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Dancing at Lughnasa – Footnotes

May 25, 2023 | Footnotes | 2 comments

The Footnotes to our episode on Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa include more on the meaning of dancing in the play, as well as some observations on the characters of Kate and Father Jack.

Not listened to the episode yet? You’ll find it here.

We talked in the podcast about the idea that Gerry and Chris may have met at a festival dance, and one imagines that traditonally many would go to the local dance with the hope of meeting a mate. There is a wonderful note in the programme for the National Theatre production that tells of a real Lughnasa dancing competition in County Donegal where the prize for the best male dancer was his choice of bride from the female contestants. So it can literally happen! It is also clear from Maggie’s vibrant description of the dance competition that she and Bernie O’Donnell competed in years ago, that romantic partnerships can be formed in the crucible of such events.

Dance is more than a social ritual, however. It is imbued with other meanings in the play, including its spiritual purpose in the pagan performances in Africa that Jack describes, or the darker energies that it may release in the more local versions in the hills in Donegal. In this context it can represents a challenge to the established order, particularly to the decorum of prescribed Christian behaviour. As the stage directions suggest when they describe the sisters’ dance as becoming a “frantic dervish”, with a “near hysteria being induced” , so that “there is a sense of order being consciously subverted.”.

In personal terms it offers a non-verbal expression of deeply felt desire or grief for frustrated hopes. For Chris and Gerry, for example, it is clearly one of the ways that they manifest their passion. For the others it may be more of an unconscious release of pain or even suppressed anger or determination about their thwarted dreams. Again the stage directions point this way, describing Maggie’s face when she is dancing as “animated by a look of defiance, or aggression”, and their uninhibited movement as “a pattern of action…that is out of character and at the same time ominous of some deep and true emotion.”

It is a release that reaches a level within and beyond that Michael describes so poetically in his final summation: “Dancing as if language had surrendered to movement – as if this ritual, this wordless ceremony, was now the way to speak, to whisper private and sacred things, to be in touch with some otherness. Dancing as if the very heart of life and all its hopes might be found in those assuaging notes…”.

Chris and Gerry dancing
National Theatre May 2023 
Photo by Johan Persson

Justine Mitchell as Kate
National Theatre May 2023
Photo by Johan Persson

Michael introduces Kate as “a very proper woman”, and at times she comes across as the killjoy in the house with her strict Christian morality. She forbids the sisters from going to the Lughnasa dance, she judges Gerry most harshly, and she is deluded about Father Jack’s health and lost faith. As the eldest and only proper breadwinner, she is the self-appointed head of the house, a responsibility that she feels most keenly.

We see another Kate under the stern appearance in her love and concern for Chris, in her looking out for Michael’s future, and when she softens to the charms of Gerry in his first visit in the play. She first insists that Gerry is not welcome to stay the night, and then is sorry that he’s gone away without saying hello.

We feel more for her when we are given a glimpse of the pressure and doubts that she feels: “You perform your duties as best you can – because you believe in responsibilities and obligations and good order. And then suddenly, suddenly you realise that hair cracks are appearing everywhere; that control is slipping away; that the whole thing is so fragile it can’t be held together much longer. It’s all about to collapse.” 

The personal faith she places in God and the Church is being challenged by Father Jack’s behaviour and that of the local Priest, and she fears that the family may disintegrate without the bulwark of such faith and social rectitude. In particular she worries what would befall Rose if she lost her job or died: “I must put my trust in God, Maggie. Mustn’t I? He’ll look after her, won’t he? You believe that Maggie, don’t you? When Maggie fails to explicitly agree, she continues, “I believe that , too…I believe that…I do believe that…” She doth proclaim too much.

The depth of Kate’s complex feelings is suggested finally by Michael’s brief mention that when Father Jack died she was “inconsolable” “for months”.

Father Jack
In the balance of the debate between Jack and Kate over his Christian faith, or lack of it, Kate associates Jack’s ill health his failure to properly express his Christian faith, and that when he returns to health he will return to the church and say mass. However although Jack’s mind may seem somewhat addled at the beginning of the play – he does not recognise the individual sisters and he struggles to find the right word – there may in fact be rational explanations for these supposed frailties beyond the symptoms of malaria. He has not seen the sisters for upwards of twenty-five years – he describes Chris being a baby when he left – so it is reasonable that he would not know them to look at as adults. His inability to speak English as fluently as we expect, may be because he has been speaking Swahili almost exclusively for many years.

In any case as his physical vigour improves, and his confidence, he becomes more lucid and enthusiastic in promoting his new-found beliefs. To the point of course where Kate is forced to accept that Jack will never be the same self again, that he has been on “his own distinctive spiritual search.” 

The culmination of Jack’s journey is signalled by the mock ritual played out in the final act where Jack and Gerry exchange ceremonial hats, during which Jack states that it represents the “formal rejection of what you once had”. In his case the rejection of imperialist Britain and the Catholic church. In some way they all leave behind what they once had, or perhaps the world and time leave them behind.

Ardal O’Hanlon as Father Jack
National Theatre May 2023
Photo by Johan Persson

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  1. Keith Barnes

    Played Gerry early 90s with Javea Players, everyone in early retirement,, in my best Welsh accent against everyone else doing their best with Donegal Irish. As for a load of 50 year olds flinging themselves about in wild dances, don’t ask. All thanks to the remarkable Ted Ivory who used to spend 2weeks each year seeing the latest W. End plays.

    • Douglas Schatz

      Sounds like great fun! Thanks for listening.


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