Dancing at Lughnasa

If you had to write a play about your childhood, how would you do it? Brian Friel's play, Dancing at Lughnasa (1990), shows how the character of Michael Evans remembers his childhood in the setting of 1930s Donegal. The characters of Friel's play mostly consist of Michael's family, whose characterisations are used to explore themes of religion, family, and Irish culture.

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Table of contents

    Dancing at Lughnasa: play summary

    Dancing at Lughnasa is told by Michael Evans, the play's narrator, from the memories of his childhood. Michael grew up just outside the small fictional town of Ballybeg, Co. Donegal, in Ireland. The play is set during the summer of 1936 when Michael is a young boy.

    Dancing at Lughnasa, a cliff overlooking the Atlantic sea in Donegal, StudySmarterFig. 1 - County Donegal lies to the north of the Republic of Ireland.

    Michael lives with his mother, Christina Mundy, and her four sisters, Kate, Maggie, Rose, and Agnes. All the women are unmarried and often struggle financially. Kate works as a teacher in a local school, while Rose and Agnes knit gloves that they sell in Ballybeg. These are the only two sources of income the Mundy family has. Maggie runs the household with the help of Christina. At the beginning of the play, the town of Ballybeg is excited for the Festival of Lughnasa, which celebrates the beginning of the harvest season.

    All the sisters have had chances at true romance in their lives, but none have been successful. Christina comes closest with Michael's father, Gerry. Gerry is a Welsh travelling salesman who visits irregularly and is wholly unreliable. He tells Christina that he wishes to propose to her, but it is unclear if this plan will come to fruition. As the oldest and often most sceptical sister, Kate casts doubt on this. Michael confirms that the two do get informally married, but Gerry does not stay for long. He has ambitions to go and fight in the Spanish Civil War.

    The Spanish Civil War lasted from 1936 to 1939. It began when conservative and Nationalist rebels attempted to take down the country's Republican government. The rebels were supported by Mussolini's Italy and Hitler's Nazi Germany. On the other side, the government were supported by the Soviet Union and a multitude of foreign volunteers. The civil war was a bloody and brutal conflict.

    Dancing at Lughnasa explores the differences between tradition and modernity. The eldest Mundy sibling and only brother, Father Jack, returns from Uganda, where he has been working as a missionary for many years.

    A missionary is a religious person who travels to a particular country to spread their religious faith.

    Jack is middle-aged and has been struck down by malaria caught while in Uganda. He is frail, and the malaria has led to memory loss. He forgets his own sisters' names, and his ability to speak English also fails him. Jack remembers more of the culture and language of Uganda than of Ireland. This particularly upsets the traditionalist and staunchly Catholic Kate. The family also purchase their first-ever radio in the summer of 1936. It turns on and off at will, bringing sporadic outbursts of energetic and modern music into the Mundy household.

    Malaria is a disease spread by parasites often found in mosquitoes. These infected mosquitoes bite humans and spread malaria. The symptoms of malaria are flu-like, including fevers and chills. The disease can sometimes be fatal.

    The already dire financial circumstances of the Mundy family take a turn for the worst. Kate loses her teaching job because of rumours that Jack now believes in the Ugandan pagan faith. In a small and religious community, this taints the whole family. Agnes and Rose's glove-making business falls apart as a glove factory opens in Ballybeg. They are encouraged to work in the factory but refuse, instead leaving for London and ending up homeless.

    Gerry, injured in a motorcycle accident in Spain, stops visiting Christina and Jack dies from a heart attack despite recovering from malaria. Only Kate, Christina, and Maggie remain in the Mundy family home. Kate takes a tutoring job, and Christina works in the glove factory. Michael reveals that he left home as soon as possible when he was old enough because the house lost its soul once most of its inhabitants left.

    Dancing at Lughnasa: characters

    Dancing at Lughnasa has a tight-knit community of characters, the majority of whom are related. Below is a table of key figures in the text.

