| 7.7°C Dublin

Close

Premium

Thirty years on: the two sides to 'Dancing at Lughnasa'

Shimmering nostalgia of play's success obscures tragic heart of Brian Friel's masterpiece, writes Katy Hayes

Close

Mammies: a 25th anniversary production of Dancing at Lughnasa. Photo by Ros Kavanagh

Mammies: a 25th anniversary production of Dancing at Lughnasa. Photo by Ros Kavanagh

Mammies: a 25th anniversary production of Dancing at Lughnasa. Photo by Ros Kavanagh

This week marks the 30th anniversary of the 1990 premiere of Brian Friel's Dancing at Lughnasa, Friel's most successful play and a cornerstone of modern Irish theatre. It was produced by the Abbey Theatre, directed by Patrick Mason and designed by Joe Vanek, with his iconic fields of golden wheat creating an enduring visual imprint. The play won an Olivier Award and a Tony Award. It was adapted by Frank McGuinness into a film which starred Meryl Streep, directed by Pat O'Connor.

There are two stories of Dancing at Lughnasa. Firstly, there is the play itself, a tragic story about Irish womanhood in the formative years of the Irish Republic. And secondly, there is the story of the production of the play, a galloping international hit that combined Irish dancing and Irish mammies (five of them) into a massive global cultural phenomenon. It has been produced all over the world.

But for those of us old enough to have lived through the 1980s, this play was clearly born out of a grim era for Irish women. There were the convulsions of the 1982 amendment to the constitution giving equal status to the unborn, and the ugly misogynistic debate that surrounded this. There was the tragedy of the Kerry Babies case. Marital rape was only then being made illegal; the status of illegitimacy was only recently abolished. Single mothers were still publicly scorned, and often made to surrender their babies under duress. Magdalene Laundries were still in operation. Mary Robinson had not yet been elected President - the idea of a female president would have seemed fanciful. And Ireland was still in the grip of the terrible recession of the 1980s; hope and optimism were in short supply.