Kate Mundy, a parochial grade-school teacher in Ballybeg (Irish for “small town”), County Donegal. She is the only steady wage earner in the family, which includes her fallen-priest brother, Jack; her four younger sisters, all unmarried; and her illegitimate nephew, seven-year-old Michael. She is the stabilizing economic and social force holding the family together. Her dismissal from her teaching position because of Father Jack’s heterodoxy is another straw added to the weight of community dissolution. She winds up tutoring privately in the family of Austin Morgan, the proprietor of a local store. She was once associated with him romantically, but he married a younger woman. Kate is a silent, solo dancer.
Maggie Mundy, Kate’s sister, who is responsible for the outside work and the housekeeping chores in the family. Her bootlaces are always untied, reflecting her openness. She plays with and encourages young Michael with his kites, and she plays imaginative language games with him. She is a singer and a “dervish” dancer, full of exuberant energy. When the family breaks up, she carries on, adding her absent sisters’ tasks to hers, pretending to believe that nothing has changed.
Agnes Mundy and
Rose Mundy, Kate’s sisters. They have a glove-knitting contract that is taken away from them. Agnes, the best of the dancers, looks out for her sister Rose, who is “simple.” The naïve Rose’s date with the married Danny Bradley at a pagan Lughnasa (pronounced lew-na-sah) gathering in the hills terrifies the protective sister. When income from their knitting disappears, the pair go to England, where for more than twenty years they do menial jobs. Agnes dies of exposure by the Thames, and Rose dies in a hospice for the destitute.
Chris Mundy, Michael’s single mother. He, just started in school, has been her primary responsibility because his absent, insouciant father’s visits have been sporadic. The youngest of the sisters by at least six years, she is the only one still vain about her physical appearance. Chris loves dancing and dances beautifully with Gerry, but she knows he would be unreliable as a husband and refuses to agree to marry him. Such a decision is a courageous one in such a traditional society. After the dissolution of the family, she works the rest of her life in the knitting factory, hating every day of it. She never learns, the adult Michael says, of Gerry’s marriage and children in Wales.
Gerry Evans, Michael’s father, a slick verbalizer, flatterer, con man, unsuccessful itinerant gramophone salesman, and former dancing teacher. His involvement in the Spanish Civil War is a comedy of errors; his war wound is suffered in a fall from his motorcycle. He can, however, always make Chris laugh. After three years, his visits to Ballybeg and his promises cease. About twenty years later, in the mid-1950’s, he dies in Wales among his new family members.
Jack Mundy, the only son and eldest in the family. He is an ordained Catholic priest who has returned home, terminally ill, from a mission among lepers in Uganda. Apart from a brief stint as a chaplain in the British army, the ceremonial uniform from which he has kept, all of his overseas time has been spent among native Africans. He has evidently misplaced his Christian mission and become something of a convert to an African religion. He endorses “love children”—the more the better—and sacrifices Rose’s pet rooster. He has only a year to live and try to integrate his African dance experience and his own “distinctive spiritual search,” as Kate...
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puts it, into the unreceptive world of Ballybeg.
Michael, the invisible focus of several scenes with the women. Twenty-five years later, he speaks his lines as a child and comments neutrally, as an adult who got out, on the present and future of the family ensemble.
Gerry Evans Gerry Evans, thirty-three, is the father of the illegitimate son Michael, whose mother is Chris. Gerry and Chris were never married, and Gerry had abandoned her with their child years earlier. Gerry appears unexpectedly every year or so, and Chris, despite herself, is charmed by him all over again each time. But Gerry is unreliable, and has a new idea for a career path with each visit. He does leave to fight in Spain, where he is injured in a motorbike accident that leaves him with a limp. He continues to visit Chris and Michael every year or so, but disappears around the time of World War II. After Gerry's death, Michael learns that his father had a wife and three children in Wales throughout all those years, unbeknownst to Chris.
Uncle Jack See Jack Mundy
Agnes Mundy Agnes, thirty-five, is the middle of the five sisters, and knits mittens to support them. After a local knitting factory makes their home knitting work obsolete, Agnes and her sister Rose eventually leave the family home, never to return. Twenty-five years later, Michael locates Rose and Agnes in London, where Agnes has died, and Rose soon dies in a hospice for the destitute.
Chris Mundy Chris, twenty-six, is the youngest of the five sisters. Her son, Michael, was born out of wedlock, her love child with Gerry Evans. When Gerry returns after more than a year's absence, he charms Chris all over again, despite herself and her sister's disapproval. Gerry jokes with her, makes her laugh, and frequently breaks into a dance with her. Chris is repeatedly taken in by Gerry's unreliable promises, believing him when he says he will return soon, and that he has purchased a bicycle for Michael. Three weeks later, Gerry does return briefly, during which time he and Chris enjoy a rejuvenation of their romance before he leaves for military work in Spain. Chris never learns of Gerry's legitimate family in Wales.
Jack Mundy Jack, fifty-three, also referred to by Michael as Uncle Jack, is the brother of the five women, and uncle of Michael. He spent twenty-five years as a missionary priest in a leper colony in Uganda, and has recently returned to Ireland, sick with malaria. It turns out that Jack was asked to leave the priesthood for participating in local, non-Christian ceremonies and rituals in Uganda. In Ireland, he seems mentally confused, as well as physically ill. He cannot keep the names of his five sisters straight, and has trouble remembering English words, having spoken mostly Swahili during his years in Uganda. The character of Uncle Jack highlights Friel's theme of paganism, as he frequently refers to local spiritual practices in Uganda, and seems to have strayed far from his Christian faith. Kate helps Uncle Jack to reinvigorate his health with long walks several times a day. Michael explains in a monologue toward the end of the play that Jack died suddenly of a heart attack within a year of returning to Ireland.
Kate Mundy Kate is the oldest of the five sisters. She is forty years old, and was once a schoolteacher. Kate is the most resistant to the changes taking place around her, and is especially critical of the ‘‘pagan’’ singing and dancing that the radio has brought into her household.
Maggie Mundy Maggie, thirty-eight, is the second oldest of the five sisters, and works as the cook and housekeeper of their home. Michael describes his Aunt Maggie as ‘‘the joker of the family.’’ She is the one who suggests naming the new wireless radio Lugh, after the ‘‘old Celtic god of the Harvest.’’
Michael Mundy Michael, as a young man, functions as a narrator and describes the action of the play through direct monologue to the audience, in the form of a nostalgic reminiscence of a time of his childhood when he was only seven years old. Michael is the illegitimate child of Chris and Gerry, and only sees his father about once a year. The child Michael in the flashbacks is primarily intent on making and painting a series of kites; only toward the end of the play are his paintings displayed to the audience, when they reveal a series of faces expressing strong emotions.
Rose Mundy Rose, thirty-two, is the second youngest of the sisters, and works knitting mittens to support the family. Rose is in love with Danny Bradley, a married man with three children, with whom she sneaks off for a boat ride one afternoon.