Dancing at Lughnasa

by Brian Friel

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Places Discussed

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Mundy home

Mundy home. Typical rural Irish farm house of the 1930’s, with a kitchen serving as a general living and working area. Not just the cooking but all domestic tasks take place here, including the knitting Agnes and Rose sell to a local merchant. The wireless radio, which the sisters have dubbed “Marconi” after the name on its front, occupies a key position; also visible are an iron range, a sturdy table, an oil lamp, and buckets for well water by the back door. As the stage directions note, these austere furnishings are mitigated by flowers, curtains, and other items. The front door opens onto a garden, underscoring the grace with which the five women eke out a living.


Ballybeg. Literally “Smalltown” in Irish, Ballybeg is the village just outside of which lies the Mundy household. Brian Friel has made Ballybeg a symbolic Irish “everytown” in several of his plays, often using it, as he does here, as a microcosm for Irish society at various points in the country’s history. As Michael says in his opening monologue, these few weeks in August, 1936, produced in him an unease, a sense of things rapidly changing. Ballybeg, then, marks the threshold between childhood innocence and adult experience for Michael. Similarly, it marks the line between two eras of modern Irish life, as the family dissolves after the sisters lose their respective livelihoods to factory mass production or to the dwindling number of students at the village school.


*Donegal. County in western Ireland; remote even by rural standards, it is one of the last places to benefit from the electrification of the country and part of the Gaeltacht, or Irish-speaking region. It is known for its rough beauty, with wilderness or backwater associations, hence the lingering customs of Lughnasa, the harvest festival honoring the pagan deity Lugh. These agrarian rituals at the village’s margins are set against the approaching changes to small village life, just as the Mundy sisters’ first wireless radio represents the encroachment of the wider world upon their lives in the mid-1930’s.

Historical Context

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Abbey Theatre Friel's early plays were performed at the famous Abbey Theatre in Dublin. The Abbey Theatre, established in 1904, has been an important influence in the history of twentieth-century Irish drama. In 1899, the poet William Butler Yeats and other Irish writers established the Irish Literary Theatre to promote Irish dramatic works. In 1902, this organization became subsumed under the Irish National Dramatic Society, which in 1903 was renamed the Irish National Theatre Society. The Abbey Theatre was located in an old theater on Abbey Street in Dublin, thanks to the financial contribution of a wealthy Englishwoman. In 1904, it opened with a series of plays by Yeats, Lady Gregory, and John Millington Synge. Synge's controversial satiric work, Playboy of the Western World, first staged at the Abbey in 1907, lead to rioting and violent protest by outraged audiences in Dublin, New York, and Philadelphia. After a period of difficulty, the Abbey Theatre became state subsidized in 1924. In the 1950s, the Abbey Theatre was destroyed in a fire, and was relocated to the Queen's Theatre, until 1966, when a new theater was built at the original location on Abbey Street.

Uganda and Swahili In Friel's play, Michael's Uncle Jack has recently returned from twenty-five years spent as a missionary in a leper colony in Uganda. During that time, Uncle Jack spoke Swahili with the local population, and has forgotten many English words. Uganda is a country in Africa which, during the mid-nineteenth century, was subjected to ‘‘exploration,’’ first by Arab...

(This entire section contains 551 words.)

