If we’re not watching Saoirse Ronan star in her latest feature film, we’re quoting Derry Girls from memory or fetishing Connell’s chain and fan-girling over Marian’s fringe from Normal People. While a whimsical notion of Ireland is well established, we are currently in the throes of an especially hibernophilic obsession and though I’m loathe to be one of those nauseating Brits who dig out their long lost ‘Mc’s and ‘O’s in a bid to convince others of their Gaelic roots, a ‘plastic paddy’ as they are disapprovingly branded, I can’t help but share the fascination for all things Irish. Under the spell of this romance with the Emerald Isle and taking no risks with this unusual spell of genial weather, I reached for one of my all-time favourite plays, Dancing at Lughnasa, and headed for the garden.
Brian Friel’s underappreciated treasure is a memory play narrated by the Michael who is reminiscing about his childhood summer of 1936 in County Donegal – incidentally the home of my great-grandparents (sorry – couldn’t resist.) The play focuses on the five Mundy sisters: Chris, Michael’s mother, and Maggie, Agnes, Rose and Kate, his aunts, who have welcomed home their older brother Jack, who has returned to Ballybeg (a fictional town where Friel set many of his plays) from 25 years as a missionary in Africa and is dying of malaria. The play takes place around the festival of Lughnasa, the Celtic harvest festival.
It is one of those rare plays which is as much a joy to read as it is to watch thanks to Friel’s elaborate stage directions and description; his effortlessly authentic and entertaining dialogue and the retrospective narration of Michael which gives the play a quasi-novelistic feel at times. Friel’s wit is awesome: when Uncle Jack calls Maggie “Okawa”, she asks her sisters what it means and is disappointed to find it was the name of his house boy in Uganda: “Dammit” she says, “I thought it was Swahili for gorgeous.” And then there’s the fact that though it is August and she is inside, Rose is always in Wellies and retorts, when her sister asks if her footwear is quite necessary: “I’ve only my wellingtons and my Sunday shoes, Kate. And it’s not Sunday, is it?”
The Mundy sisters, who are all unmarried, exist in a bubble: matriarchal, rustic and cloistered – their sisterhood is the linchpin of the play: a bastion of Michael’s childhood. Despite this, the outside world and modernity are increasingly permeating this bubble: Michael tells us that he always linked the return of Jack from Africa with the arrival of the wireless while Kate excitedly recounts the return of Bernie O’Donnell who is home after 20 years in London. She is now a novelty and an exotic fantasy, “dressed to kill from head to foot. And the hair! – as black and as curly as the day she left!” It reminds me of when James’ mother, Cathy, returns to Derry in Derry Girls having left for London fifteen years before and Aunt Sarah, who waxes lyrical about her having “the best eyebrows in Derry”, is impressed to see she has “kept them eyebrows ship shape.” Bernie O’ Donnell’s twins are, to the Mundy’s amazement, ‘pure blonde’ because their father is from Stockholm (a city of which Rosie is unfamiliar) whilst Michael’s father Gerry is off to fight in the Spanish Civil War. It is the industrial revolution, a threat to the Mundy cottage industry, which is the eventual catalyst for the breakdown of the sisterhood.
There is something electric about the febrility of dwindling summer and Friel capitalises on this in the pagan imagery surrounding Lughnasa. It is another influence which permeates the traditional, Christian Irish Mundy bubble but it is an influence which drifts up from Ireland’s ancient mythical past and from the African spirituality Jack has brought with him, in direct contrast to the waves of modernity which are emitted from the wireless. It is with awesome irony therefore that Friel begins the play with Michael telling the audience that Maggie wanted to call the new wireless ‘Lugh’ after the old Celtic god but was forbidden to do so by pious Kate who felt this would be unchristian. In a striking moment of semi-delirium, the sisters dance together around the wireless, like “frantic dervishes”, but when this spell of “near hysteria” wanes, they are flooded by sheepish embarrassment. It is a parallel to proper Kate quashing their clamours to attend the pagan festival – “I’m only thirty-five. I want to dance” pleads Agnes. They are both moments of ‘dancing at Lughnasa’: ritual before the alien wireless, a technology they recognise has the strange magic of a god, and the familiar yet foreign figure of Ireland’s pagan past in the form of the harvest god. These moments creates a sense of worship, of awe, before the past and the future.
Returning to the play, I realised my mistake: that of seeing the play as quaint and rosy – a tender depiction of rural Irish life. Michael, as an adult narrator, makes the same mistake, acknowledging that his memory of that summer is ‘nostalgic with the music of the thirties.’ Don’t expect unadulterated cosiness, a warm glowing hibernophilic gratification – this is a play with a dark heart: of deceit, of hardship and of loss.