It is 1936 and harvest time in Co. Donegal. In a house just outside the village of Ballybeg live the five Mundy sisters, barely making ends meet. The two male members of the household are brother Jack, a missionary priest, repatriated from Africa by his superiors after twenty-five years, and the seven year old Michael, son of the youngest sister. In depicting two days in the life of this ménage, Friel evokes not simply the interior landscape of a group of human beings trapped in their domestic situation, but the wider landscape, interior and exterior, Christian and pagan, of which they are nonetheless a part!
Performed by Bardic Theatre last night at Derry’s Millennium Theatre, Dancing at Lughnasa enthralled all who attended. A memory play, this tells the story of the five Mundy sisters and their chores within the confines of the home. However as Michael, the narrator says ‘things (are) changing too quickly’. The security is under threat. Forces of paganism, in the stories of Father Jack and in the rumours of the wild happening in the back hills are threatening. Technology is intervening, first with the interfering of Maconi, the radio, and secondly in the opening of the factory in Donegal Town, which eventually destroys the lives of Rose and Agnes. The young Michael senses this unease as his father appears with hollow promises and then fades into his other life.
Dancing at Lughnasa is about music transcending words, longing, and abandonment. It is also about language and the power of silence. The story speaks clearly about the unity of a family and the various difficulties within this community to maintain this unity and harmony. Michael gives us a grim picture of the future of the two sisters Rose and Agnes. The overall vision also shows us how the harmony underlying family life becomes threatened and undermined because of one’s reputation within a community. Community and its power over people is portrayed throughout the story. The girls are ashamed of Jack who clearly has abandoned the practice of orthodox religion. Kate’s reputation as a teacher is endangered because of her brother Jack and she is dismissed from the local school. The need for liberation and self-expression become evident in the many different instances given to us of the characters who each seek self-expression through dance and music.
As Michael says at the end, ‘Dancing as if language no longer existed because words were no longer necessary…..’ . Words were indeed no longer necessary as we saw the devastating result of ‘change’ within this community in early C20th Ireland.
Bardic Theatre presented Friel drama at its best.