At the heart of this craggy farm, the icon-faced Agnes (Brid Brennan) white washes the walls of a stone croft, and the simple-minded yet fearless Rose (Sophie Thompson) nurtures her pets - a grand, strutting white rooster and his harem. Inside, the heartily impulsive Maggie (Kathy Burke) communes with baby sister Christina (Catherine McCormack) over a cracked mirror that hangs precariously and fractures their likenesses into mismatched pieces. The formidable Mundy sister, Kate (Meryl Streep) collects them brusquely, herding them single-file down a winding dirt road into the town of Ballybeg.
The five unmarried Mundy women flank Michael, anxiously awaiting a bus that bears their long-absent older brother Jack (Michael Gambon). A man of the cloth, Jack's 25-years of Church service in Africa have unceremoniously expired. His arrival is a clue, as Jack wavers uncertainly. And a secret emerges, as his make-shift valise topples, creating a small scandal as African artifacts and a brilliantly-plumed helmut spill onto the village square in view of the town and its unforgiving priest, Father Carlin (John Kavanaugh). It is the beginning of things changing, too quickly.
At home, the sisters cluster at the hearth, each an independent but loyal note that together form a kind of music, like the kind that erratically bursts from the temperamental, second-hand radio they've christened "Marconi". Jack appears, fondly recounting native African customs and cheerfully discovering Michael's illegitimacy. Many women have love children in Africa, and they belong to and are loved by the entire tribe; much as Michael is owned by each of his aunts through love. Jack invites Kate to dance - for a Catholic priest, a blasphemy. A new threat to the Mundy's respectability is Rose's romantic declarations for a local nere' do-well, Danny Bradley, whose wife has left him with their children.
The regimentary but lovingly protective Kate is the mostly keenly sensitive to the shame of Michael's birth, the embarrassment of Rose's simplicity, and now the dawning realization of her brother's alienation from the Church. As the only educated member of the family, her teaching salary is the family's lifeline, augmented by Agnes' and Rose's piecework income, hand-knitting gloves.
The solitary but contented Michael plays alone with the chickens, and is joined by Kate. She hands him a gift wrapped in crisp brown paper. From down the road, their moment is broken by a mechanical rumble, trumpeting the unexpected arrival of Gerry Evans (Rhys Ifan), the boy's absent but sweet-natured father. It's as though a new note has changed the music of the sisters. Christina is radiantly transformed; Rose, Agnes and Maggie flock to the window, and Kate customarily frets over this re-visitation of a scandal. Christina greets Gerry at the road, while the other Mundy sisters stand witness at a window; their portal that protects the family from the world outside.
Gerry is passing through on his way to Spain, the latest in a life of impulses, to the lure of joining the International Brigade forces against Franco. In these rare visits, Christina boldly indulges her passion for him, just as his long absences leave her with a remnant of melancholia. As Christina takes off with Gerry on his motorbike, Kate pedals her ricketty bike into town. Vera McLoughlin (Marie Mullen) joins her with the discomforting news that a new factory will open in Donegal, and the handwork of Agnes and Rose will be obsolete. Vera's cruel daughter Sophia, a former student of Kate's, is going to marry - with her mother's relief that she'll have a man to support her. Ballybeg is, like many towns in Ireland, a community of women where the few able-bodied men include the untouchable Father Carlin and Rose's abandoned rogue Danny Bradley (Lorcan Cranitch). Kate is momentarily distracted from this unwelcome news in the grocer, where she suffers Sophia's (Dawn Bradfield) taunts and ventures a coy flirtation with proprietor Austin Morgan (Peter Gowan). She then keeps an appointment with Father Carlin in her empty schoolroom. There, he tersely questions Jack's fitness to say mass, and warns that "falling numbers" could cost Kate her job.
Simultaneously, at the Mundy croft, Christina joins Jack as he unpacks his spectacular plumed hat - a gift from a native official to "the Irish outcast".
Later, at home, Kate's spirits plunge under the news that Austin is getting married. She deflects the conversation with talk of the feast of Lughnasa. An unexpected desire erupts from Agnes - that they all join the dances of Lughnasa. Be they the province of the soiled, the drunk and the unruly. Be it improper for mature unmarried women and mothers to dance. The desire infects the room, and is abruptly inoculated by Kate in a forceful prohibition. Outside, Kate is joined by the jovial diplomat Maggie. Kate's composure starts to thin . . . crack . . . and she worries out loud about the family's fate.
Dinner provokes more African and admiring stories from Jack. He cherishes their capacity for fun, laughter and love. In the night, Christina steals into the barn - where Kate has dictated Gerry must sleep - as Agnes watches from the window. A family picnic consumes the next day. And that night, the sisters reminescence over a faded photo album that contains the only evidence of young loves, and opportunites foregone in favor of the family.
In the new morning, Jack invites Gerry to take a walk, and Gerry discovers that the priest-gone-native is not as feeble as he seems. Agnes and Rose are off in distant briars, picking blackberries for jam; Rose oddly insisting to wear her Sunday best. She feigns a headache and steals off to rendezvous with Danny Bradley for a boat ride on the lake. Tottering under the brutish Bradley in the peeling rowboat, Rose agrees to join him at the forest fires to Lugh. Agnes intersects at the house with Jack and Gerry, who takes the pail of berries from her hand and leads her in a serenade to "Anything Goes". Christina watches from the window, as this male presence insinuates something foreign into the household - jealousy.
The sisters discover that Rose is gone, and separate into quadrants of the countryside on a frantic search. In the peat fields, Kate confesses to Maggie that she's been relieved of her teaching post, due to the "falling numbers" she knows is a lie. The cracks in the mirror now reflect themselves in the sisters' lives, which hang just as precariously.
They have left Michael to watch over Jack, who's drawn outside by dancing lights in the distant forest. He takes off as though he's returning to Africa, at least ceremoniously.
Jack enters a glen with a garland of bright red flowers around his neck, and finds a drunken Bradley with Rose. She is, probably for the first time in her life, frightened. And the alien dread has broken her enchantment with Bradley. Jack rescues her from the wild revelers and escorts her home.
Reunited, the Mundy's are visited by Vera, who informs them that the factory in Donegal is official. Perhaps they can apply for a job there, although they've rejected the 41-year old Vera as too old. The silence of her departure is broken by Gerry's successful attempts to rewire Marconi. It reincarnates with a spirited Irish jig of fiddles and drums. The music captures their feet and conquers their bodies - even that of the obsessively proper Kate. Michael witnesses the escalation of their mad gaiety as it spills from the hearth into the yard. The men now pay witness to the women as they spin and laugh and stomp. It is as though they are the last alter of the Lughnasa fires before the flames must go out.
As a man, Michael is called again and again to the summer that eclipsed the Mundy sisters. Memories of Uncle Jack and his waking dreams of Africa. Memories of those wonderful sisters; the abandon with which they loved him and each other. And images from that night, when they joined together to capture the light and the dance within themselves. And how that sweet music created by the five notes of the Mundy sisters would forever echo in his life.
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