Summary of Dancing for Lughnasa

By Leah Flowers
24 March 2024

ACT 1

We see a tableau of all of the characters. Michael narrates, saying that he remembers that the summer of 1936 is when the family got their wireless radio – a Marconi. He says that he was in awe “at the sheer magic of that radio” because it was beamed in from Athlone and would induce his aunts to dance, laughing and shrieking like school girls. It reminds him, too, of Uncle Jack, shuffling from room to room, trying to recover his English vocabulary and his health. And, of course, he remembers that his father visited him twice that summer.

Agnes, Rose, and Chris do housework. Chris complains that she wishes they had a mirror that wasn’t cracked; Maggie warns they would have bad luck if they threw it away. When Chris says

she wants to start wearing lipstick, Maggie cracks a joke, “Today it’s lipstick; tomorrow it’s the gin bottle.” Rose breaks into song while working and dances clumsily. Maggie dances with her. They try to turn on Marconi but it only plays “The British Grenadiers” for three seconds. Maggie says she wants to go for a night of dancing and wouldn’t mind meeting a man. Rose says she might be meeting somebody, but won’t say who. Chris knows it’s Danny Bradley and calls him a scut because he’s a married man with children. Rose argues that his wife left him and tells Chris that she, of all people, shouldn’t lecture her. She accuses Maggie of being jealous and shows them a charm of a silver fish that Danny gave her for Christmas. Rose becomes teary after she confesses to them that she loves him.

Maggie tangos out of the kitchen using her hen bucket as a dance partner and singing “The Isle of Capri.” Young Michael works at making his kites and Maggie bets him a penny that the kites won’t take to the sky. He tricks her into thinking there is a rat and she screams. When she realizes what he’s done she calls him a “wee devil brat.” She asks him riddles but he refuses to engage, instead repeating “give up” every time. She gives him a barley sugar sweet and says, “There. I hope it chokes you.”

Michael narrates again, commenting that the sickly Jack who returned to them didn’t match the mental image he’d carried since seeing his uncle’s military photo from 1917. Still, “he was a hero and a saint to my mother and to my aunts.” He says they prayed nightly for his mission and even sent him money despite their poverty.

Kate comes home, kisses Michael on the head, and asks about his kites. He says he painted faces on them and she feigns fear saying, “What are they? Devils? Ghosts?” She gives him a spinning-top and whip and says to call her when he’s ready to fly his kites. Chris says that Kate is spoiling Michael with gifts, but Rose says she knows that Kate actually went to the arcade to see Austin Morgan. Kate brushes this off and comments that it will be a good harvest. Rose says that Austin is dating a girl from Carrickfad, and when Kate says she doesn’t care, Rose asks, “Why are you blushing then?”

Kate says that she’s tired from walking from Ballybeg and that she wants to learn to ride a bike. She adds that the town is “off its head” with excitement over Lughnasa as she unpacks the groceries. She hands an Annie MP Smithson novel, The Marriage of Nurse Harding, to Agnes and cod-liver oil to Chris, who she says looks pale. Kate also unpacks quinine for Jack and they all comment that he gets the sisters confused for each other. The women continue to gush over the harvest dance and insist on going. Kate shuts all talk of the dance down, lecturing that they are all too old to be going to dances and that it would degrade Jack’s dignified status in the town.

Maggie comes back and says that the fox is back and has chewed a hole in the henhouse door. She goes to Michael with something cupped in her hands and asks him if he can hear what’s within. He strains to listen, then she opens her hands and watches an imaginary bird fly away. He asks her if it was a bird and she says it was in his head and now they’re even. Maggie then complains to Rosie that her pet rooster took a chunk out of her arm. Kate hands Maggie her pack of cigarettes which Maggie has been craving. Rose starts to tell Maggie about the dance and Kate cuts her off to comment that the inside sole of her shoes is worn down in an unusual way.

Maggie comments that there are only 9 cigarettes in the pack and that they’re “so wild one of them must have escaped” on Kate’s way home.

Kate comments that it’s odd how the parish priest won’t look her in the eye since Jack’s return. She also says that she heard that the “young Sweeney boy” was badly burned in a fire and that he might die. Rose says he was burned by the Lughnasa bonfire and Kate rebukes her for mentioning something “pagan.” Kate pontificates that there should be no talk of pagan things in a Christian home.

