© 2019 by M. Keith Booker

First staged at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, a venue closely associated with the Irish Nationalist movement, Dancing at Lughnasa can be taken as a gesture of reconciliation and solidarity on the part of playwright Brian Friel, whose work has typically been associated with the Field Day Theatre of Northern Ireland. Further, the action of the play takes place in the complex environment of County Donegal, which is the northernmost county in Ireland, but which is part of the Republic of Ireland, not a part of Northern Ireland, which is to its east.[1] Dancing at Lughnasa is a nimble and innovative bit of modern stagecraft that soon also enjoyed successful runs in London and New York. Clearly, many of the themes with which the play deals—love, memory, loss, and the conflict between tradition and modernity—are of broad interest. However, it is also an extremely Irish work that is strongly rooted in the events of Irish history and can only be fully understood within the context of that history.

Dancing at Lughnasa is a “memory play”—a term coined by American dramatist Tennessee Williams to describe his 1944 play The Glass Menagerie. In essence, the events depicted on stage take place only in the mind of the narrator, Michael Evans, who is recalling (from some unspecified moment in the future, when Michael is an adult) a moment from his childhood in rural Ireland in August, 1936, when he was seven years old. The adult Michael, who is seen on stage, occasionally comments on the events to the audience, including filling them in on details concerning what will happen to the various characters after the time dramatized in the play. He also speaks the part of the child Michael, who is never actually seen on stage by the audience but is clearly present to the other characters, who speak to him as if he were there, while the adult narrator supplies the voice of the boy speaking to the other characters.[2]

As in much modern drama (Waiting for Godot, by the Irish playwright Samuel Beckett, is probably the leading example), very little of consequence actually occurs within play. Instead, the (non)events of the play are used to comment on a broader context, in this case the very specific historical context of 1936 Ireland. In addition, the narration supplied by Michael complicates this situation still further by supplying information about events not actually dramatized on stage. The play is set in the Mundy household, where five sisters—Kate, Maggie, Agnes, Rose, and Chris—struggle to get by during hard economic times. Michael, Chris’s son, lives with them. In a situation that would be considered highly scandalous in a 1930s Ireland in the grip of a strict and repressive Catholic theocracy, Michael was born out of wedlock. His father, Gerry Evans, is a somewhat irresponsible young Welshman who drops by only occasionally (including twice during the play) and barely knows the boy, though he maintains a rather flirtatious relationship with Chris, much to the disapproval of her sisters, especially the rather righteous Kate. The Mundy household has also been recently augmented by the arrival of their older brother, Father Jack, a Catholic priest whose respected position in the Church has provided some protection for the household, despite the presence of an unwed mother and her son. Jack, a former chaplain in the British Army in East Africa during World War I, had actually been in East Africa as a Catholic missionary since before the war, returning to his work in a leper colony in the village of Ryanga in colonial Uganda after the war and staying there until just before the events of the play. He seems to be in a state of great confusion as the play begins, though his failing memory seems to be improving, as is the malaria he contracted in Africa. He has been sent back to Ireland by the Church for unspecified reasons that might be related to his health but that are probably more related to the fact that he seems to have abandoned his Catholic faith; rather than attempting to convert the local Africans to Catholicism, he seems himself to have been largely converted to African customs (and even religion).

Colonialism and Politics in Dancing at Lughnasa

Dancing at Lughnasa takes place in postcolonial Ireland, the majority of which is, in 1936, an independent state free of British rule. However, as Patrick Mason emphasizes, independence has hardly equated to liberation for the Irish people, who are now in the grip of a repressive regime headed by Eamon de Valera that borrows many of its attitudes and tactics from the fascists in continental Europe, justifying and enforcing them with the support of a Catholic Church eager to maintain its power over the lives of the Irish people. The play evokes an Irish past that predates British rule and of the possibilities that this past contains energies that might be of use in the present. Those energies have, however, been largely suppressed: “If Lughnasa speaks to us of an Ireland that was, and of the tantalizing possibility of transcendence beyond words, it also speaks to us of the tyrannies of the De Valera dispensation” (Mason 45).

