Author Maeve Binchy on DANCING AT LUGHNASA

THE MAGNIFICENT MUNDY GIRLS

Women have always kept the show on the road but possibly never as much and never as bravely as in Ireland in the first half of this century.

In a land where the Catholic Church and the written Constitution both put a huge emphasis on the family as the only worthwhile unit in society, single women who were not members of the religious order were made to feel that they were failures who had missed many boats.

The odds were very much against them economically as well as socially. If they were to live any kind of life at all it was one of their own making. The five Mundy sisters were representative of many such women, unusual only because there were so many of them. Out of five girls none of them married, but this does not necessarily make them a dysfunctional family. In the 1930's, unemployment meant that many men emigrated in search of work.

Women, less educated by tradition, less adventurous by society's demands and more often concerned by their nature about leaving elderly parents, did not go in such numbers. So there were less men left to divide.

More men entered the religious life as priests, monks and brothers than women went into convents, so that affected the balance still further. The tradition of the elderly bachelor was also a highly acceptable one. In those days nobody thought it odd to see a village full of unmarried men who were taking their time.

When a man DID marry, it was often later in life and to a younger women who would bear him sons and preferably had a bit of land to bring to the marriage as a dowry.

The Mundy sisters were poor starters in this harsh competition. A bare living to be scraped out of their rocky farm, with ony one of them, Kate, educated enough to have a career as a teacher and bring in a salary, and the knowledge that their sister Rose, being simple, could never have a life of her own anywhere without their protection.

All they had to cling on to was their solidarity in the face of a bad hand being dealt to them was the pittance they earned from hand knitting gloves and the fact that they were respectable.

When the five Misses Mundy came into town to Mass on a Sunday, they were creatures of importance, their reputations intact and their brother a priest abroad on the missions.

It might not seem much to on to, but it was a structure of sorts. And then even that fell apart.

One of the sisters, Christine, is a single mother. Her son, Michael, is adored by his four aunts as well as his mother but it has put a dent into the pride, the united face of good behavior that they had once been able to parade to a critical Ireland in the 1930's.

Then when Father Jack returns from years of converting the Heathen in Africa, it turns out that he seemed to have learned rather more about their gods than he ever taught about the real God, the Christian god with an Irish accent that he had been intended to promote. In theory, these women should have been permanent victims and losers, bitter and ranting against their fate.

But in fact like so many Irishwomen of those and other times, they were nothing less than heroic. They created a magical childhood for the boy, Michael, they accepted that his erring and uncommitted father would return from time to time to visit and upset further Michael's mother, their sister Christine.

They loved their brother Jack all the more, showing no disappointment once they realized how confused was his head and how fragile the hold he had on the life to which he had returned.

They accepted everything with admirable good-humored generosity, pausing only rarely to reflect on how different things might have been in a better world.

Even the hopeless malfunctioning radio set becomes a family pet, and its shortcomings forgiven as if it had a real personality of its own.

At the heart of the story is the moment when the ancient radio suddenly bursts into unexpected life and gives them toe-tapping, heart-stirring Irish music that none of them can resist. It begins in their feet and goes right through them.

As the women dance and dance through their house and out to their farmyard, they are dancing not just for themselves but for centuries of women who have triumphed over sad bleak times.

They are no longer down-trodden and deprived, instead they are those who have heard the waves of music that made their souls respond as souls have done since time began. Not just in the fairly recent two millennia of Christian era but in pagan times long before. And as the Lughnasa bonfires light up the Donegal hills, the magnificent Mundy sisters too have their moment of release and excitement which is owed to everyone everywhere. And as they dance, our hopes and dreams are with them every dance-step of the way.

London, July 1998

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