Jack shuffles in and is confused for a moment about where he finds himself. Kate tells him people in the town were asking about him and that they want to give him a public welcome. He is pleased to hear this but laments that he doesn’t remember anyone from the town. Jack says that he’s cold and he goes back to lie down as Kate suggests. Then Kate tells Maggie that she ran into Bernie O’Donnell, who is just as beautiful and youthful as ever. She recounts that Bernie has twin girls by her Swedish husband Eric, and also mentions that she was asking after the Mundy family. Maggie recalls a story from her teens – a time she snuck out with Bernie, Tim Carlin (who fancied Maggie), and Brian Guinness (who Maggie fancied) to go to a dance competition in Ardstraw. They stole away in the night on bicycle. The judges at the dance named a local couple the winners, Maggie and Tim second place, and Bernie and Brian in third. Bernie was devastated she says before drifting off in her own thoughts.

Chris puts a new battery in Marconi and it springs to life, belting out “The Mason’s Apron.” Maggie belts out “yaaaah!” and smears flour on her face before launching into a frantic dance. One by one all the women are driven to dance, even Kate, in their own rustic movements. The radio dies again, mid phrase, and the women slowly stop dancing and exchange looks of embarrassment. Chris slaps Marconi while Maggie lights a cigarette and wishes for “a wonderful, wild man.” Maggie offers Kate a drag but Kate instead tells her to clean the flour from her face. Kate then tells Chris to take the surplice off but Chris ignores her and says they should throw the Marconi away. Kate asks how they would replace it with their lack of income. Agnes pushes back saying that they do all the housework and that they’re basically unpaid servants.

Suddenly, Maggie excitedly runs to the window and says that she sees Gerry Evans coming up the path. The women work themselves into a tizzy over his arrival, checking their appearance and trying to play it cool – all except Chris who stands still through the chaos. Gerry strolls up with a jaunty step, straw hat, and walking stick. The women share criticisms of Gerry, even going so far as to say, “I couldn’t look that man in the face. I just hate him – hate him!” Chris starts to get nervous and Kate directs her to say that she and Michael are well, then to “send him packing.”

Chris goes out to meet Gerry and her sisters – save Anges – strain to spy on them. Gerry tells her that he meant to come visit “a dozen times” but something always came up. He tells her she looks good and she comments that her hair’s a mess. Gerry asks about the family and she says they’re all well and that Jack is on the mend. He says that he’s been teaching ballroom dance in Dublin and now he’s selling gramophones, inflating how successful he is (or could potentially be). Finally he asks about Michael and Chris tells him the boy is making kites. Gerry promises to

bring the boy a bike from Kilkenny soon. The sisters whisper among themselves about how smitten Chris is with this “Loafer! Wastrel!”

Gerry spins a tale about finding a cow with a single horn on its forehead, saying it’s a good omen. Then he sees a magpie and says it’s a bad omen. His efforts to charm are working and she laughs. He tells her he’s going to join the International Brigade in Spain saying, “I thought I should try my hand at something worthy for a change. Give Evans a Big Cause and he won’t let you down. It’s only everyday stuff he’s not so successful at.” He notices young Michael watching them and comments how handsome the boy is. Marconi switches itself on and plays “an appropriate song of the period.” Gerry sweeps her up into his arms and dances her around the garden. The sisters grumble about him leading Chris astray, adding, however, that they are “such a beautiful couple.”

Gerry proposes marriage to Chris and she says he is only in love with her when she’s with him. He protests but she tells him to dance them down the lane and then he can leave. They dance away and Marconi switches itself off again. Agnes barks at her sisters for trash-talking Gerry and leaves in a huff. Maggie changes back to her shabby boots and sings “The Isle of Capri.” Kate starts to unravel, saying that “control is slipping away.” Maggie comforts her while Kate cries and frets that she can’t see Chris devastated by Gerry again. Chris comes back inside and tells young Michael that Gerry will bring him a bike. Agnes returns with roses and says that Gerry thanked them for the offer of the bed next time he comes round. Kate corrects that he can have the outside loft if it’s empty. Maggie takes the roses to put in Jack’s room. Chris wants to make the tea but Agnes aggressively shuts this down, as it is her job.