The Catholic Mundy household is one with nationalist sympathies, despite Jack’s former service in the British military. In one of the few direct mentions of the colonial past in the play, Michael’s narration informs us that Jack’s service is, in fact, never spoken of in the household, given that Kate “had been involved locally in the War of Independence” (8). The Mundys as a whole, then, are presumably pleased to be free of British rule. However, independence from British rule has not, as of 1936, brought anything like economic prosperity to Ireland—though of course all of the capitalist economies of the West were mired in a deep economic Depression at the time, with the exception of Nazi Germany and, to a lesser extent, fascist Italy, which were beginning to experience an economic boom. This economic upswing was no doubt one of the reasons why many in Ireland (including the poet William Butler Yeats, otherwise a staunch opponent of de Valera’s Catholic-dominated regime) found the extreme policies of the fascists to be attractive—one of the key reasons why Ireland did not join the Allies in the war against fascism in World War II. In any case, economic hardship is very much a part of daily life in the Mundy household, as the sisters struggle to put food on the table and to keep clothes on their backs from one day to the next. Agnes and Rose work at home making hand-knitted gloves, which they sell in the nearby town of Ballybeg. The principal household income comes from the work of Kate, the eldest sister, who works as a teacher in the nearby National School, which is, of course, run by the Catholic Church. We learn in the play that she will eventually lose her position in the school, with a hint that the loss is because Father Jack’s fall from grace with the Church no longer provides protection from the disapproval of the Mundy household due to the presence of Michael, but now instead provides still another source of scandal.

This information provides a direct suggestion of the repressive nature of life in Ireland during the Catholic-dominated 1930s. Meanwhile, this repression is also subtly linked to fascism.Early in the play, Rose bursts spontaneously into song, singing

Will you come to Abyssinia, will you come?

Bring your own cup and saucer and a bun …

Mussolini will be there with his airplanes in the air,

Will you come to Abyssinia, will you come? (3)

Rose here, though she is herself only vaguely aware of the actual events involved, is referring to the invasion of Ethiopia by fascist Italy (under the leadership of Benito Mussolini) in October of 1935. This invasion resulted in the Second Italo-Abyssinian War, which was a war of pure colonial conquest on the part of the Italians and a major prelude to World War II.

Maggie, hearing Rose, constructs her own impromptu version of the song, with the same tune:

Will you vote for De Valera, will you vote?

If you don’t we’ll be like Gandhi with his goat. (4)

Maggie’s seemingly innocent and silly song is, in fact, one of the play’s most telling moments. For one thing, Maggie seems completely unaware that, by converting Rose’s song about Mussolini into a song about de Valera, she is suggesting that the two are parallel figures, thus associating de Valera not only with fascism but with Italy’s colonialist invasion of Ethiopia. Thus, while she seems to want to figure de Valera in her song as a figure of opposition to colonialism, she in fact does just the opposite.

The key to unpacking Maggie’s two-line song resides in the second line, which refers to famed Indian anti-colonial activist Mahatma Gandhi (1869–1948), perhaps the single most prominent figure in the entire history of resistance to British colonial rule. Gandhi was known for his fondness for goat’s milk and sometimes carried a goat with him on his travels in order to have access to fresh milk. However, this fact alone does not seem to explain this line in Maggie’s song. To understand that line, one needs to be aware of the 1932 American “Looney Tunes” cartoon “I Love a Parade,” which takes its title from the 1931 American song of the same title. The cartoon is built around a circus and presents a series of comical versions of various acts, many of them overtly racist—as when one of the acts on display, “Jo Jo the Wild Man” is a clear caricature of the supposed savagery of native Africans. The most relevant “act” in the circus, however, is the one presented in the cartoon as “The Skinny Man from India,” who is obviously a caricature of Gandhi, accompanied by a barrage of Orientalist stereotypes. “Gandhi” sits in a version of his typical garb (often described in the West as a “diaper”) playing a stereotypical Indian snake charmer’s flute. Instead of a snake, however, he is accompanied by a goat, which merrily dances a version of an Indian belly dance as Gandhi plays.

