Conjuring up Lughnasa
The truths and fictions of Brian Friel's
memory play

By Diana Fenves, Communications Intern

Brian Friel. Photo by Bobby Hanvey.

Plagued by writer’s block for many years, Brian Friel was uninspired until one summer evening when he took a stroll with fellow playwright Thomas Kilroy along the Thames Embankment. Kilroy was impressed by Friel’s vivid memories and family stories. His friend’s advice was clear: Write from memory. When Friel next sat down, pen in hand, he recalled his childhood, and suddenly the words flowed freely.

He drew on the rich personalities of his unwed aunts and his childhood memories of the summers he spent with them—along with his mother—in the remote Northern Ireland village of Glenties. These memories became the inspiration for his play Dancing at Lughnasa.

In a biographical essay in 1972 Friel wrote, "I have memories of those holidays [in Glenties] that are as pellucid, as intense, as if they happened last week." He shared his thoughts on memory with Graham Morrison in an interview in 1965, "They say...that nothing important ever happens to you after you're ten or so... I'm a very strong believer in this theory."

However, for Friel, memory doesn't necessarily translate to pure autobiography. Friel's plays emphasize place and its atmosphere, more so than specific details. Many of his plays, including Lughnasa, take place specifically in Donegal County (the real-life county that he summered in), but the town—Ballybeg—itself is fictional. It is place that cannot be found on any map, but resonates because it is a representation of home. A center of life and of alienation, Ballybeg captures the atmosphere of many small towns without the limitation of detail.

Likewise, the events and characters of Dancing at Lughnasa were inspired by Friel's life, but Friel didn't limit himself by hard facts. Friel's mother, Chris, had six sisters in real life. In the play, she has only four because, Friel said, "economy is more important than truth." The five Mundy sisters in Dancing at Lughnasa do share the names and some character traits of their real-life inspirations: Chris, Maggie, Agnes, Rose, and Kate. But Friel's father differed greatly from the character of Gerry. In real life, his father was a quiet schoolteacher.

The play represents more than the memories of Brian Friel: it represents one history of Ireland. Dancing with Lughnasa not only reflects his childhood experiences but changes in the culture of Ireland. A racial memory embedded in the personal. Memory is not fact but a "composed truth," Friel said. He admits that many of his clearest memories are fictions but that they have become a part of him, and that he considers them "a veritable truth."