Recently the Guardian ran a piece on the late Irish playwright Brian Friel and it brought to mind two of his plays that I have always loved: Philadelphia Here I Come and Dancing at Lughnasa. Both plays brim over with a sense of longing, wit, despair, humour, and sadness that it seems to me only Irish writers such as Sean O’Casey, Seamus Heaney, Maeve Binchey, Frank McGuinness, and Edna O’Brien* seem to be able to catch without being maudlin or tin-pan alley faux-Irish sentimental. As I flashed back to a remarkable production of Dancing at Lughnasa that played Ottawa back in the mid-1990s I tried to remember when exactly that old pagan feast was celebrated only to discover that is today: August 1.
Falling half way between the Summer Solstice and the Fall Equinox, Lughnasa is the last of the four festivals of the Old Celtic Ways. It is named after the god Lugh who is said to have instituted the festival as a harvest feast and funeral games for his foster mother Tailtiu. Legend says she died from exhaustion after having cleared the plains of Ireland for agriculture.
It was the day that the harvest of the spring planting were celebrated with ritual ceremonies, athletic games, feasting, festive markets and dancing. It was also the time for proclaiming laws and settling legal disputes, drawing-up contracts, and the proclaiming of marriages. As happened so often with the old feast, in Christian times it morphed into Lammas Day with many of the same observances and customs.
I searched for music to celebrate the day with dancing in memory of Friel’s Mundy sisters. In trying to avoid the pseudo-Celtic new-age kitsch of Enya or Lorrena Mckennitt so beloved in health spas, I came across this piece by Hymir’s Kettle played on an Irish bouzouki. Though the instrument may not be authentic to the Old Times the tune is certainly one to set the feet tapping and the spirit, if not the body, dancing to give thanks to the god Lugh for seizing a bountiful harvest for us and his foster mother Tailtiu for clearing the land.
And once we catch our breath it only leaves for me to wish that your harvest be abundant and your dancing be abandoned.
*To name but a few.
On this day in 1893: Henry Perky patents shredded wheat.