability at a terrible price, the constant exportation of human beings.  It is the example of a town that is alive because the young leave, a town that would certainly be ruined if those people born in the 30’s and 40’s had stayed at home en masse.

In Philadelphia Here I Come!, Brian Friel gives another particular instance of the ‘flight from the land’ theme in the story of Gar O’Donnell’s proposed emigration to America.  Here, Friel shows his awareness of an older, oral tradition.  Emigration is the subject of a vast number of Irish songs and ballads.  It is particularly close to the Irish spirit, having been forced on us by the circumstances of our history.  In this oral tradition, emigration is always viewed ambiguously. On the one hand, it offers escape from a hopeless environment, promising new opportunities that were unavailable at home.  But on the other hand, it is also viewed with nostalgia and sadness, as the emigrant says his last farewell to his home, his family and his friends.  It is this double aspect that makes emigration a suitable subject for drama and which Friel exploits with such effect in Philadelphia Here I Come!

However, Friel is also making a political point here.  Many see the play as a covert criticism of De Valera’s vision of a self-sufficient Ireland of cosy homesteads and comely maidens dancing at the crossroads.  S.B and Máire marry on New Year’s Day 1937, the very day that De Valera’s new Irish Constitution comes into effect.  Twenty-five years or so later and the product of that marriage, Gar O’Donnell, is packing his suitcase to head for Philadelphia in the morning.

The escape theme is emphatically present in the play right from the start.  The first Episode begins in an optimistic mood as Gar considers his departure on the next morning.  Life in Ballybeg is monotonous and offers little scope for his ambitions.  America is considered to be the land of opportunity, where ambitions are fulfilled and fortunes are made.  The thrust of this opening Episode is entirely towards release, freedom, escape: ‘Think ….up in that big bugger of a jet, with its snout belching smoke over Ireland…’ (p. 17).  S. B. makes a brief entrance at this point in the play, and through him Friel expresses the type of life Gar wishes to escape from.  S. B. is elderly and somewhat out of place in the modern world.  So too is the business he owns.  Gar emphatically rejects S.B.’s old-fashioned world.  He speaks on numerous occasions of the weariness and boredom of weighing up sacks of flour and sugar, cleaning and salting fish, unloading barbed wire and sacks of spuds.  To all of these unpleasant chores, he contrasts the broader horizons offered by American life.  Initially, at least, he is in no doubt about the wisdom of his decision to emigrate.

Other events in the play serve to strengthen this decision even further.  The characters of the play are seen by Gar as a somewhat pathetic group.  As he sees it, they are all the victims of the restrictions imposed on them by their lives in Ballybeg.  Gar wishes to escape to America before he too becomes like them.  This emerges quite clearly in his conversation with Katie Doogan in Episode Two.  Indeed in this conversation, the escape theme is most pronounced.  Earlier in the play, Gar rejects Ireland in his reference to it as, ‘the land of the curlews and the snipe, the Aran sweater and the Irish Sweepstakes’ (p. 18-19).  In his conversation with Katie his rejection is more emphatic, ‘I hate the place, and every stone, and every rock, and every piece of heather around it…’ (p. 81).  (This is reminiscent of Kavanagh’s outburst in ‘Inniskeen Road: July Evening’, ‘I am king of banks and stones and every blooming thing’).  On this occasion, it is principally the people of Ballybeg who lead him to this outburst.  For example, Gar is impressed with Master Boyle’s visit; he is also impressed by the visit of ‘the boys’ later in the play.  But on both these occasions, there is a common element to Gar’s reaction.  He is not blinded to the failings of ‘the boys’ or of Master Boyle.  The latter in particular has sacrificed his ideals for a life of quiet boredom in Ballybeg.  Like Gar, he once had the opportunity to emigrate, but unlike Gar, he was unwilling to take it.  There is a marked feeling of regret in Boyle’s conversation with Gar, a sense of having let life’s possibilities slip by.  Boyle’s character is pathetically drawn.  He is an isolated figure, unhappy with his situation, a lonesome bachelor, and a secret drinker.  He is determined to escape from the environment that produces such characters as Master Boyle.

