Lughnasa and Irish Identity

By Leah Flowers
24 March 2024

To understand what makes this play resonant, what earned it so many awards, and what carries it on to be revived decades later, we have to look into the heart of this play which is: Irish identity. For those of us around the world who are not Irish, let’s explore two questions that will illuminate an understanding of Irish identity. The first is, “What is Lughnasa?” The second is, “Why did Brian Friel choose to name this play Dancing at Lughnasa?” Let’s start by looking at a snippet of Irish history.

People have been living in Ireland for roughly 10,500 years (“Earliest evidence…”). Christianity came into existence in the first century CE (Sullivan, et al) and only in 431 CE did it find its way to Ireland (“Saint Celestine I”), which means that paganism existed among Neolithic Celtic people for roughly 8,000 years before that. The Neolithic people of Ireland divided their solar calendar into quarters: Spring Equinox, Summer Solstice, Autumn Equinox, and Winter Solstice; and then cross quarters: Imbolc which marks the beginning of Spring, Beltane the beginning of Summer, Lughnasa the beginning of Autumn, and Samhain the end of the harvest (“Lughnasadh…”). There is a reason that Friel specifically chose to include in his play’s title the name of the festival that marks the beginning of autumn; as well as a reason that the characters are in a tizzy about this festival. It is because there is an undeniable relationship between paganism and Irish identity.

Although Irish people of today (or 1990 or 1936) may not identify with their pagan roots, it is still part of their heritage. Brian Friel stands in the ranks of Irish resistance fighters by creating art that challenges assumptions about cultural identity and by asking complex questions. Dancing at Lughnasa asserts the idea that paganism is steeped in the blood of Irishfolk. Even though Kate sternly insists that the Mundy sisters cannot and will not go to the harvest dance, they still feel compelled, when they hear music, to unleash the wild, untamable parts of themselves that can’t be removed by religion or force of will. Friel chose a holiday that, like so many other pagan holidays, was co-opted by the Catholic Church in an effort to erase Irish heritage – which is the same as erasing Irish identity. In an essay on peasant drama, Friel quotes author Seán Ó Faoláin’s reflection that “[t]he greatest curse of Ireland… has been the exaggeration of the Irish virtue – our stubbornness […] our power of resistance, our capacity for taking punishment, our laughter, our endurance” (Murray 53). The first country to be colonized by the English was Ireland (Rahman 15) and they kept their boot on the neck of the Irish people until 1922 when Michael Collins brokered the first successful peace treaty in 700 years (Majendie).

By choosing the name Lughnasa, Friel reclaims and reintroduces a holiday that was renamed by Christians as Garland Sunday (“From hunger to harvest…”). Pagan Celts used to climb a ceremonial mound to spread summer flowers in honor of Lugh (O’Looney 323); Christians repurposed this by repurposing the tradition of climbing a hill as a symbol of “pilgrimage.” Taking back this holiday by simply acknowledging its original name – Lughnasa – is powerful in itself because there is power in a name. Furthermore, Friel reclaims the name not only to acknowledge a partially-erased deity, but also because this deity was a central figure in Celtic paganism, and therefore central to the identity of ancient Celts. Lugh is the god of the harvest in Irish mythology, as Friel says in the script, but he was also one of the most venerated deities in the entire Celtic pantheon. He represented light and the sun and was thought to be all-wise (Cartwright); he was also said to be a swordsman, a harpist, a poet, a craftsman and an inventor  (“From Hunger to Harvest”). Lugh established his festival as a funerary feast after the death of his foster mother Tailtiu, who is said to have died on August 1st (O’Brien). And if you think about it, is not this play a funerary feast – a time of celebration where the Mundys break bread together – just a year before Father Jack dies? The feast before the breaking apart and scattering of the family?

 Furthermore, Friel chose to evoke the idea of dance in the title, which also has political implications. Gisele O’Connell of Maynooth University in Ireland says that “Irish dance is, by its very nature, inherently geopolitical” because “informal spaces afforded dancers with an ability to express national identities and affinities to home, while dancing itself possessed a cathartic effect, as the rhythmic movements shook off foreign oppressors.” In other words, Irish dance is one way that Irishfolk could resist English colonialism. If that seems like a stretch, consider how the 1935 Public Dance Hall Act, which restricted such gatherings solely to licensed dance halls, in essence criminalized informal dance. O’Connell also notes that these “laws were largely the work of Catholic Bishops who associated unregulated and informal spaces of dance with ‘occasions for sin’ and the ignition of sexual deviance.” This is reflected in our play in the way Kate essentially acts as the voice of the oppressors; we see this larger struggle reflected in the microcosm of the Mundy home. The women all long for not just romance but also sex – Chris has a child with Gerry, Rose has a tryst with Danny, Maggie speaks about her longings for a man, and even Kate has a crush, though she refuses to talk about it. Dancing is a way for these women to express their frustration at living lives without romantic love.

 When this play was written matters, too. Arguably, it was, at least partially, a reaction to The Troubles between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, which at the time of the play’s first production were in full swing. The Troubles were a violent conflict regarding differing opinions on Irish identity – those who believed themselves to be an independent people and those who wanted to remain subjects of the British crown (Wallenfeldt). Our play reflects that same essential conflict, though the characters struggle mostly subconsciously. Kate, without knowing it, parrots the English attitudes wrought by cultural and spiritual subjugation when she refuses to allow dancing. However, the attempt to plant this seed of an idea in the soil of Irish minds can never fully take hold, because it was planted in Irish soil. Because to be Irish is to resist.

Finally, I’d like to leave you with an image that I think encapsulates what, to me, makes this play resonant. Irish author Máire MacNeill says that the rituals of the festival of Lughnasa are symbolic of a struggle between the god Crom Dubh who guards the grain and Lugh who seizes it for humanity (O’Brien). With this play, Friel is Lugh, wrestling back the riches of a culture and returning them to its people.

Sources

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