Jack shuffles out of his room and tries to tell a story but struggles to remember words like “photograph.” He tries to get the sisters’ names right, then apologizes and says that it’s partly to do with the fact that he left 25 years ago and the youngest (Chris) was only a baby at the time. Kate tells him to take his medicine and he launches into a story about Father Karl Sharpeggi, a German cleric, who he claims was healed by a medicine man after traditional medicine failed to cure him. He says he saw a rooster at his window when he woke up and that in Ryanga they sacrifice roosters and goats during ritual and ceremonies. Jack continues on, explaining that he spoke Swahili most of the time in Uganda, but that the district commissioner refused even though he was able. The DC worried about Jack going native, and so would invite him over often. The man gave Jack his tricorn hat as a parting gift.

Jack says he wants to meet Chris’s husband but she tells him she isn’t married. He seems excited that Michael is a “love child,” but Kate is horrified at such pagan talk. She admonishes Jack saying that that might be fine for Uganda, but it’s not how they do things in Ireland, and then ordering him to go on his walk.

Michael narrates again, saying that Kate lost her job because of Jack, and that she was right to worry about how things would turn out for Rose – that one day Rose and Agnes would up and leave forever. As Michael speaks, Jack taps together a couple of the kite braces, making a little rhythm that he does a shuffle dance to. Michael waxes on that his mother and father never officially married, but did their own private ceremony with a dance that was like a wedding,

witnessed only by young Michael and his aunts. Kate eventually takes the braces from Jack and takes him out for his walk.

ACT 2

Maggie tells Michael he owes her a penny (or a cigarette) because he never got his kites in the air. He tells her to buzz off, that he’s busy writing a letter to Santa asking for a bell for the new bike his father will bring to him. She asks him a riddle and he repeats “give up” until she does. Jack comes in and he and Maggie discuss the church bells they heard in the morning. This reminds him of the Ugandan harvest festivals that parallel Lughnasa, “the Festival of the New Yam and the Festival of the Sweet Casava; and they’re both dedicated to our Great Goddess, Obi” he says. He continues to describe that the Ugandans sacrifice a bird, goat, or calf at the riverbank, and then they cut and share bowls of yams and casava while chanting their gratitude. This is followed by ritual dancing. He describes how they paint their faces with colored powders and share palm wine; making specific note of the blurred line between religious belief and secular life. A song has been stuck in his head, the lyrics are: “O ruddier than the cherry / O sweeter than the berry” but he doesn’t remember what it’s from. After he heads out for his walk, Kate breaks down, comforted by Maggie. She worries that people will find out that Jack is spouting Ugandan pagan stories.

Gerry and Chris return to the home. Gerry tells her about how he signed up for the International Brigade and will be sent to Spain as a dispatch rider. She asks how long he will be gone and Gerry offers a string of false promises as usual. Chris persuades him to at least look at the radio to see if he can figure out why it keeps malfunctioning. Gerry mentions that Jack suggested a trade – Jack’s three-cornered hat from the district commission for Gerry’s straw hat. After he goes off to look at the radio’s aerial, Kate tells Chris she disapproves of Gerry going to fight in the International Brigade.

Chris tells Kate and Maggie that Vera McLaughlin, who buys hand-made gloves will no longer buy them. A factory opened up in Donegal and put all of the seamsters out of business. Vera couldn’t even get a job at the factory because she is “too old” at 41. Agnes returns with bilberries and Gerry chats to her from a branch of the sycamore tree. He says he can see the future from up that high and that Agnes should join him to “see what’s going to happen to” her. Agnes goes inside and tells her sisters that Rose left berry-picking to go home, as she wasn’t feeling well, but they tell Agnes that Rose never came home. Everyone gets worked into a frenzy worrying about where Rose is, until after a moment she comes home, wearing her good outfit and seeming quite peaceful. She carries a poppy in her right hand and stops to eat some of the bilberries on the porch. When she goes into the house Maggie distracts from Rose’s return by talking about dinner. Kate, refusing to let it go, grills Rose on where she’s been. Rose says she met Danny Bradley at Lough Anna and they had a picnic on the lake in his father’s boat. Then they went into the hills where the Lughnasa fires were, learning that the Sweeney boy will live. She says they were all alone up there and “that’s all I’m going to tell you. That’s all any of you are going to hear.”

