Dancing at Lughnasa

by Brian Friel

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Brian Friel’s play Dancing at Lughnasa confirms the limited opportunities available to Irish women during the first half of the twentieth century. Discuss the depiction of women and their lives in the play.

In rural Ireland, the Mundy sisters had limited opportunities to earn a living beyond agriculture and small-scale craft production. While the sisters’ dependence on each other provides a safety net, each sister reveals different dimensions of those limitations and the ability to transcend them. One path is represented by Chris, who finds work in the factory, while Kate takes the traditional female job of teacher. In contrast, Agnes and Rose broken off contact when they moved away.

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Dancing at Lughnasa uses one group of sisters from a single family to represent the different possibilities available to rural Irishwomen a century ago. Brian Friel shows the limitations that women faced in regard to both family and career. For rural women, agriculture was threatened the dominant way of life. The small earnings that were available from small-scale craft production came under fire as factories opened in small towns. While these industries provided work and income, their products also replaced the locally produced goods. Friel also portrays men as having more flexibility and often being irresponsible, as Gerry plays almost no part in his son’s life.

Among the Mundy sisters, Friel draws a line between those who have children and those who do not. Motherhood strongly shaped the choices women made. For single mothers, such as Chris, factory employment sometimes enabled them to support their children. Two other sisters, Agnes and Rose, saw their modest incomes decline as the demand for their knitwear dried up when the knitting factory opened up. Their decision to leave home meant a break from the family. Their risk-taking behavior was largely associated with men, their path seems to indicate a sharp change in gender roles was occurring in this era. While Kate works in a typical female job, her departure from social norms takes the form of an affair.

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