Indeed, it must be said that the escape theme is inextricably linked to the theme of escapist fantasy used by Friel in this and other plays in his oeuvre.  At the root of this escapist fantasy lies a deep-seated dissatisfaction within every character with themselves and their environment.  Gar has not attained a sufficient identity for himself in Ballybeg. Pulled towards the future and yet drawn backwards towards a sentimental vision of the past, he seeks to escape by running away to Philadelphia, which represents the solution to all his problems.

Ironically, as the play unfolds and we begin to glean insights into his character, we realise that escape will only intensify rather than solve any of his problems. He condemns Ballybeg for the very things which will solve his problems, love, affection, identity and warmth. Gar is no better at the conclusion of the play. Escape to Philadelphia, as Madge tells us, will solve nothing.

Master Boyle also compensates for his failure as a schoolteacher by dreaming up challenging professional situations in Boston. He tells Gar he has been offered a ‘big post’ in a ‘reputable university’ in Boston. Unable to face the reality of his own alcoholism he hides behind imaginative dreams of another world and unrealistic achievements.

The boys also indulge in this escapist fantasy. They come to say farewell to Gar on the night before he departs yet they spend their time indulging in monologues about themselves and their imagined exploits. Life in Ballybeg is more bearable when it is relieved by fantasy and escapism. Rather than admit their own inadequacies they hide behind bravado and loud talk.  The visit of ‘the boys’ also confirms Gar in his decision to escape from Ballybeg.  Superficially at least, ‘the boys’ and Master Boyle have little in common.  They make a noisy entrance, speak loudly and with arrogance, whereas Master Boyle is quiet and soft-spoken.  But Gar is aware of the characteristics shared by each of them.  They are all ‘lost souls’.  The future, which faces ‘the boys’, is as dim as that which has faced Master Boyle.  They speak enthusiastically about themselves and their situation, but to Gar these words sound hollow.  In the end he is forced to admit that they are ‘ignorant bloody louts’ who cover the meaninglessness of their situation with pretence and lies.  Significantly, in his speech with Katie, Gar groups ‘the boys’ with Master Boyle, S.B., and Canon O’Byrne: they are all pathetic figures.  They all confirm his decision to emigrate.

The escape theme in Philadelphia Here I Come! is not a simple one, however.  To create a sense of drama Friel explores the theme from a contrary point of view.  Friel uses the same technique as Kavanagh in ‘Stony Grey Soil’, a poem in which the escape theme is also evident.  Kavanagh enumerates the aspects of his life in Monaghan, which led to his decision to leave.  But he also provides a contrary statement at the end of the poem.  In spite of all the hardships, which have been inflicted on him, he still feels some affection for Monaghan.  The same feeling of affection is evident in Philadelphia Here I Come!, in spite even of Gar’s emphatic statements of rejection.  As the play opens Gar is confirmed in his decision.  But as the action progresses he is subjected to numerous situations, which remind him of the more pleasant aspects of Ballybeg and its people.  As these situations continue to arise in the play, the desire to escape is made more complicated, and even meaningless.  In the play, a definite bond of affection unites the characters, which is all the more touching because it is left unspoken.  Gar’s relationship with Master Boyle, ‘the boys’, and S.B. is characterised by rejection.  They have all, in part, contributed to his desire to escape.  But his relationship with them also contains traces of affection.  He is moved by the visits of Master Boyle and ‘the boys’ and is in a distressed state when they leave.  His affection for S.B. is secretly expressed by Private throughout the play and is openly articulated to Madge at the end (p. 109).  But in particular, his relationship with Katie Doogan represents a part of his life he is sorry to leave behind.  As is usual with Gar, he speaks casually and with forced nonchalance.  But his decision to emigrate, to become ‘100 per cent American’ (p. 82), is complicated by the affection he still feels for the ordinary mundane life of Ballybeg.  In this way the escape theme is fully dramatised by Friel.  Gar’s need to escape, coupled with the affection he feels for the people he is leaving, constitutes one of the effective conflicts of the play. Indeed, the ending is very inconclusive and we are left to wonder as we leave the theatre: well, did he ever leave or did he continue to live a life of futility fuelled by fantasy?

Private: God, Boy, why do you have to leave? Why? Why?

Public: I don’t know. I – I – I don’t know.