The scene in the Glenties home pauses as Michael explains that Agnes and Rose learned shortly that they were out of work as seamsters because “The Industrial Revolution had finally caught up

with Ballybeg.” Agnes and Rose do not apply for the factory job nor discuss their lack of livelihood with the family. After his first day back at school, the family found a note left by Agnes that read, “We are gone for good. This is best for all. Do not try to find us.” They disappeared and were not found until 25 years later, when Michael learned that Agnes had died and Rose was dying in hospice. He learned that they took odd jobs to make ends meet but failed and ended up homeless and addicted to alcohol. He goes on to say that Jack recovered his health but never said Mass again. Jack yearned to return to Uganda, but instead died of a heart attack on the following eve of Lughnasa. Kate mourned him most bitterly.

Michael also says that his father did sail for Spain and as he went off to war, the man was dancing down the lane, wearing Jack’s tricorn hat “at a jaunty angle over his left eye.” Gerry was injured in Barcelona and walked with a limp the rest of his life, thereafter making dancing impossible, which “really distressed him.” Gerry continued to visit once a year and never followed through on his promise of bringing Michael a bike. Finally he stopped visiting after the start of WWII. Michael got a letter in the 1950s from his half-brother who wanted to inform him that their father had died in his sleep, surrounded by his wife and 3 adult children. He never told his mother the truth about Gerry.

The scene at home resumes. Maggie says that Agnes should make dresses for income, to which Agnes disagrees. Maggie asks Jack if he could find them all husbands and he says he could find one for all of them to share, “That’s our system and it works very well. One of you would be his principle wife and live with him in his largest hut […] And the other three of you he’d keep in his enclosure. It would be like living on the same small farm.” Maggie teases Kate that she would be the primary wife and bear the husband’s children.

Gerry finally gets the radio working and offers Agnes a dance. Sweeping her into his arms, he dances her out into the garden and back, all while singing the lyrics from the song Anything Goes. He sings this snippet of lyrics – “If bare limbs you like, / if Mae West you like, / Or me undressed you like…” – before kissing her on the forehead. Chris sees it all but does not hear what he is saying; she is snippy with him when they return. He asks Chris for a dance and when she refuses Maggie excitedly offers to show him “real class.” Annoyed, Chris switches off the radio saying, “Sick of that damned thing.”

Chris mentions to Agnes that Vera McLaughlin wants to talk to her and Rose. When Agnes asks, “what about?” Kate quickly diverts with, “her daughter’s got engaged!” Chris switches on the radio again but no sound comes. Gerry asks Chris if he did anything wrong and she evades the question. Maggie announces that they’ll be having a dinner picnic outside to enjoy the last of the warm summer nights. Gerry tells Chris, “At least we know it’s not the aerial” and she calls him a bluffer.

Rose enters carrying her dead pet rooster in her right hand. The bird’s feathers are bloodied. They wonder aloud if the fox got it, but strangely, they notice that none of the hens were harmed. The sisters offer to get Rose another but she says, “I don’t want another.” Chris calls for Michael and comments that he’s alway skulking about. Jack comes out of his room wearing a soiled and crumpled white uniform; it looks like it would’ve fit him before the malaria emaciated him. He begins to describe how an exchange ceremony would go back “home” (referring to Uganda) and they enact it and exchange Jack’s tricorn for Gerry’s straw hat. Both men are quite happy with the exchange.

Agnes tells Rose they’ll pick more berries come Sunday and she agrees. Gerry sees the artwork that Michael has put on his kites and says he is talented, however Maggie says, “I hate them.” We see them for the first time: “On each kite is painted a crude, cruel, grinning face, primitively drawn, garishly painted.” Maggie asks Gerry why a gramophone is like a parrot, but forgets the answer to her own riddle.

The scene pauses again, except for Kate who cries quietly as Michael speaks. We hear the song “It’s Time to Say Goodnight.” He says that when Jack died and Rose and Agnes left, “the heart seemed to go out of the house.” Michael says that his mother miserably worked the rest of her life in the knitting factory and that he was happy to leave the house when he was old enough. He goes on to say that, “In that memory atmosphere is more real than incident and everything is simultaneously actual and illusory. In that memory too, the air is nostalgic with the music of the thirties” and that in his memory these figures were “responding more to the mood of the music than to its beat.” He concludes with describing how dance can be hypnotic and ritualistic. He says he thinks of dancing when he remembers that summer and how dance communicates what is beyond words.

Sources:

1. Friel, Brian. Dancing at Lughnasa. Dramatists Play Service Inc., 1991.