Reading Maggie’s song within the context of this cartoon casts a great deal of light on its significance. In a classic case of misrecognition and misunderstanding, Maggie appears to regard Gandhi and his dancing goat as the antithesis of what the Irish should seek to be; silly and ineffectual in his opposition to British colonial rule in India, he might as well be idly playing music for his dancing goat. De Valera, on the other hand, is presented by Maggie as the antithesis of Gandhi, as a strong anticolonial (and now postcolonial) leader whom Irish voters should continue to support because of the role he played in winning Irish independence from British rule. From the point of view of 1936 Donegal County, it is easy to see how Maggie would feel this way. But Friel, from the point of view of 1990 Ireland, could no doubt see that she has it exactly backward. By 1947, Gandhi’s campaign of nonviolent resistance to British rule (which later became the inspiration for the tactics employed by Dr. Martin Luther King in the American civil rights movement of the 1960s) had been so successful that India had won full independence, while in 1936 an Ireland freed of domination by the British Empire via years of violence now found itself thoroughly in the grip of a Catholic theocracy.

Within the context of the play, the cartoon’s musical “Gandhi” and his dancing goat (while offensively presented as figures of derisive fun in the cartoon and while having almost nothing to do with the ascetic Gandhi of the real world) clearly represent forces of liveliness and vitality that parallel the moment in the play when the sisters all dance, freeing energies that are normally repressed in their Catholic culture. The somber de Valera, of course, is the chief figure working in opposition to these energies in 1936 Ireland. Once again, then, Maggie inadvertently aligns herself against her own best interests—with the allegorical suggestion that the Irish people have long had a history of doing much the same thing.

Meanwhile, the Second Italo-Abyssinian War (1936–1939) was almost exactly contemporaneous with the Spanish Civil War, that other great prelude to World War II, in which the Spanish fascist forces were strongly backed by the German Nazis and Italian fascists, who thus rehearsed the expansionist policies that would ultimately ravage the European continent. Interestingly, the Spanish Civil War also plays an important role in Dancing at Lughnasa, where we learn that Gerry has just decided to sign up to join the International Brigade of volunteers and to travel to Spain to fight against fascism. It’s a noble gesture, but one gets the sense that, for Gerry, it is something of a lark and that he really doesn’t know what he’s getting into. He is only vaguely aware of the actual political situation in Spain, for example, and has decided to sign up based on a vague sense that the republicans are the good guys and the fascists the bad guys, though he is unable to articulate why he thinks that is the case. The stodgy and pious Kate, of course, disapproves of his decision, noting that “it’s a sorry day for Ireland when we send young men off to Spain to fight for godless Communism” (52). Perhaps without realizing it, the ultra-Catholic Kate here provides a reminder of the fact that the Catholic Church was strongly aligned with the fascists in Spain, especially after republican-instituted reforms there began to challenge the traditional power of the church, which resembled the power that the church was exerting in de Valera’s Ireland.

The fact that Father Jack has spent a quarter of a century in East Africa also carries political resonances, serving as a reminder of the presence of British colonial rule there during that period. Meanwhile, his positive vision of the indigenous culture of traditional African societies serves as a subtle reminder that, within the context of the British Empire, the Irish have historically played the role of the colonized Other and thus in many ways have more in common with the seemingly foreign Ugandans whom Jack has met in Africa than with the British rulers who brought Jack there in the first place. Moreover, while traditional African culture has survived and still seems able to exert a strong influence, traditional Irish culture, in the wake of centuries of English domination, has largely been destroyed.

Traditional Irish culture in the play is represented primarily by the pagan ritual of Lughnasa (or Lughnasadh) an annual fertility festival dedicated to Lugh, the Celtic god of the sun and fertility. The festival, though it no longer carries the ritual importance it once did, is still celebrated even today. In fact, a Lughnasa festival is underway near Ballybeg at the time Michael recalls in the play and provides important background to the action of the play. The Mundys are a nominally pious Catholic family and so do not participate in the raucous festival. In fact, Kate expresses absolute contempt for the festival and its participants: “And they’re savages. I know those people from the back hills! … Savages—that’s what they are! And what pagan practices they have are no concern of ours—none whatever! It’s a sorry day to hear talk like that in a Christian home, a Catholic home!” (17). Interestingly enough, however, the activities of the Mundys parallel those of the festival to a surprising extent, which involves a number of activities (such as dancing and blackberry-picking) in which the Mundys engage in the play, even as they nominally reject the festival. The festival, while archaic in many ways, is tied to basic human needs and desires that are being repressed in modern Catholic Ireland.

