Dancing at Lughnasa [Act 11] by Brian Friel.

ACT 11.

Early September; three weeks later. Ink bottle and some paper on the kitchen table. Two finished kites – their artwork still unseen – lean against the garden seat. [pg. 43]

They are the work of wee Michael. The boy and Maggie are messing about telling riddles, then Chris, the boy’s mother comes into the room and tells Michael that his father is going to bring a bike for him when he returns from his new job. She says in an excited manner to the bored boy,

‘now that you’ve seen him what do you think of him? Do you remember him?’

Michael says he never saw him before. She reminded him that he saw him about five or six times and he saw him when his father was at the foot of the lane.

‘He thinks you’re very handsome.’

She told him his father says he had got his mother’s eyes.

The kite in the picture above would represent one that young Michael was creating in the garden, all by himself. Obviously the kite symbolises freedom.

Jack tells the sisters all about the Ryangans. He reckons they are a remarkable people; and that he thinks there is no distinction between the religious and the secular in their culture. And their capacity for fun and laughter. He considers them in some respect to be like them.

‘You’d love them, MAGGIE. You should come back with me’. [pg. 48].

It’s clearly obvious to the reader that Jack is not a well man and is definitely not going back to the people he dearly loved in Africa.

Gerry is still about the house trying to embrace Chris.

She keeps avoiding him. Gerry is a professional dancer. He keeps trying to flirt with the mother of his child.

GERRY: You know you’re a great dancer, Chrissie.

CHRIS: No I’m not.

GERRY: You should be a professional dancer.

CHRIS: You’re talking rubbish.

GERRY: Lets dance around the garden again.

CHRIS: We’ve done that; and down the lane and up again – without music. And that’s enough for one day. Tell me about signing up. Was it really in a church.

GERRY: I’m telling you – it was unbelievable.

CHRIS: It was a real church?

GERRY: A Catholic Church at that.

During all this flirtatious conversation between them, the reader is introduced to the state of the wider world outside the wee town of Ballybeg. As we see when Gerry relates to Chris the following questions, he was asked by his prospective recruiter to the army.

GERRY:  Do you offer your allegiance to the Popular Front?

CHRIS: What is the Popular Front?

GERRY: The Spanish government, that I’m going to keep in power. ” I take it you as a Syndicalist”  No,  Anarchist? ‘No,’ A Marxist?’  ‘No.’  ‘A Republican, a Socialist, a Communist?’ ‘No.’ Do you speak Spanish? ‘No.’  ‘Can you make explosives?  ‘No.’ Can you ride a motor-bike? ‘Yes,’ Your in. Sign here. [pg. 50]

Not only does Gerry flirt with Chris, but he also tries to also mess about in the same fashion with her sister, Aggie, when he is up on top of the sycamore tree, trying to fix the radio ariel. He calls out to Aggie.

GERRY: Up here, Aggie.

AGNES: Where?

GERRY: On top of the Sycamore.

AGNES: Mother of God.

GERRY: Come up and join me. [pg. 53]

Chris spots his shenanigans when he dances with Aggie in the house. She becomes very aloof thereafter with Gerry. Reality rings home. The reader is left wondering if he could ever really make a decent woman out of her at all.

Danny Bradley, a married man from nearby Ballybeg, gave Rose a Christmas present of a silver medal. She had it pinned to her gansey (jumper) along with her miraculous medal. She cherished it, and was convinced that he was in love with her. One day Agnes and Rose went out for the afternoon to pick bilberries. Agnes noticed that Rose was all dressed up to the nineties. She was not wearing her wellies, but good Sunday shoes, etc. When they got to the old quarry, Rose feigned tummy illness and said that she wanted to go home to have a lie down. Rose had other things on her mind, to be sure – and went off instead, to meet Bradley up the back hills at Loch Anna.

The family went into a state of sheer panic when they later discovered, on Aggies arrival home, that there was no Rose to be had sleeping in her bed. Kate suggested that the police be called and Maggie would hear nothing of it at all. Did she want to bring notice to their family, what would the neighbours think at all.

CHRIS: She has some silly notion about that scamp, BRADLEY,. She believes he’s in love with her. He gave her a present last Christmas.

KATE: (To Agnes) what do you know about this Bradley business?

AGNES: I know no more than CHRIS has –

KATE: I’ve often seen you and ROSE whispering together. What plot has been hatched between ROSE and MR. BRADLEY.

AGNES: No plot…please, KATE –

KATE: You’re lying to me, AGNES! Your witholding! I want the truth.

A few seconds later.

CHRIS: There she is! Look – look! There she is!

She had seen ROSE through the window and is about to rush out to greet her. MAGGIE catches her arm and restrains her. The four sisters watch ROSE as she crosses the garden.

She is dressed in ‘good clothes’ described by Agnes and they have changed her appearance.