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traders in search of ivory and slaves in the 1840s, and then by Egyptian and Sudanese slave traders in the 1860s. In 1856, Mutesa I became the ruler of Buganda, a state within the region now called Uganda. The famous British explorer, Henry Morton Stanley, arrived in the region in 1875, and persuaded Mutesa to allow Christian missionaries to enter Buganda. In 1877, the first missionaries, from the Church Missionary Society, arrived, followed in 1879 by missionaries from the Roman Catholic White Fathers Mission. Missionaries became influential in the region and were responsible for the establishment of schools in the early 1900s. In 1890, the British declared the region to be under their rule; that same year, a treaty between the Imperial British East Africa Company and Buganda's new leader, Mwanga, secured Buganda as a region under British influence. In 1894, the British government declared Buganda a ‘‘protectorate.’’ After several revolts in 1897, the Buganda Agreement of 1890 determined that local chiefs would maintain power while agreeing to operate under British authority. During the interwar years of the 1920s and 30s, the power of local chiefs receded under British intervention. After periods of civil unrest during the post-World War II era, however, Uganda was granted national independence in 1962. The Swahili language spoken by Uncle Jack in Uganda is the mother tongue or ‘‘lingua franca’’ of many countries along the Eastern Coast of Africa. Swahili originated from the arrival of Arab traders in Africa, and was originally written in Arabic (although it is now written in the Roman alphabet). It was first adopted by Bantu-speaking tribes, and is similar in grammar to Bantu languages. The use of Swahili eventually spread further into Africa via the Arab ivory and slave trade. European traders and colonists in Africa also began to use Swahili in their contact with African peoples. Today, Swahili is spoken in Tanzania, Kenya, and Uganda.

Literary Style

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Setting Friel's play is set in ‘‘the home of the Mundy family, two miles outside the village of Ballybeg, County Donegal, Ireland, in 1936.’’ While County Donegal is a real geographic location (where Friel himself resides), the village of Ballybeg is Friel's fictional creation, utilized as a setting in many of his plays. Act I takes place in early August, and Act II takes place three weeks later in early September. The historical setting of 1936 is significant for several reasons. The family's acquisition of their first wireless radio provides the novelty of modern technology and popular culture during that time. The historical setting is also relevant to the intrusion of the Industrial Revolution on rural Ireland. At the beginning of the play, Agnes and Rose support the family by knitting at home. A knitting factory, however, is opened nearby, and the supplier for whom they work loses all of her business to the larger company. The cottage industry by which Agnes and Rose had earned their living becomes obsolete before their very eyes. As Michael explains in monologue, ‘‘the Industrial Revolution had finally caught up with Ballybeg.’’ This event is significant to Friel's theme of nostalgia for the rural Ireland of his childhood, as well as the theme of historical changes in Irish culture.

Monologue The character of Michael as a young man appears in the play addressing the audience directly in a series of monologues that introduce, explain, and conclude the play. The entire play is thus presented as a depiction of Michael's nostalgic memories of this particular period in his childhood. Through this monologue, Michael explains to the audience the circumstances and history of his family, the eventual fate of each of the characters, and the significance of these memories.

Music Music is a central theme of this play, in which the new wireless radio in the Mundy household represents an agent of change. The dialogue is thus interspersed with music coming from the radio, as well as the musical outbursts of the various characters. Specific song lyrics and types of music are therefore significant to the meaning of the play. Friel provides very specific descriptions of the radio music in the stage directions. For example, at one point the radio is turned on while the Mundy sisters do chores in the kitchen: ‘‘The music, at first scarcely audible, is Irish dance music—‘The Mason's Apron,’ played by a ceili band. Very fast; very heavy beat; a raucous sound. At first we are aware of the beat only. Then, as the volume increases slowly, we hear the melody.’’ The Mundy sisters then slowly break into a frenzied dance that only partially matches the music, and is expressive of their repressed desires. At other points, characters break into snatches of popular songs, as well as folk songs, which Kate refers to disdainfully as ‘‘pagan songs.’’ Music is associated with ‘‘pagan,’’ or non-Christian, ritual again when Uncle Jack breaks into a rhythmic dance he learned in Uganda, beating two sticks together for musical accompaniment; the stage directions state that: ‘‘Jack picks up two pieces of wood ... and strikes them together. The sound they make pleases him. He does it again—and again—and again. Now he begins to beat out a structured beat whose rhythm gives him pleasure.’’