Tradition and Modernity

Like much modern literature, Dancing at Lughnasa pivots around an opposition between tradition and modernity. Unlike much modern literature, however, the play presents this opposition as being far more complicated than a simple polar opposition. The crucial emblem of modernity in the play is the newly-acquired Marconi radio set that is one of few luxuries owned by the sisters. It does bring some brightness into their grim lives by piping music into a house otherwise free of entertainments. The household was, in the summer of 1936, “obsessed” with the radio, as Michael notes in his opening narration (1). We also learn, from Gerry, that 1936 Ireland is “gramophone crazy,” indicating the extent to which technologically-generated music is sweeping the country (28). Indeed, the sisters, over Kate’s objection, even name the set “Marconi,”[3] though Rose would prefer to name it “Lugh,” suggesting that she sees little difference between the modern energies produced by the radio and the pagan energies of the Lughnasa festival. In a more judgmental way, Kate makes the same connection. When Maggie starts to sing “The Isle of Capri,”[4] Kate scoffs, “If you knew your prayers as well as you know the words of those aul pagan songs!” (35). She thus lumps the quite contemporary song “The Isle of Capri” in with the kind of ancient pagan music that one might expect to hear at the Lughnasa festival.

Not all of the music broadcast on the radio in the play is new. In fact, the most important impact of the radio on the play occurs in an early moment in which a bit of traditional Irish fiddle music, “The Mason’s Apron,” begins to play, sending all five sisters (even Kate) into a joyous frenzy of raucous dancing. As an inserted commentary[5] notes,

With this loud music, this pounding beat, this shouting—calling—singing, this parodic reel, there is a sense of order being consciously subverted, of the women consciously and crudely caricaturing themselves, indeed of near-hysteria being induced. (22)

Noting that Lugh has affinities with Dionysus, the Greek god of winemaking, fertility, ritual madness, and religious ecstasy, Robert Tracy sees this as a Dionysian moment that links the dancing of the sisters to the pagan energies of the Lughnasa festival, and thus to those of ancient Greek culture. Indeed, Tracy suggests that Dancing at Lughnasa is, in fact, “a partial adaptation of Euripides Bacchae” (406). Unfortunately, this eruption of energy into the otherwise austere lives of the sisters is short-lived. The radio set suddenly goes dead, and the dancing stops, leading a frustrated Chris to declare that the set is “bloody useless” (22). Kate, meanwhile, chides Chris for her “corner-boy language” (22). After a momentary eruption of carnivalesque energies, things have returned to normal in the Mundy household.

It is also normal, apparently, for the Mundys’ unreliable radio set to malfunction; the characters struggle with it throughout the play, able to receive broadcasts only intermittently. The implication seems to be clear: modernity has come to Ireland, but only in a partial and degraded way. Modern technology does offer some improvements to the lives of the Mundys, but their marginal position in relation to this technology means that these improvements will be meager at best. The marginal modernity of 1936 Ireland also helps to explain the play’s deconstruction of the opposition between the ancient pagan culture represented by the Lughnasa festival (and by the dance engaged in by the five sisters) and the modern culture represented by the music beamed into the Mundy home via radio. In an Ireland that can’t seem to let go of the past, antiquity is still part of the present; an Ireland that is not fully modernized is not prepared to receive the popular culture of the present day as something fundamentally different from the pagan culture of the past.

One effect of innovations such as the radio is that the Mundys have an increased awareness of and sense of connection to the world outside of County Donegal, though from what we see in the play, this exposure consists primarily of music of various kinds. Even this connection has important broader implications, however. At one point, for example, the temperamental set suddenly spews out a few seconds of “The British Grenadier,” a traditional British military song, thus providing a reminder of the colonial past. Much of the music with which the characters are familiar seems to be American, providing a reminder of the way in which American music is beginning to exert more and more of a presence around the globe, especially in Ireland, with its extensive cultural connections to America given the legacy of Irish immigration there.

The most prominent example of American music in the play is the song “Anything Goes,” the title song of a 1934 Broadway musical by Cole Porter, perhaps the most important American songwriter of the 1930s. It comes on the radio late in the play, and then Gerry sings along as he convinces Agnes to dance with him. It’s a transgressive dance, given Gerry’s relationship with Chris, and Chris clearly isn’t pleased. When Gerry invites Chris to replace Agnes as his partner, she refuses. When Maggie steps in instead, Chris angrily switches off the radio, which has now become a source of discord among the sisters.