There is also a double-dimension to all Friel’s work. He tends to illustrate the same theme from different points of view – Gar leaving for Philadelphia and Lizzie who has come home.  Like other characters in the play, Lizzie is garrulous and she is also the centre of her own conversation.  She wanders through her story about her past life, speaking incoherently, and often losing her train of thought.  She is also irritated when someone interrupts her, and even casual interjections cause her annoyance.  While she speaks, the other characters sit quietly.  Eventually, she breaks down, starts to cry, and stumbles into silence giving us a perfect cameo of the reality behind many a ‘returned Yank’. and a rather stark reality check for Gar as he prepares to leave.  Friel returned to this theme later in The Loves of Cass McGuire which explores the psychology of Cass as she returns from her emigration and exile.   Gripping, often humorous, but steeped in compassion, Friel scripts a rich and complex portrait of a marginalised emigrant returning home.   We can all 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, Philadelphia Here I Come! dealt with Gar’s physical act of emigration, The Loves of Cass McGuire 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.

So, we can see that the linked themes of escape, exile and emigration (and eventual return) are as relevant today as ever.  Friel’s plays are at times caustic commentary on successive governments for their failures to provide for the people in their care.  As Michael Hartnett also suggested in the 70’s we have been able to maintain our economic stability at a terrible price: ‘the constant exportation of human beings’.

Philadelphia Here I Come!, therefore, contains considerable political and psychological insights. Gar is a kind of ‘split-personality’ and we sense that he will have great difficulty coping with this schizophrenia wherever he ends up. He can escape from Ballybeg, from the small-town people who annoy him, but he can never be free from his own inner voice, constantly exploring, questioning,  and rebuking.

Author’s Note: My favourite production of this play was by the Ardagh Drama Group in County Limerick, which was staged some time in the 1990’s.  It featured a superb tour de force of a performance by Jim Liston as Gar Private.  He was ably supported by sterling performances from Garry McMahon as SB, Margaret Enright as Madge, Senator Doogan was played by Sonny Crowley (RIP), Rory O’Donnell (RIP) was Lizzie’s browbeaten husband, Master Boyle was played by Tom Madigan and ‘the boys’ were superbly marshalled by Mike O’Flynn.

You might also like to read ‘The Theme of Communication in Philadelphia Here I Come!’   here

You might also like to read “Characters and Relationships in Philadelphia Here I Come!” here

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Just a thought …… about Harper Lee’s Maycomb, Alabama and other related settings….

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Middle Earth, Narnia, and Wessex are all examples of exotic, or parallel-world settings created by novelists to base their stories in.  Novelists have always created these imaginary worlds for their own purposes.  Middle Earth is the fictional universe created by Tolkien for his best loved works The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.  C.S. Lewis goes to great rounds to create another fictional realm for his seven Narnia books which make up his  Chronicles of Narnia.  Thomas Hardy’s Wessex Novels are situated in a ‘partly real, partly dream country’.

Being a Harper Lee fan I’ve been awaiting Go Set  a Watchman with eager anticipation since the old PR machine kicked into gear earlier in the year.  For the purposes of this blog, however, I just want to focus for a little while on the setting of both novels, and novels in general, and it is clear to me that the real life Monroeville, Alabama of her youth becomes the fictional Maycomb, Alabama of her novels.  Lee sets her novels here for a reason: she deliberately selects her setting, and in effect the fictional Maycomb becomes another Narnia or Middle Earth – a microcosm of all that is good and bad in 1930’s America.  She tells us that one went to Maycomb, ‘to have his teeth pulled, his wagon fixed, his heart listened to, his money deposited, his soul saved, his mules vetted’.  She describes it as an isolated place, in effect it is an Everyplace – the town, ‘had remained the same for a hundred years, an island in a patchwork sea of cotton fields and timber land’.  It is, in effect, a remote backwater bypassed by progress, the perfect playground of her youth, and the perfect cauldron for change.

In Go Set a Watchman she says that Maycomb County is, ‘a wilderness dotted with tiny settlements’, it is, ‘so cut off from the rest of the nation that some of its citizens, unaware of the South’s political predilection over the past ninety years, still voted Republican.’  It is so remote, ‘no trains went there’.  In fact Maycomb Junction, ‘a courtesy title’, was located in Abbott County twenty miles away!  However, she tells us that the, ‘bus service was erratic and seemed to go nowhere, but the Federal Government  had forced a highway or two through the swamps, thus giving the citizens an opportunity for free egress.’  However, Lee tells us that few took advantage of this opportunity!  Then in one of those Harper Lee epiphany moments, one of those lightening bolts she releases now and then, she perceptively describes her hometown as a place where, ‘If you did not want much, there was plenty.’