Media Adaptations

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  • Dancing at Lughnasa was adapted to the screen in a 1998 film produced by Colombia TriStar, directed by Pat O'Connor, and starring Meryl Streep.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources Andrews, Elmer. The Art of Brian Friel: Neither Reality Nor Dreams. St. Martin's Press, 1995, pp. 226-27.

Gleitman, Claire. ‘‘Negotiating History, Negotiating Myth: Friel Among His Contemporaries,’’ in Brian Friel: A Casebook, edited by William Kerwin. Garland, 1997, p. 237.

Kerwin, William, ed. Brian Friel: A Casebook. Garland, 1997, p. 237.

McGrath, F. C. Brian Friel's (Post) Colonial Drama: Language, Illusion, and Politics. Syracuse University Press, 1999, p. 247.

Murray, Christopher. ‘‘‘Recording Tremors’: Friel's Dancing at Lughnasa and the Uses of Tradition,’’ in Brian Friel: A Casebook, edited by William Kerwin. Garland, 1997, p. 36.

O'Toole, Fintan. ‘‘Marking Time: From Making History to Dancing at Lughnasa,’’ in The Achievement of Brian Friel, edited by Alan J. Peacock. Colin Smythe, 1993, p. 214.

Peacock, Alan J., ed. The Achievement of Brian Friel. Colin Smythe, 1993, pp. xviii, xv.

Pine, Richard. Brian Friel and Ireland's Drama. Routledge, 1990, pp. 1, 4, 5, 8.

Schlueter, June. Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 13: British Dramatists Since World War II, edited by Stanley Weintraub. Gale Group, 1982, pp. 179-85.

Further Reading Chekhov, Anton. Anton Chekhov's Three Sisters: A Translation, translated by Brian Friel. Gallery Books, 1981. Friel's translation of the Chekhov play to which Dancing at Lughnasa has sometimes been compared provides further insight into Friel's perspective on the two dramas.

Grene, Nicholas. The Politics of Irish Drama: Plays in Context from Boucicault to Friel. Cambridge University Press, 1999. This text provides critical discussion of the historical and political significance of major Irish playwrights.

Kerwin, William, ed. Brian Friel: A Casebook. Garland, 1997. Kerwin's book is a collection of critical essays on Friel's drama and fiction.

Pine, Richard. Brian Friel and Ireland's Drama. Routledge, 1990. Pine's work discusses Friel's stage plays in the context of the history and literary traditions of the Irish stage.


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Dantanus, Ulf. Brian Friel: The Growth of an Irish Dramatist. London: Faber, 1987. A thorough appraisal of Friel’s work and themes through 1986.

Foster, Roy. “Pleasing the Local Gods: Dancing at Lughnasa.” Times Literary Supplement, October 26, 1990, 1152. A very favorable review of the London production, in which it is claimed that the play is about “ceremonies of innocence against a background of encroaching despair.” For Foster, the essentials are not dancing but “mental retardation, illegitimacy, priestly social control, economic decline, and, eventually, emigration and destitution.”

Lahr, John. “Brian Friel’s Blind Faith.” The New Yorker 70 (October 17, 1994): 107-110. With a full-page photograph of Friel, explores his work up to 1994 and sympathetically fits Dancing at Lughnasa into its context: Dancing becomes “a means of approaching the nonsectarian religions.”

MacNeil, Maire. The Festival of Lughnasa. Dublin: University College, 1982. Situates the pagan harvest festival in its European context, surviving as it did in Ireland at least until 1962.

Peacock, Alan, ed. The Achievement of Brian Friel. Gerrard’s Cross, England: Colin Smythe, 1994. A broad collection of sixteen essays from scholars and theater professionals on Friel’s breadth and sympathy of interest and on his dramaturgical creations, including Dancing at Lughnasa.

Rich, Frank. “A Drama of Language [Dancing].” The New York Times, October 25, 1991, C1. A very favorable review of the New York production in which Rich concludes, “let us dance and dream just before night must fall.”


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide