Brian Friel

Dancing At Lughnasa

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  • Features 2 chapter summaries and 5 sections of expert analysis
  • Written by a college professor with an MFA in Creative Writing
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Dancing At Lughnasa Summary and Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 31-page guide for “Dancing At Lughnasa” by Brian Friel includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 2 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like Paganism vs Catholicism and Change and Precarity.

Plot Summary

Dancing at Lughnasa is a two-act play by Irish dramatist Brian Friel. The play debuted in 1990 and received many accolades, including several Tony Awards. It was also adapted into a 1998 feature film directed by Pat O’Connor.

Dancing at Lughnasa is set during the summer of 1936 in the Irish town of Ballybeg. Though a fictional town, Ballybeg contains many similarities to Glenties, in County Donegal, where Friel lived until he was ten years old. In keeping with its autobiographical strains, Dancing at Lughnasa is framed as a memory play. The play’s action takes place in the past, pausing for intermittent reflection from a man, Michael Evans. Michael recounts his childhood from a present-day perspective, musing on numerous events we never see played out on the stage.

At the beginning of the first act, an adult Michael narrates his memories of the summer of 1936, when he was seven years old. That summer, Michael lived in a cottage in the small town of Ballybeg, Ireland, with his mother, Christina, and four aunts—Kate, Maggie, Rose, and Agnes. The sisters serve different functions within the household; Maggie runs the house, Rose and Agnes knit gloves to sell in town, and Kate works outside the home as a schoolteacher. The sisters are unmarried, though all have had potential suitors. Christina receives irregular visits from Michael’s father, Gerry, a charming but unreliable wanderer who works odd jobs in various locations.

Michael explains that this was the summer the family got their first wireless Marconi radio, allowing them to receive music from Dublin. This was also the summer the women’s brother, Jack, returned home from Uganda, where he had been working as a missionary in a leper colony for the past twenty-five years. Michael notes that in his memory, Jack’s return feels connected to the radio. Likewise, the Marconi radio serves as a kind of metaphorical stand-in for Jack’s condition. The frail signal mimic Jack’s malaria-sick body, and the irregular spasms of music align with his own unpredictable spurts of memory. When he arrives, Jack seems to have forgotten his sister’s names and some words in the English language, since he is accustomed to speaking Swahili. He also appears to have foregone the family’s Catholic faith and adopted the theological beliefs of tribes in Africa.

In Act One, the sisters express their desire to attend the harvest dance at the annual Festival of Lughnasa, a pagan celebration of the harvest. The staunchly Catholic Kate forbids them from going, complaining that Ballybeg is in a frenzy over the festival. The women wax fondly over old and potential suitors and erupt into dance when Marconi plays an Irish dance song. Michael’s father, Gerry, arrives at the house, and Christina talks with him in the garden. Gerry tells Christina he will come back to marry her in two weeks, but Christina is wary of his promise. They dance in the garden while the other sisters look on. Kate denounces Gerry in a foreboding moment, sensing that “it’s all about to collapse” (35). A present-day Michael confirms the foreboding atmosphere, explaining that Kate lost her teaching job soon after because the parish priest was suspicious of Jack’s paganism. Michael says that although Kate was right about a lot of things, she was wrong about Gerry not wanting to marry his mother. He reveals that the two never had a formal wedding but were married in spirit.

The second act begins two weeks later, in early September. Jack’s health has improved, but he remains fixated on his time in Africa. Gerry reveals that he has thought about his future and wants to join an international brigade to fight in the Spanish Civil War. Christina tells Kate that the buyer who works with Agnes and Rose will no longer accept their gloves, as a new glove factory has opened in town. Though the buyer urges Rose and Agnes to apply for work in the factory, they decide to leave home instead. Michael later learns that the sisters moved to London, where they became homeless. He reveals that Gerry was injured in Barcelona and eventually stopped visiting Christina. He also reveals that Jack died of a heart attack, Kate went to work as a tutor, and Christina worked in the glove factory. Michael says the spirit of the house died with the absences of Rose, Agnes, and Jack, and that he left home as soon as he was old enough. The play ends with a tableau of the family, drifting in an ethereal dance as Michael reflects that in memory, “everything is simultaneously actual and illusory” (71).

Dancing at Lughnasa explores themes of Catholicism versus paganism, pleasure versus responsibility, change versus nostalgia, and economic uncertainty. The play also explores the tension between two opposing forces: the world of duty, morality, and responsibility (aligned with Catholicism), and the escapist world of music, dance, and fantasy (aligned with paganism). While Kate represents the former, the other family members gravitate toward the latter, as a source of relief and release from their otherwise troubled lives.


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Act I