Dancing at Lughnasa


“Dancing at Lughnasa” (pronounced “Loon-sa”) is the story of five sisters – the Mundy family – living in rural Ireland in the 1930’s. The sisters live under the cloud of one sister’s indiscretion that resulted in her bearing a “lovechild.” The story is set in County Donegal, in Northwest Ireland. Christina’s love child is Michael, a small boy who is beloved by his mother and aunts, and who narrates the film.
There’s also a long lost uncle, Father Jack – a missionary priest. He returns home to County Donegal, sick with malaria and possessed with dark secrets. As the film progresses, Michael’s father, Gerry, returns from his wanderings across the country as a failed salesman and ne’er-do-well.
The dynamic relationships between the sisters carry the film, even though tragedy ultimately awaits them all. One by one, they encounter disappointments, losses and desertions with the passage of time. Their lot is hopelessness and desperation in lives brought low by inescapable circumstances.
Released in 1998, “Dancing at Lughnasa” juxtaposes the rural Lughnasa community’s pagan celebration with African tribalism; it draws our attention to the hypocrisy of the Church’s appropriation of pagan festivals only to ultimately denounce and deny them. The people of Lughnasa long for the joys of the pagan world and this is echoed in the most famous scene of all – when the women, even the imperious Kate, lose themselves in wild dancing, kicking up their heels joyfully – as if to say wordlessly, “to hell with propriety and decorum.”
This story began as a play by Irish playwright Brian Friel. It illustrates the themes of loss, emigration, responsibility, and the judgmental atmosphere towards women which prevailed in Ireland in the time in which it was set. To an extent, those social conditions continue for many Irish women today.
The main characters are Kate (Meryl Streep) who is the only one with a source of income as a teacher, Agnes (Brid Brennan), who we recognize as the caretaker of the other sisters, Rose (Sophie Thompson), a simple-minded girl, Maggie (Kathy Burke) the extroverted, worldly one, and Christina (Catherine McCormack), Michael’s mother. The return of Father Jack (Michael Gambon) and Gerry (Rhys Ifans) lead to a series of misfortunes that disrupt and ultimately destroy the unity of the 5 sisters.
Despite its less-than-optimistic message, I can whole-heartedly recommend “Danicng at Lughnasa” to anyone seeking to understand Ireland’s past and the struggles of its women, in particular. Where the scenery is lush, viewers are transported to that idyllic image of Ireland that many of us possess. Where the misery is palpable, we experience the desperation and dread of these sisters who through the course of the film we grow to love.


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