It is clear, as he sings along, that Gerry knows the song well, which is perhaps not all that surprising given that he travels around quite a bit (and given that he is now working as a gramophone salesman). But is also clear, given that the song is playing on Irish radio, that American songs such as “Anything Goes” have become a part of the day-to-day culture of 1930s Ireland, suggesting the extent to which American popular culture is already beginning to circulate internationally. It is, however, a very American song, filled with contemporary materials, beginning with a reference to the Puritans and their landing on Plymouth rock. But it is also a song about modernity and about how the Puritans would be shocked if they could see the America of the 1930s. Now, says the song, ‘‘Stead of landing on Plymouth Rock, / Plymouth Rock would land on them.”[6]

The song goes on to describe a litany of new transgressive developments in American culture, including the following lines that are sung by Gerry:

In olden days, a glimpse of stocking

Was looked on as something shocking.

Anything goes.

Good authors, too, who once knew better words

Now only use four-letter words

Writing prose.

Anything goes.

If driving fast cars you like,

If low bars you like,

If old hymns you like,

If bare limbs you like,

If Mae West you like,

Or me undressed you like,

Why, nobody will oppose.

When ev’ry night the set that’s smart is in-

Truding in nudist parties in


Anything goes.

The actual song includes many more details, including references to the Great Depression and to the way in which it has caused a topsy-turvy world in which the once-wealthy are now poor, adding to the chaos of modernity. As the song puts it,

The world has gone mad today

And good’s bad today,

And black’s white today,

And day’s night today.

Mostly, though, the song is a catalog of examples of the decline of traditional morals in the modern world, leading to an acceptance of public nudity, obscenity in literature (the song was written in the same year that Ulysses was finally allowed into the U.S.), and risqué films— such as those featuring the actress Mae West, who had just had her biggest screen hit, the telling-titled I’m No Angel (1933) the year before the song was written. West is a perfect image for the message of the song. Her work in film, radio, and other media was highly controversial; it drew considerable protests but also made her by 1936 the highest-paid woman in America, earning more than any other American except the newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst (Jill Watts 206). West’s success, despite numerous scandals, indicated that American society was becoming less Puritanical and more accepting of new modes of expression, especially with regard to sexuality, which is very much the subject of “Anything Goes.” In addition to her films and work in other media, West was known for the convention-defying nature of her personal life. For example, When the Hollywood apartment building in which she lived in 1935 banned her African American boyfriend from entering the premises, she responded to this racist action by buying the building so that he could enter freely (Jill Watts 207).

A few moments later, Gerry reprises the song, without radio accompaniment, this time performing it in imitation of Charlie Chaplin’s famous “Tramp” character (though Chaplin is not mentioned in the song), further strengthening the ties between the American film industry and the moral situation described in the song, at the same time (because of Chaplin’s English roots) providing a reminder that the situation described in the song is a global one, not limited to America, though it might be most advanced there. In this sense, it is worth noting that the song also mentions movie magnate Sam Goldwyn and his attempts to mold imported Ukrainian actress Anna Sten into an American film star, further indicating the beginnings of globalization in the film industry.[7]

Importantly, while expressing a certain amount of mock outrage at the decline of moral values in the modern world, “Anything Goes” is a lively and humorous song that is ultimately meant more as a parody of conservative moral outrage than as a cry of protest against the decline in modern morality. Conservative moral outrage was, of course, the order of the day in de Valera’s 1930s Ireland, so this song, with its subtext of endorsing the new moral order of modernity, can be taken as an implicit critique of the moral conservatism of 1930s Ireland, a conservatism that was preventing Ireland from fully entering the modern world. The behavior of the sisters, as when they attempt to enact good conservative Catholic values but find themselves drawn to the Dionysian energies of song and dance, suggests that the moral repression of the de Valera regime (with its strict censorship laws and its outlawing of contraception) is contrary to nature and ultimately unhealthy.

It is, of course, telling that the free-spirited Gerry—who is not Irish—seems to be the character in the play who most fully accepts the new moral order. And the fact that he is depicted as being somewhat immature and irresponsible suggests that there is a definite downside to this new order. There is, nevertheless, an inevitability to the triumph of modernity. Despite the repressive practices of the de Valera regime, modernity (via media such as the radio) nevertheless leaks in, and attempts to build a conservative Catholic state based on traditional Catholic moral principles, enforced by the rule of law, were clearly doomed to fail, while in the meantime providing numerous obstacles to the modernization of Ireland.

