Places: Dancing at Lughnasa

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1990

First produced: 1990

Type of work: Drama

Type of plot: Psychological realism

Time of work: Summer, 1936

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places DiscussedMundy home

Mundy Dancing at Lughnasahome. Typical rural Irish farm house of the 1930’s, with a kitchen serving as a general living and working area. Not just the cooking but all domestic tasks take place here, including the knitting Agnes and Rose sell to a local merchant. The wireless radio, which the sisters have dubbed “Marconi” after the name on its front, occupies a key position; also visible are an iron range, a sturdy table, an oil lamp, and buckets for well water by the back door. As the stage directions note, these austere furnishings are mitigated by flowers, curtains, and other items. The front door opens onto a garden, underscoring the grace with which the five women eke out a living.


Ballybeg. Literally “Smalltown” in Irish, Ballybeg is the village just outside of which lies the Mundy household. Brian Friel has made Ballybeg a symbolic Irish “everytown” in several of his plays, often using it, as he does here, as a microcosm for Irish society at various points in the country’s history. As Michael says in his opening monologue, these few weeks in August, 1936, produced in him an unease, a sense of things rapidly changing. Ballybeg, then, marks the threshold between childhood innocence and adult experience for Michael. Similarly, it marks the line between two eras of modern Irish life, as the family dissolves after the sisters lose their respective livelihoods to factory mass production or to the dwindling number of students at the village school.


*Donegal. County in western Ireland; remote even by rural standards, it is one of the last places to benefit from the electrification of the country and part of the Gaeltacht, or Irish-speaking region. It is known for its rough beauty, with wilderness or backwater associations, hence the lingering customs of Lughnasa, the harvest festival honoring the pagan deity Lugh. These agrarian rituals at the village’s margins are set against the approaching changes to small village life, just as the Mundy sisters’ first wireless radio represents the encroachment of the wider world upon their lives in the mid-1930’s.

BibliographyDantanus, Ulf. Brian Friel: The Growth of an Irish Dramatist. London: Faber, 1987. A thorough appraisal of Friel’s work and themes through 1986.Foster, Roy. “Pleasing the Local Gods: Dancing at Lughnasa.” Times Literary Supplement, October 26, 1990, 1152. A very favorable review of the London production, in which it is claimed that the play is about “ceremonies of innocence against a background of encroaching despair.” For Foster, the essentials are not dancing but “mental retardation, illegitimacy, priestly social control, economic decline, and, eventually, emigration and destitution.”Lahr, John. “Brian Friel’s Blind Faith.” The New Yorker 70 (October 17, 1994): 107-110. With a full-page photograph of Friel, explores his work up to 1994 and sympathetically fits Dancing at Lughnasa into its context: Dancing becomes “a means of approaching the nonsectarian religions.”MacNeil, Maire. The Festival of Lughnasa. Dublin: University College, 1982. Situates the pagan harvest festival in its European context, surviving as it did in Ireland at least until 1962.Peacock, Alan, ed. The Achievement of Brian Friel. Gerrard’s Cross, England: Colin Smythe, 1994. A broad collection of sixteen essays from scholars and theater professionals on Friel’s breadth and sympathy of interest and on his dramaturgical creations, including Dancing at Lughnasa.Rich, Frank. “A Drama of Language [Dancing].” The New York Times, October 25, 1991, C1. A very favorable review of the New York production in which Rich concludes, “let us dance and dream just before night must fall.”
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