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Ireland’s Booms and Busts: Dancing at the Breach
By Neil Ferron

1990s: Boom

Ireland’s president from 1990-1997, Mary Robinson

When Brian Friel wrote Dancing at Lughnasa, Ireland was just emerging from decades of poverty and entering its famous economic boom, lovingly referred to as the "Celtic Tiger." In 1986, Ireland, along with Portugal and Greece, was one of the three poorest countries in the EU. Almost one in five of the labor force was unemployed. The National debt tripled. There was a mass exodus of young, talented Irish people to America, Australia, and Britain.

But the government took key steps to remedy the situation: They cut the corporate tax to 10%. They provided subsidies to foreign companies like Dell, Intel, and Microsoft to encourage them to locate in Ireland. And by the end of the 1990s, the result was simple: unexpected opulence. Vacation homes on Cyprus. Helicopters. Novelist Joseph O’Conner explained: "There are some of us who worship Versace the way our grandmothers worshiped the Virgin Mary."

1936: Bust

And yet Friel chose to counterpoint this time of fortune and optimism with a memory play set in the summer of 1936. At that point in history, the market crash of 1929 had rippled across the world (in a fashion not dissimilar from the way the 2008 U.S. housing market crash affected economies across the world). Global trade had seized up. Unemployment had skyrocketed. The world faced poverty at a magnitude it had not encountered in the modern era.

Ireland was no exception. In the first decades of the 20th century, Ireland had one of the highest standards of living in Western Europe. But the Free State government, which took power in 1922, instituted protectionist tariffs, decreased the importance of education, and allowed the Catholic Church to run much of the infrastructure of the nation. When the Great Depression reared its head, Ireland sank into dismal poverty.

"Times were very bad and money was scarce," remembered traditional fiddler Junior Crehan. "And because most farm produce could not be sold the small farmer was badly hit." In Dancing at Lughnasa, the Mundy household—while filled with vibrant personalities—is teetering on the brink of poverty. The only meal prepared is Maggie's "Eggs Ballybeg": three eggs that will be split between seven adults and a child. In the play Michael refers to this growing poverty as the "widening breach."

2010: Bust

After a decade of unexpected wealth, Ireland has returned to that breach. Ireland is now experiencing the deepest recession of any Eurozone country. Last year, Ireland was stripped of its perfect AAA credit rating and downgraded to AA+, then to AA-, finally resting at A+, one notch above California's rating, which is the worst in our nation. Unemployment is over 13%, and emigration has reached the highest levels since the 1980s.

Speak, Memory

Irish Food Board Chairman Dan Brown, President of Ireland Mary McAleese and Martin McAleese at a gardening event, 2010. Photo: James Horan/Collins

When Mary Robinson was elected as Ireland’s first female president in 1990, her inaugural speech was marked with a kind of hesitation. While idealistic in her tone, she placed a heavy emphasis on retaining a sense of Ireland’s past. "I want this Presidency to promote the telling of stories—stories of celebration through the arts and stories of conscience and of social justice," she said. She was not ready to lose her sense of history thanks to money.

Seven years later, Ireland elected its second female president, Mary McAleese. In McAleese’s inaugural speech there was no such hesitation. She spoke of blossoming potential; when she mentioned poverty, it is the poor outside of Ireland who need help from the Irish, and she ended the speech with a quote from WB Yeats: "Everything we look upon is blest."

In this context, Dancing at Lughnasa is no longer a simple exploration of an individual's past. Friel's play satisfies Robinson’s 1990 request to maintain a national history, a history that Ireland must remember now that it has once again moved into a period of economic depression.

Neil Ferron is the dramaturg and assistant to the director for Dancing at Lughnasa.