    CharacterExplanationKey traits
    Michael EvansAn adult Michael, is the narrator of the play. His child self does not appear physically but is continually referred to. Michael's father is absent, but he has an abundance of love in his life from his mother and aunts. As a child, Michael is carefree, shown to be playing while the adults in the Mundy home fret over love and finances. The adult Michael gives the audience a narration in hindsight, explaining events with full knowledge of how they will end. Observant, playful, youthful.
    Kate MundyKate is the eldest Mundy sister and the breadmaker of the home. She is staunchly Catholic and judges those who don't adhere to her views. Kate plays a maternal role in the play, taking care of others. She despises anything pagan and is wedded to tradition. She also cares deeply about the family's reputation in Ballybeg.Conservative, religious, old-fashioned.
    Maggie MundyMaggie is the loudest and most outgoing Mundy sibling. She is responsible for the family's domestic duties. Maggie is sharp and humorous, diffusing any argument with jokes. This also makes her the peacemaker of the Mundy family. However, there are hints that Maggie has a lot of wasted potential that will never be realised as a woman in this society.Humorous, light-hearted, strong.
    Agnes MundyAgnes is the most quiet and reserved Mundy sister. She does not participate in the joking and boisterousness that everyone else does. However, Agnes also knows her own mind, standing up for what she believes to be right. When the sisters share a carefree moment of dancing in the kitchen, Agnes initiates it. She also dedicates her life to caring for Rose.Quiet, principled, dedicated.
    Rose MundyRose has a learning disability and is therefore looked after with great care by her sisters. They wish for no harm to come to her and for no one to abuse her open and kind nature. For a time, Rose is taken advantage of by a married man. However, she also shows her independence, standing up to Kate's domineering ways. Rose is additionally a skilled craftsperson.Innocent, open, strong.
    Christina MundyChristina is Michael's mother. She is in love with Gerry Evans. Her moods greatly depend on Gerry; she is overjoyed when he is there and deeply sad when he is gone. Gerry's unreliability only exacerbates this. Christina does not work, staying at home to care for Michael and help Maggie with the upkeep of the home. However, Christina sometimes feels guilty for not being able to give Michael everything she wishes because she is an unemployed single mother. She clearly has an unconditional love for her son.Loving, independent, vulnerable.
    Father Jack MundyJack is a middle-aged priest who has spent many years as a missionary in Uganda. He worked as a chaplain in the British army during World War One. The malaria that Jack has contracted in Uganda has given him significant memory loss that he eventually recovers from. He also became very involved in Ugandan culture while living there, much to Kate's horror. Jack is an accepting man who does not judge those with different beliefs.Open-minded, unique, accepting.
    Gerry EvansGerry is Christina's love interest. He works as a travelling salesman and is a totally unreliable character. Gerry makes many promises and proposals to Christina that he does not keep. He is also rarely there for Michael as a father. However, his charm and charisma help him woo Christina every time they are together. Gerry is restless and always needs something new to occupy him. This is why he goes to fight in the Spanish Civil War despite having no personal connection to either side.Unreliable, charming, restless.

    Dancing at Lughnasa: setting

    Dancing at Lughnasa is set in the fictional town of Ballybeg in the Irish county of Donegal in 1936. Friel uses this setting to portray and comment on Irish culture at this time. 1930s Ireland, under Taoiseach (the head of the government of Ireland) Eamon de Valera's government, was deeply Catholic. Priests were highly respected and seen as tenants of the community, and all citizens were expected to practice their Catholic faith regularly. Kate's devotion and Jack's initially high social standing in Ballybeg exemplify these elements of Irish life at the time.

    The financial difficulties that the women face because they are unmarried also show the inequality and sexism of 1930s Ireland. The paganism that creeps into Friel's play, particularly in the Festival of Lughnasa, is also relevant to the time period. A newly independent Ireland was trying to grapple with its pagan past and Catholic present. Many devout Catholics, like Kate, disapproved of the paganism that once was.

