The adult Michael reflects aloud on the summer of 1936, when he was seven years old and lived in rural County Donegal. His mother Chris, his father Gerry, his uncle Father Jack, and his four aunts form a silent, motionless tableau as the backdrop for his monologue. That was the summer they got their first radio and had their first contact with Dublin music. It was also the summer in which Father Jack, sick, came home to die after twenty-five years of missionary work in Uganda, uninterrupted except for a brief stint as a chaplain in the British army, which explains the ornate officer’s uniform he wore.
The adult Michael, Kate, Gerry, and Father Jack then leave the stage. It is a warm summer afternoon. The domestic routines of a loving family in the kitchen of a remote, rural cottage proceed. Maggie is preparing food for the hens; Agnes is knitting gloves to meet her assigned quota of two dozen per week; Rose is replenishing the supply of turf (peat) for the fire; Chris is ironing; the sisters make amiable small talk. Rose, unexpectedly, breaks into a bawdy music-hall song and dance; Maggie joins her. The simple Rose, the others are chagrined to learn, has a date planned with a local married man, Danny Bradley.
The young Michael (invisible to the spectator, his lines spoken by the adult Michael) works on his two kites in the garden. While he does this, his aunt Maggie asks him the first of five riddles she has for him. The child recounts his and their disappointment over the recent return of the missionary priest, Jack, broken in health and mind.
Kate, the grade-school teacher, returns from Ballybeg, where she was shopping for all of them, quinine for Father Jack included. Rose teases her about her crush on old Austin Morgan. All the talk in Ballybeg, Kate reports, is of the upcoming harvest festival; the sisters agree in a verbal rush of enthusiasm to go to it. Rose spontaneously throws herself into a mad dance, following which Kate vetoes the whole scheme as inappropriate.
Out in the yard, Maggie, miming a bird, pays back young Michael for frightening her earlier by pretending to see a rat. She comes inside and receives her cigarettes, sharing the gossip from Kate’s shopping expedition. When they learn of a village boy badly burned at the pagan Lughnasa Festival in the hills, it is Rose who supplies the details. Maggie learns of a former girlfriend of hers visiting from London with her children and remembers a dance they attended in a foursome years ago. While the women talk, Father Jack wanders in and out, his memory disturbed. In the background, the radio plays Irish dance music. Maggie launches into a wild solo dance, joined soon by the others; only Kate dances alone. They all continue, rapt, even after the very unreliable radio stops working.
The sisters are squabbling about their division of domestic labor when they are disturbed by the approach of Gerry, the Welsh father of Michael, Chris’s child. Kate relents sufficiently to allow Chris to invite Gerry inside; she has not seen him in more than a year. At the front door, Chris learns that he was teaching dancing in Dublin but is now selling gramophones door-to-door. She tells him young Michael is now in school. It is his intention, he tells her, to fight with the International Brigade in Spain. When the radio spontaneously starts inside the house, the couple responds to “Dancing in the Dark” by dancing down the lane, while Kate watches from inside the...
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house. Even though Gerry promises to be back in two weeks before he leaves for Spain, Chris will not agree to marry him.
The lives of the other family members are also not going well. Kate feels her world is collapsing; the local parish priest is threatening her with the loss of her job. Father Jack’s mind continues to be disturbed. Befuddled by his African experiences and having trouble with the English language, he wanders into the kitchen. He saw a white bird on his windowsill that morning. When Agnes tells him that it was Rose’s pet rooster, it causes him to reminisce about the African rituals and native dances he knew.
The narrator, the adult Michael, concludes act 1 with an omniscient, informative monologue. Father Jack was indeed sent home in disgrace after giving up his faith and joining the native culture. Kate was fired from her teaching position. Rose was romantically involved with a married man, and both she and her mentor Agnes’s knitting contracts were canceled. Michael saw his mother and father dancing again, in harmony despite the lack of music, but there was to be no marriage. The family community was rapidly disintegrating.
The final act opens three weeks later. Maggie sings a romantic song and talks to young Michael, who is expecting a bicycle from his father, a bicycle that will never arrive. She poses riddles to him, only the last of which—Why is a gramophone like a parrot?—is not answered. It is becoming increasingly clear that Father Jack’s religious context is no longer Christian. After he seems to be getting healthier, he dies suddenly, within a year of his coming home. Rose disappears, returning later to confess that she was with Danny Bradley up in the hills where the Lughnasa Festival was held. She and Agnes secretly leave for England, where, the narrator reports, they eventually die miserable deaths: Agnes of exposure on the Thames Embankment, Rose in a hospice.
Michael’s parents carry on with their separate lives. Gerry, who also danced with Agnes and Maggie before he left, is injured in Spain in a fall from his motorcycle. Eventually, he marries another woman and starts a new family in Wales. Chris goes to work in the new knitting factory for the rest of her life. Michael finally closes the Lughnasa time in his memory; he sees dancing everywhere as the stage lights, wordlessly, are brought down.