In To Kill a Mockingbird she continues in the same rich vein.  Maycomb is, ‘a tired old town’. People moved slowly, ‘they ambled across the square, shuffled in and out of the stores around it, took their time about everything’.  She tells us that, ‘There was no hurry, for there was nowhere to go, nothing to buy and no money to buy it with, nothing to see outside the boundaries of Maycomb County’, a scenario somewhat reminiscent of modern day Greece!

The setting of George Eliot’s novel, Silas Marner,  has many echoes of Maycomb in Eliot’s fictional depiction of Raveloe.  Eliot tells us that it, ‘was a village where many of the old echoes lingered, undrowned by new voices.’  She further describes it as being, ‘Not …. one of those barren parishes lying on the outskirts of civilization — inhabited by meagre sheep and thinly-scattered shepherds: on the contrary, it lay in the rich central plain of what we are pleased to call Merry England’.  However, like Maycomb it was off the beaten track,  ‘it was nestled in a snug well-wooded hollow, quite an hour’s journey on horseback from any turnpike, where it was never reached by the vibrations of the coach-horn, or of public opinion’.   Much of this abundance is of course meant to contrast with Silas Marner’s previous place of residence in Lantern Yard.  Whereas Lantern Yard had been austere, white-walled, and filled with serious and devout Puritans, Raveloe is a place of lazy plenty, pints at the local tavern, and carefree religion on Sundays.  Chapter One declared it to be a place where bad farmers are rewarded for bad farming!

This description of Raveloe also holds great echoes with The Village as depicted in Jim Crace’s  latest (and last?) novel, Harvest.  The narrator, Walter Thirsk  tells us that, ‘these fields are far from anywhere, two days by post-horse, three days by chariot, before you find a market square.’  Harvest  dramatises one of the great under-told narratives of English history: the forced enclosure of open fields and common land from the late medieval era on, whereby subsistence agriculture was replaced by profitable wool production, and the peasant farmers dispossessed and displaced. “The sheaf is giving way to sheep”, as Crace puts it here, and an immemorial connection between people and their local environment is being broken – their world is crumbling around them.  Great changes are coming and, as everyone knows by now, the only people who welcome change are babies with wet nappies!

Brian Friel’s use of Ballybeg (small town) as the setting for many of his plays and short stories is also similar in vein to these others.  In Philadelphia Here I Come, Gar Public tells us that Ballybeg is, ‘a bloody quagmire, a backwater, a dead-end’.  Friel, like Lee, and Eliot and Crace is deceptive because he is dealing with familiar things and familiar characters – shopkeepers, housekeepers, and parish priests – a very familiar rural Ireland fixed in its own time.  Friel’s use of the alter ego – Public Gar and Private Gar – allows us the opportunity to see behind the superficiality of so much of this world of small-town life.

In many ways Friel’s major theme is the failure of people to communicate with each other on an intimate level.  In this play especially we are introduced to the typically Irish practice of verbal non-communication!  He, like Harper Lee, George Eliot, and Jim Crace, forces us to examine the nature of society.  In Ireland our society in the 40’s and 50’s was dominated by the church, the politician and the schoolmaster.  Ultimately the world that Gar is leaving has failed him and his generation.  But Friel is too subtle to allow us to imagine that the world Gar is about to enter in Philadelphia will be any better.

These meandering rambles are an attempt to place myself at the beginning of a work of fiction, to stand for a moment in the author’s shoes, so to speak, and see the world from their point of view.  From my limited reading it seems to me that many authors deliberately choose a world untrodden, less travelled as the setting for their novel.  I have mentioned some here in this piece but I’m sure this is just the tip of the iceberg and you will be able to reference many examples from your own reading.  Ideally the setting is always remote, secluded, off the map or often off the mainland, cut off from change and advancement.  This microcosm is then filled with characters and fictional dilemmas, action and inaction.  I have always been truly fascinated and overawed by each author’s unique ability and ingenuity in  creating and  imagining these hidden places and thus allowing us the privilege of entering the world of their texts.

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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