In this final installment from Eleanor Owicki’s notes from the Dramaturg’s Desk, she provides some historical context for the 2016-17 IU Theatre Season opening production of 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 was provided to the cast and creative team at the beginning of the rehearsal process.
If you’d like to meet Eleanor Owicki, join us for the upcoming Theatre Circle Lecture:
“Dancing at Lughnasa from a Dramaturg’s Perspective”
Thursday, September 22, at 5:30 p.m.
in the Studio Theatre
on the 2nd floor of the Lee Norvelle Theatre and Drama Center
Ireland in 1936: Romance vs Reality
“The Ireland which we would desire of would be the home of a people who valued material wealth only as the basis of a right living, of a people who were satisfied with frugal comfort and devoted their leisure to the things of the soul; a land whose countryside would be bright with cozy homesteads, whose fields and valleys would be joyous with the sounds of industry, with the romping of sturdy children, the contests of athletic youth, the laughter of happy maidens; whose firesides would be forums for the wisdom of old age. It would, in a word, be the home of a people living the life that God desires that men should live.”
In this, the opening of his 1943 St Patrick’s Day speech, Irish Taoiseach (prime minister) Eamon De Valera outlined a view of Ireland with which many will be familiar. It paints a picture of a country at peace with itself, full of joy. It is a primarily rural country, filled with the vitality of “athletic youth” and “happy maidens,” but with the “wisdom of old age” still presented at the firesides of “cozy homesteads.” It is an idyllic picture that seems to exist outside of time – there is little in the description that ties it to any particular century. It is the island of céad míle fáilte (one hundred thousand welcomes), the land of saints and scholars.
While this image is appealing, life in Ireland in the mid-twentieth century (when these versions of Irishness were most popular) was far grimmer. In 1936, when Dancing at Lughnasa is set, Ireland had only been independent from Britain for fourteen years. While many had hoped that independence would be a time of joy and renewal, it was actually a time of increasing conservativism and stagnation. Between the divisive effects of the Civil War and Ireland’s relatively poor economy, life was rather dark. The people of the country wanted stability, which made them increasingly drawn to the more socially conservative teachings of the Catholic Church. For the most part, people just wanted to get by and weren’t interested in taking risks. The literature of Ireland during this period reflects this. The most innovative “Irish” authors, such as James Joyce and Samuel Beckett, had left Ireland and were writing from continental Europe.
This conservatism was particular present in the ways women were treated during this period. Article 42.1 of the Irish constitution, which de Valera spearheaded in 1937 states:
“In particular, the State recognises that by her life within the home, woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved. The State shall, therefore, endeavour to ensure that mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home.”
This language codified the place of women that had already been assumed to exist. Women were expected to primarily dedicate their lives to taking care of their families. While the constitution acknowledged that a woman might be forced to work, the assumption was that this would not be her choice. This focus on the home and the private sphere was awkward for women like the Mundy sisters, the main characters in Dancing at Lughnasa, who were unmarried and (except for one) without children. Without responsibilities to male family members, these women would be assumed not to have a purpose. This also might explain some of the excitement at the return of their brother, Father Jack, who had spent years working as a missionary in Uganda. Caring for him would have been an acceptable life’s work for the women. It’s also important to note that the teachings of the Catholic Church against sex outside of marriage would have been particularly strongly enforced against women. Women who, like the youngest sister Chris, became pregnant out of wedlock would have been judged harshly.
The limited opportunities open to the women of Ireland in the 1930s are particularly depressing given that a number of women had been central to the independence movement of the 1910s and 1920s. We know that Kate, the oldest sister, took part in the conflict, although not how. Although women’s achievements in this conflict were rarely celebrated, they were essential, and particularly useful as spies and message-runners since the British forces generally ignored them. Their role was decreased partially by the increasing conservativism of the country, but also because most of the women backed the losing anti-treaty side in the Civil War that immediately followed the war of independence. Thus, the narrow options available to women in the 1930s would have represented a decrease in opportunity, not simply “the way things had always been done.”
The three posts in this Dramaturg’s Desk series provide the setting for Dancing at Lughnasa. The characters’ lives are shaped by the world they live in, and which playwright Brian Friel also lived in. I hope that together they’ve enriched your understanding of the play, and will add to your enjoyment when you come to see it!