Dancing at Lughnasa

by Brian Friel

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Discuss the relationship between individual and collective memory in Dancing at Lughnasa.

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Brian Friel examines both collective memory and individual memory in his play Dancing at Lughnasa.

Friel explores the uses of, and the differing relations to, memory in many different ways throughout the play, from the wistful longing for days gone by, to the struggle to remember things once important that have been lost in the nooks and crannies of the mind (Murphy).

Michael opens the play with the statement:

When I cast my mind back to that summer of 1936 different kinds of memories offer themselves to me (Friel).

We see how the story will be framed through Michael's memory; he is an adult looking back on his childhood. Here we have the individual memory at play. However, he then goes on to explain how the memory of the summer is characterized by the arrival of their first wireless set, as well as the Harvest Festival of Lughnasa. So although the story is filtered through Michael's individual memory, we are getting a glimpse into the collective memory of the Mundy family and the rural Irish people of the time. Places and cultures can hold a collective memory. Friel was inspired to write the play while taking a walk with fellow playwright Thomas Kilroy:

Through the thick dark of the night, the pair heard something familiar to their ears: the lilt of the Irish accents of those impoverished masses. To Friel they represented more than just the result of centuries of colonial oppression; they reminded him of his family (Murphy).

Other memories are addressed throughout the play. The Mundy sisters collectively remember "the old days" of the harvest dance. Kate tells Jack "dozens of people were asking for you . . . Of course they remember you!" Jack, meanwhile, holds memories of both Uganda and their hometown. He also struggles to hold on to these memories. When he enters, he remarks:

I don't recollect the lay-out of this home . . . scarcely. That is strange, isn't it? I thought the front door was there (Friel).

Both collective and individual memory exist in this story of the summer of 1936.

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Brian Friel frames the play through monologues by one character, Michael, who reveals his childhood memories from 1930s small-town Ireland. Music and dancing provide the organizing principle for many of the other characters’s actions. While many of the characters do actually dance together, they also speak about local festivals—which are collective events—at which dancing is a prominent feature. Music and memory are symbolized together by the radio or “wireless”; individual radios in people’s homes were becoming more common at that time, so the idea that everyone could access the same music simultaneously also contributes to collective memory.

Because the whole play is filtered through Michael, however, individual memory is primary; the play is his story. He emphasizes that each “memory” he access is not pegged to a specific “fact.” Rather, he advocates for an “atmosphere” that combines reality with illusion. Looking back at 1936, he says,

what fascinates me about that memory is that it owes nothing to fact. In that memory atmosphere is more real than incident and everything is simultaneously actual and illusory.

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