Indeed, the play implies that one effect of de Valera’s social policies was to ensure that only the worst aspects of modernity would intrude into Ireland in full force.In one of the flashforwards provided by Michael in his narration, we learn that the opening of a modern glove factory in Ireland has deprived Agnes and Rose of the income they had made from knitting gloves, because they cannot possibly compete with the less expensive products produced by the factory. As Michael puts it in his narration, “The Industrial Revolution had finally caught up with Ballybeg” (59). This event, combined with Kate’s loss of her job as a schoolteacher, propels Agnes and Rose into dire circumstances, indeed. Michael’s retrospective narration informs us that, by the beginning of the 1960s, they had moved to London in search of work, then struggled in various menial jobs while living in parks and on the streets, until Agnes was dead of exposure and Rose was dying in a hospice. Chris, meanwhile, is forced to take a job in the factory and works there for the remainder of her life, hating every minute. In fact, while the 1930s were a time of great hardship for the Mundys, it is a time that Michael recalls fondly as the moment before all the life left the household. His narration clearly portrays the 1930s as an opportunity missed, as a time when things might have gone in a different direction but instead went in a bad direction indeed—for the Mundys and for Ireland.

Dancing at Lughnasa was written and originally staged in a 1990 Ireland that had still not recovered from the missed opportunities of the 1930s and that was still struggling with many of the economic and political problems that plague its characters. Indeed, one of the chief implications of the play is that the Irish, while bemoaning the loss of the past, never seem to get beyond it. One of the great ironies of the play, however, is that it was produced in an Ireland that was on the verge of tremendous changes that would finally propel Ireland fully into the modern world, creating in Ireland one of the highest standards of living in the entire world and producing political reforms that would finally take Ireland beyond the repression of the past. The success of these changes seems to bear out Friel’s indictment of the 1930s, even as Ireland continues to face important problems, such as the partition of the country.


[1] Friel was born and grew up in Northern Ireland. However, his mother was from Country Donegal, near the town of Glenties. The setting of the play is based on her family home, just as the Mundy sisters in the play are based on her sisters.

[2] This aspect of the play is missing in the 1998 film adaptation, scripted by Irish playwright Frank McGuiness. Here, the action is simply presented in a straightforward manner, as it occurs, with only a brief bit of Michael’s voiceover narration (speaking from the perspective of many years later) appended to the action. Otherwise, the film is relatively faithful to the play, though many of the details concerning Irish politics in the 1930s have been removed.

[3] “Marconi” is taken from the brand name of the radio, which is itself derived from the name of Guglielmo Marconi (1874–1937), the founder of the company (Marconi’s Wireless Telegraph Company) that makes the radio. This company was one of the principal forces behind the founding of the BBC. Marconi is widely considered to be the inventor of the modern radio. His company also founded the world’s first radio factory in Chelmsford, England, in 1898. The Mundys set would have been manufactured in England.

[4] “The Isle of Capri” became popular in 1934, especially in Britain, where it was recorded by a number of English performers, including the bandleaders Lew Stone and Ray Noble and the very popular actress/singer Gracie Fields. Interestingly, the music to this song was composed by Austrian composer Wilhelm Grosz (who had fled to Britain because of the rise of a new fascist-leaning government in Austria), while the lyrics were composed by Northern Irish lyricist Jimmy Kennedy.

[5] In addition to Michael’s spoken narration, the play also includes stage directions that sometimes provide commentary on the action. These inserted comments are presented in italics.

[6] The African American activist Malcolm X famously used a version of this line in a speech that he gave at New York’s Audubon Ballroom on March 29, 1964. Referring to the way in which African Americans were originally brought to America on slave ships rather than in search of freedom, Malcolm noted that “We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock. The rock landed on us.”

[7] Several American film stars are mentioned in the course of Dancing at Lughnasa, making it clear that the films seen by the Irish in the 1930s were largely American in origin. In addition to West, Sten, and Chaplin, the play refers to several actors who were best known for their performances in movie musicals, including child star Shirley Temple and the famous dance team of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.