    Ballybeg is thought to be based on the town Friel grew up in, Glenties. It, too, is located in Donegal. The characters in Dancing at Lughnasa are also partly based on Friel's mother and his aunties.

    Dancing at Lughnasa: analysis

    Dancing at Lughnasa is a memory play.

    A memory play is a play told by the main character from their own memories. They are looking back at what has happened, typically years afterwards. This means the narrators of memory plays tell the story with the benefit of hindsight. This genre also frequently includes elements of nostalgia. The term 'memory play' is thought to have been first used by Tennessee Williams (1911-1983) to describe his play The Glass Menagerie (1944).

    Friel's play is told by an adult Michael Evans from his childhood memories of Ballybeg in 1936. He looks back on life with a mix of fondness and hindsight. There were joyous times when the sisters danced together and doted over the young Michael. However, the Mundy family also suffered a great deal of financial hardship, and many have left Ballybeg by the end of the play. The house feels empty in their absence, and Michael leaves home as soon as he turns eighteen.

    As an adult narrator, Michael sheds light on the various personal and social problems that his childhood self was blissfully unaware of. In Michael's final monologue of the play, as quoted below, he muses over how real and imagined his memories feel at the same time. He remembers them vividly and fondly but also recognises the issues his family faced.

    In that memory atmosphere is more real than incident and everything is simultaneously actual and illusory. (Michael, Act 2)

    Dancing at Lughnasa: themes

    As a memory play, Dancing at Lughnasa has multiple layers and nuances. Friel also considers the sociopolitical state of Ireland in the 1930s. Below are key themes in the play.


    Religion is central in Friel's play. It could be expected that this theme would be best represented by Father Jack, a priest. However, his time in Uganda has changed him deeply, making him much more open to and appreciating of paganism. Instead, it is Kate who represents religion, and more specifically, the Catholic faith, in Dancing at Lughnasa. She is totally dedicated to her religion, questioning anything that she feels does not fit into her vision of Catholicism.

    Kate disapproves of paganism, even something like the Festival of Lughnasa, which is a part of her Irish heritage. Friel showcases how important religion was to Irish communities at this time in Kate losing her job because of rumours of Jack's newfound appreciation for Ugandan paganism and culture.

    Dancing at Lughnasa, an ornate Catholic church, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Catholicism is important to the community in Ballybeg.


    Dancing at Lughnasa revolves around the life of the Mundy family. An older Michael recounts the people and events that shaped him. The Mundy family, despite being big, is very close. The five sisters are quite different people and are often shown to strongly disagree on things. However, they always persist in supporting each other no matter the circumstances. For example, despite Kate's disapproval of the person Jack has become in Uganda, she is devastated and inconsolable when he passes away from a heart attack.

    Another example of a strong familial relationship is that between Agnes and Rose. They work together in making gloves to sell, and this brings the two sisters closer. Agnes feels a responsibility to care for Rose for their entire adult lives. Once their business collapses, they leave for London, but this comes to a tragic end.

    Dancing at Lughnasa - Key takeaways

    • Dancing at Lughnasa is a 1990 play by Irish playwright Brian Friel.
    • It follows the life of the Mundy family in Donegal as told in hindsight by a character named Michael Evans.
    • Friel's play is set in the fictional town of Ballybeg in Donegal, Ireland.
    • Dancing at Lughnasa is a memory play.
    • Two key themes in the play are religion and family.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Dancing at Lughnasa

    What is the theme of Dancing at Lughnasa?

    Key themes in Friel's play are religion and family.

    Is Dancing at Lughnasa based on a true story?

    Dancing at Lughnasa is loosely based on Friel's childhood but the plot itself is fictional.

    Who wrote the play Dancing at Lughnasa?

    Brian Friel wrote the play.

    What year was Dancing at Lughnasa made?

    Dancing at Lughnasa was published in 1990.

    What is Dancing at Lughnasa about?

    The play is about the life of the Mundy family in 1930s Donegal as they struggle with love, finances, and culture in a newly independent Ireland.

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