By Eleanor Owicki
In this second installment from Eleanor Owicki’s notes from the Dramaturg’s Desk, she explores the roles of Paganism vs. Christianity in Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa. This series is adapted from the packet of information, including historical research, analysis of the author’s biography and complete body of works, and more abstract explorations of the themes present in the text that were provided to the cast and creative team for the 2016 IU Theatre production.
In an interview with New York Times Theatre Reviewer Mel Gussow before Dancing at Lughnasa opened on Broadway, Brian Friel suggested that the play might be “about the necessity of Paganism.” The hesitance was typical of Friel, who generally resisted being drawn into conversations about the themes and meanings of his plays. The mere fact that he singled this idea out therefore demonstrates its importance.
Dancing at Lughnasa is set in 1936, at a time when the Catholic Church wielded considerable actual and symbolic power in Ireland (although the same could be said for many other periods). When Ireland (or most of it) gained independence in 1922, more than 90% of the country identified as Catholic, and this percentage would rise over the following decades. In addition to the moral sway the church held, it was responsible for providing many of the public services that Irish people relied on. These included schools, hospitals, orphanages, and similar institutions. The power of the Catholic Church at this time is illustrated by the scandals about these institutions that arose beginning in the 1990s. Accusations of rampant abuse—physical, sexual, and emotional—emerged, and these were frequently supported by the findings of government inquiries. Time and again, these inquiries noted that the abuse was allowed to continue largely because few people felt they could challenge the church and accusations that were made could easily be covered up.
In spite of this power, however, another religious tradition held sway in Ireland. When Christianity first came to the island, its supporters frequently attempted to adapt existing practices and beliefs into the framework of the new religion (indeed, missionaries in many different countries have followed similar patterns). While this blending made the locals more likely to adopt Christian beliefs, it also made it harder to eliminate the earlier Pagan beliefs. While few Irish people would identify as “Pagan,” folklore ensured that ancient practices and beliefs would continue to circulate. This is a tension in much of Irish literature. For example, John Millington Synge’s 1904 play Riders to the Sea depicts a family living on the remote Aran Islands off Ireland’s west coast. Although the local priest is referenced as an offstage character, it is clear that he holds far less authority than the supernatural power of the sea and the omens it brings.
The “Lughnasa” of Friel’s title (pronounced LOO-nah-sah) is the harvest festival, which takes place in early August (when the play is set) and is sacred to the Celtic god Lugh, a powerful warrior. While the public manifestations of the holiday have been transformed into civic, secular events, its Pagan roots continue to linger beneath the surface. As the play progresses, we learn that there are other, private events that more closely echo the festival’s Pagan origins. While the Mundy sisters, the play’s main characters, have little direct connection to these practices, they are still drawn by the spirit of Lugh, wanting to escape the rigid restrictions society and religion have placed on them as unmarried women. Their brother, Father Jack, has recently returned from missionary work in Uganda, where he also found the indigenous beliefs more powerful than the religion in which he was raised.
This theme was also present in the next play Friel wrote, 1993’s Wonderful Tennessee. In this play, three couples arrive at a dock near Ballybeg (where Dancing at Lughnasa is also set) and hope to take a boat across the water to Oileán Draíochta, “The Island of Mystery.” Although they never make it across, the island’s history asserts a powerful effect. The island seems to be one of the many places in Ireland which the early Catholic Church attempted to colonize – building a church on a location that already had spiritual significance. The play’s characters are middle-class professionals with little connection to this part of Ireland, but as they hear about the practices and superstitions surround the island, its power – for good or ill – becomes clear to them. In particular, they are disturbed by a story of a death that happened on the island in 1932. A group of young people were returning from a church convention, and decided to spend the night on the island. No one is quite certain what happened, but it is suggested that the group may have ritually sacrificed one if its members that night. The close proximity between the church event and the apparent frenzy of the group once they reached the magical island suggests that the space’s Pagan power remained, resisting efforts to rewrite it as a space with Christian significance.
Friel described Dancing at Lughnasa as representing the necessity of Paganism, and it is certainly clear that these older beliefs represent a powerful escape for the play’s characters. In my next post, I’ll discuss some of the more direct historical context for the play, and go into more detail on the forces that structured these women’s lives so closely.