A sort of homecoming

Sep 17, 04:32 PM
In our audio piece, award-winning actress, Catherine Byrne, who played Chris in the original Abbey Theatre production of Dancing at Lughnasa, tells us how she recalls the famous play coming home to the real life Ballybeg.

'Because of my own close connections with Glenties, it occupies a large portion of my affections and permanently shaped my imagination'.
Brian Friel, writing in the MacGill Summer School programme for 1981.

'The performance of Dancing at Lughnasa in the presence of its author and within a stone's throw of his maternal home, where his mother and aunts had lived was as close to a Ballybeg homecoming for Brian Friel as anyone could imagine'.
Michael Gallagher, MacGill Summer School Chairman, 2008.

Recollections of the opening night of the 1991 MacGill Summer School, Glenties, Co. Donegal:

I was at a play at the National Theatre with the playwright Thomas Kilroy,” Brian Friel wrote. “We walked across the Waterloo Bridge and up the strand. It was about 11.30 at night and there were homeless people sleeping in the doorways. Tom said, ‘If you talked to those people, I’m sure many of them are Irish.’ And I said, ‘I had two aunts who, I think, ended up something like that.’ He said, ‘Why don’t you write about that?’ So that’s how it began: backward.” From such a casual conversation was the genesis of the play Dancing at Lughnasa born.

The play would eventually conquer both the West End and Broadway with top honours. Accepting the Olivier award for Best Play in London, the notoriously media-shy Friel quoted author Graham Greene saying 'success is the postponement of failure' before thanking the Abbey Theatre for its 'luminous production of the play' and that was it.  The Tony Award for Best Play was somewhat overshadowed by Hollywood actor Michael Douglas going top heavy of the phonetics of how to pronounce Lughnasa. One would have thought the play was set in the Kennedy Space Centre rather than Ballybeg as he bellowed the words 'Dancing at LooNASA' announcing the winner.

No, the pinnacle of success and enjoyment for Friel of this great play came when that luminous production's original cast agreed to regroup with minimum rehearsal time and to stage the play in The Comprehensive school in Glenties which sits some 200 metres away from The Laurels, being the house where the events of the play took place.  The occasion was the traditional Sunday night opening of the 1991 Patrick MacGill summer school. Brian Friel addressed the audience before the curtain rose to say he was both as nervous as a kitten, but proud that this extraordinary happening was taking place in the county he called home. 

I was lucky enough to get one of the packed out seats and was conscious that this was a unique milestone in the playwright's career. Indeed, everyone lucky enough to get a ticket was fully aware that we were witnessing a unique event - as the curtain rose, the buzz in the air was palpable. I don't think I've experienced anything quite like it in a lifetime of enjoying theatre. The cast did not disappoint and they rightly deserved a standing ovation for a perfectly pitched performance as Gerard McSorley's final speech lingered in the air. In that moment, we both cried at the poignancy of it, but laughed and applauded at the accomplishment of such a skilled production and of a master storyteller honouring those five brave Glenties woman with words of love and tenderness. 

Words: John Ward

RTÉ's Morning Ireland report on Friel's 1991 Olivier win.
New York Times report on Friel's 1991 Tony award win.

Audio taken from Donegal's Hallowed Sites on the Racontour Archive.
Spotify URL: Donegal's Hallowed Sites playlist on Spotify

In the image are Bríd Brennan, Catherine Byrne, Bríd Ní Neachtain and Frances Tomelty. From the original 1990 cast of DANCING AT LUGHNASA by Brian Friel, directed by Patrick Mason, on the Abbey Stage. Photo: Fergus Bourke, courtesy of the Abbey Theatre.

Dublin premiere: 24th April 1990
Glenties premiere: 11th August 1991
Design: Joe Vanek
Lighting: Trevor Dawson

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