There is a change alright in the person whom one would least expect change to occur. The mood of the play also changes too because of the sister’s insight into Rose’s unusual behaviour. In a sense, though, they are gobsmacked by it,  but to the back of it – it was also staring them in the face.

Rose openly tells them all about her afternoon spent with Bradley at Loch Anna. They are all dumbfounded.

Kate says very profound words:

What has happened to this house? Mother of God, will we be ever able to lift our heads again….?

Dancing at Lugnasa is a Memory play. Michael the narrater tells the story of his life as a   child (unseen in play) at Ballybeg in dialogue format.

The following night of the Aunt Rose incident that Vera McLaughlin arrived and explained to Agnes and Rose why she couldn’t buy their hand-knitted gloves anymore… Most of her home-knitters were already working in the new factory and she advised Agnes and Rose to apply immediately.

The Industrial Revolution had finally caught up with Ballybeg.

They didn’t apply, even though they had no other means of making a living, and they never discussed their situation with their sisters. Perhaps Agnes made the decision for both of them because she knew Rose wouldn’t have got work there anyway. Or perhaps, as Kate believed, because Agnes was too notionate to work in a factory. Or perhaps the the two of them just wanted…away.

Not only has change occurred in the family with respect of the time Rose decided to go off for the day with a married man. There is also change about to happen in the life of Michael’s father, who is going off to Spain. There is also change in work practices with the onset of the industrial revolution. We see this with the arrival of the messenger Vera McLaughlin, when she tells Aggie and Rose that their knitting services are no longer required. Even Jack has had his Roman Catholic mind changed by his quarter of a century in Africa. Chris too has a mind-change when she sees Gerry cavorting with her sister before her very eyes. Kate signifies stability. But her brand of stability is stifling, to say the least, to the sisters

The continuation of the dialogue with the narrator reveals the most poignant part of the play altogether.

Anyhow, on my first day back at school, when we came into the kitchen for breakfast, there was a note propped up against the milk jug: ‘We are gone for good. This is best for all Do not try to find us.’ It was written in Agnes’s resolute hand.

Of course they did try to find them. So did the police. So did our neighbours who had a huge network of relatives in America. But they had vanished without trace. And the time I tracked them down-twenty-five years later, in London, – Agnes was dead and Rose was dying in a hospice for the destitute in Southwark.*

Aside: *I used to frequent Southwark Cathedral when I lived near Victoria in the seventies. My hostel friend played guitar and sang in folk-choir there.) (When I did the Crisis at Christmas annual week-end 60 mile walk, it started at Southwark Cathedral and finished at Canterbury Cathedral. It is very apt that Brian Friel should mention Southwark regarding Rose and her sad ending. I did the Crisis at Christmas sixty mile walk three times. It consisted of sixty-eight miles all told, but legally, 60 miles was the limit over a weekend period.

I was devastated when upon reading the above, I could feel so much for the characters and how their lives in London would have panned out, especially because of the fact that they had no education and skills and knowledge of the big metropolis. Also because they were Irish. I could identify with their difficulties, having almost gone through similar stuff.

The two sisters had ended up doing the most menial of jobs in London. The world is a friendless place to the unwise and uneducated. It soaks up their inadequacies and drains them to the point of being swamped up. It has no use of the likes of Rose and Aggie. They had worked as cleaning women in public toilets, in factories, in the Underground. Then when Rose could no longer get work, Agnes tried to support them both, but couldn’t. From then on, I gathered, they gave up. They took to drink; slept in parks, in doorways on the Thames Embankment. Then Agnes died of exposure. Then two days after I found Rose in that grim hospice – she didn’t recognise me, of course – she died in her sleep.

This dialogue with Michael is so utterly traumatic. It’s only a play, and still I’m feeling shattered reading about these two characters. They are indicative of so many Irish people who went to London between the 30-80’s. I’m also reminded of the free choice their older brother made to leave his native land. Also that he inherited the house, because he was male, and irrespective of his religious status in life; whereas the sisters were forced out of their home because of difficult circumstances.

I added an excellent Old Vic Dancing at Lughnasa snyposis link in opening line in Act 1 and here. I skimmed through it and will definitely read it at leisure at a later stage. It looks very good and exactly what I think is needed for the Leaving Cert.

I note that Andrea Corr – of the famous Irish Corr’s music group – was one of the actors in the Old Vic stage play. She is obviously multi-talented. She comes from not too far from fictional area where play was set, so it should be right up her street in understanding the background to Friel’s play. (I encountered AC some years ago walking outside the Dail) (I spent many years in Ballyjamesduff, Co Cavan, and would have a grasp of the nature/lingo (gimp) of the Mundy sisters and the rural life they lived.)

So the radio, the factory, religion, etc all have huge significances in the play.

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