“[T]o be in touch with some otherness”: Memory, History, and Ethics in Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa*

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Yu-chen Lin

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The hybrid form of storytelling and drama in Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa (1990) has been associated with the play’s escape from history. By contrast, this essay suggests that the play’s eccentric use of narrative in conjunction with representation is shot through with history in that it registers Friel’s poetics in writing a chapter of Ireland’s moral history against the official grain. This counter-history rests on the disparity between the Mundys and the state in terms of ethics. At a time when the Free State aspired to an untenable economy to sustain the nationalist ideal of self-sufficiency, the Mundys suffer tremendously not only from economic stagnancy consequent upon state policies, but also from their estrangement from the state which defines them as the superfluous other. Dispossessed as they are, they still practice a gift economy which verges on the impossible not so much because they can barely afford giving as because, in its generosity to the other, this economy goes beyond the state’s self-other divide. This impossible gift is reconfigured, albeit problematically, by the narrator who makes sense of his past shared with his maternal family. Set in the 1960s, his memory narrative is ultimately framed by the playwright’s tribute to his maternal aunts as well as innumerable diasporans at home and abroad from the hindsight of 1990, a tribute coinciding with Mary Robinson’s extension of hospitality to her audience on behalf of the new Ireland in her inaugural speech.