When Dancing at Lughnasa premiered at Dublin's Abbey Theatre in 1990 it was the first time in ten years that Brian Friel had presented work unconnected to Derry's Field Day Theatre Company or the Troubles of Northern Ireland. This play is firmly situated within the 1930s Irish Republic and focuses on difficulties facing women struggling to realize themselves in a society whose revolution produced not greater opportunities for women but a codification of secular and religious paternalism. What Dancing at Lughnasa shares with previous Friel plays like Translations (1980) and Making History (1988) is an awareness of the past as connected to the present. The play takes the pulse of the 1930s, but also of the 1980s by recognizing the unfinished revolution in the lives of Irish women.
Since before independence, the defining characteristics of Irish identity have been embedded in the island's rural west, often portrayed as the picturesque embodiment of the purest, because most Celtic, Irish culture. In the independent state that emerged in the 1920s the image of suffering Mother Ireland joined the ideal of the “sainted” Irish mother to become a hallmark of national patriarchal assumptions. The Republic's 1937 Constitution famously incorporated not only the tenets of conservative Catholicism, but also a romantic vision of Irish woman, a term that clearly meant “wife and mother”: her “life” (not her work) within the home “gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved.” Such legislative paternalism restricted women's roles outside the home and granted them less than equal citizenry. It was widely criticized at the time (usually by women) for its failure to preserve the promise of equality offered in both the 1916 Declaration and the 1922 Constitution. And it forms the background for Dancing at Lughnasa.
In Ireland place always matters. Unsurprisingly, place also matters in the plays of Brian Friel, widely regarded as the island's most successful contemporary playwright, both artistically and commercially. His best-known plays are set in or near Ballybeg (Baile Beag, literally 'small town'), an imaginary Donegal town with a significance in Irish literature comparable to the significance of William Faulkner's Yoknapawtapha in American literature. Plays not actually set there usually take place near by. His work maps the northwest corner of Ireland, an area of small towns and rural landscapes, sliced by the border partitioning the island. The plays also map the course of Irish concerns during the late twentieth century. Additionally they map internal, psychic realities of love, family, failure, and the struggle between faith and doubt. Friel picks up the challenge set by the hedge-schoolmaster, Hugh, in Translations (1980): 'We must learn where we live.'
Born in Co. Tyrone (Northern Ireland) in 1929, Friel moved with his family to nearby Derry in 1939. Following his graduation from St Columb’s College in Derry (also the alma mater of Nobel Laureates John Hume and Seamus Heaney), Friel attended St Patrick’s College, Maynooth (in the Irish Republic) and then took teacher-training courses in Belfast. For ten years he taught in Derry. In 1967 he moved six miles from Derry, to Muff, Co. Donegal (in the Republic), and in 1982 he moved further into the Republic, to Greencastle. Throughout the 1980s he was actively involved with the Derry-based Field Day Theatre Company.
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