Dancing at Lughnasa

by Brian Friel

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How does Brian Friel shift focus from language to non-linguistic expressions in Dancing at Lughnasa?

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In Dancing at Lughnasa, Brian Friel goes beyond language to focus on music and dance, and on the atmosphere they evoke. He conveys the multi-faceted importance of ritual and performance both as local tradition in Lughnasa and in the context of communicating with the wider world. The latter are represented by the newly introduced radio and Uncle Jack’s knowledge of Uganda.

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Located in a small Irish town in the 1930s, Dancing at Lughnasa conveys one man’s memories of what happened as the rural, Catholic region gained awareness of the world at large. Speaking from the vantage point decades later, the protagonist Michael is delving into his rich, complicated memories of the Great Depression. What the older adult Michael knows, which the child and townspeople did not was that the events of those year were a preamble to the massive disruption that would soon come with World War Two. Kate foreshadows this with her sense of the fragility of their way of life, in which “hair cracks are appearing everywhere.…”

Michael speaks openly of his nostalgia for the old times as a “memory atmosphere … [in which] everything is simultaneously actual and illusory.” For him, this atmosphere is closely tied to the popular music of the time. Both their unawareness of upcoming change and the importance of performance is symbolized by the song “Dancing in the Dark.”

The new radio in the Mundy home is both a literal means of introducing the music and, as an item of purchased, modern technology, a symbol of the massive changes that are beginning.

Two contrasting aspects of tradition involve non-linguistic media. One is the local, pre-Christian or pagan ritual at Lughnasa. In addition, the character of Jack brings a different approach to cultural and religious expression. Returning from Uganda, he brings music, dance, and rituals associated with the culture and religion of a distant land. The villagers’ worldview identifies anything other than Catholic as “pagan,” and his sisters long for him to return to traditional Catholic practices.

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