In Brian Friel’s play Dancing at Lughnasa, Jack is an Irish priest who has served for many years as a missionary in Africa, working at a leper colony in Uganda. The most important thing to remember about his time there is that he was strongly affected by the local culture and customs. This is especially obvious, for instance, when Jack begins to describe Uganda religious rituals and speaks as if he himself were a pagan. He explains some of the reasons that the non-Christian Ugandans worshipped:
. . . maybe to offer sacrifice to Obi, our Great Goddess of the Earth, so that the crops will flourish. Or maybe to get in touch with out departed fathers for their advice or wisdom. Or maybe to thank the spirits of our tribe, if they have been good to us, or to appease them if they’re angry. I complain to Okawa that our calendar of ceremonies gets fuller every year.
Ironically, Jack, who went to Africa to teach Christianity to “pagans,” has come home to Ireland considering himself somewhat of a “pagan.” In an ensuing speech he describes his participation in “pagan” rituals, and it is clear that he identifies very much with the people he was sent to convert. In a sense, he has become one of them.
Jack’s sisters are alarmed by this transformation; they hope they he will soon again be presiding at Catholic masses. They consider the change in their brother to be a temporary aberration. They are ashamed of his change and want to keep it a secret from anyone outside their family.
In a play concerned with rituals and beliefs of various sorts, Jack’s transformation is obviously significant. One critic (see link below) has even suggested that
Friel seems to be celebrating . . . a personal ‘‘distinctive spiritual search,’’ as expressed through the pagan rituals of music, song, and dance by the various characters.