I first learned of the August Celtic harvest festival, Lughnasa, from the play Dancing at Lughnasa. Written by the “Irish Chekhov” Brian Friel and first produced in Ireland in 1990, the play examines the cultural war between the catholic church and the old pagan religions it sought to destroy. Did destroy.
Set in County Donegal in 1936, the tale is told by the boy, Michael, of the summer when the family life carefully constructed by his mother and her four sisters begins to disintegrate. Their only brother, Uncle Jack, returns from 25 years in Africa, where he was sent to practice colonialism as a catholic priest, and has gone native. Supposed to be a “visible saint, exemplar of ideal piety in a sea of persistent savagery,” he responds more to the drumming and fires of the pagan celebrations than to catholic doctrine. When the local priest learns of Jack’s pagan “conversion,” he fires Kate, the oldest sister and the only one of the five sisters with a paying job, from the school where she teaches. Two other sisters made some money knitting gloves until a glove factory opens nearby. Then the family, already dirt poor, suddenly has no income, destroyed by the church, patriarchy and capitalism in concert.
The movie version, made in 1998, starring Meryl Streep as the conventional Kate and the Irish actor Michael Gambon as befuddled Uncle Jack is well worth watching. If you require car crashes or murders or automatic weapons, you will be disappointed. But these actors do a fine job portraying this resourceful proud Irish family in a beautiful rural setting.
A newly acquired wireless radio works on and off and provides a musical background to the family’s drama. We hear popular Western songs of the day, but it’s only when Irish music begins to play that the five sisters’ feet set to tapping and they dance with wild abandon, even priggish Kate, proving there’s still some pagan left in the Irish culture.
Michael’s father, absent for 18 months, returns on a motorbike but does not intend to stay. He plans to join the International Brigades to fight for democracy in the Spanish Civil War. Uncle Jack asks if the catholic church is for the dictator Franco. Yes, says Gerry Evans, the father. “They would be,” answers Jack.
Young Gerry says the war will probably be over by Christmas. Old Jack replies, “They say that about all wars.”
Says Kate, “It’s a sad day for Ireland when we send off our boys to fight for godless communism.”
Fr. Jack says he has been called away from the church to “the god of light, god of music.” He hints at his homosexuality when asked by Michael to whom he sings. With a nostalgic expression, he says it is his African houseboy. Jack has been given a feathered baroque helmet by an African priest. Colorful and magisterial, with its tall red and white feathers, it could be a piece of African regalia. But it is a remnant of British imperialism. The hat, reminiscent of a prop from a Gilbert and Sullivan opera, has made its way from the British imperial army to Africa and back again. Ironic because the Irish themselves were slaves to English colonialism.
In the movie, on the night of Lughnasa, fires can be seen burning in the “black hills” of Donegal where bits of the old religions are still practiced. People gather to drink, dance, and jump the fire. From Fr. Jack we learn of the African goddess, Opis (pronounced Opee), the great chthonian goddess of the earth. The Chthonian deities are the manifestations of the Great Goddess, like Gaia or Ge. Jack explains to the family how the Ugandans celebrate the harvest festival. August is the time of the new yam and the sweet cassava. “The Africans cut and anoint the new yam and pass it around. They light fires and paint their faces and they dance and dance and lose all sense of time.” It is easy to see why Jack has renounced repressive catholicism for a freer earth-based religious experience.
Here in Santa Rosa there is good reason to celebrate the harvest this Lughnasa. Strawberries are at their peak and Holly has planted enough this year to have fruit every morning. The corn is as high as a Columbian mammoth’s eye (they were taller than elephants). We have just harvested the last of the peaches and Gravenstein apples. Eggplant, peppers, tomatoes, beans and cukes are happening. Figs are having a good year. Holly has harvested her herbs and is mixing up the medicine. Flower and pollinator gardens buzz with bees. Even as we strive to conserve water, our garden is happy.
I probably won’t paint my face (ok, maybe my hair) and I certainly won’t light any fires, but you may find me dancing around our garden on Lughnasa on the first day of August.
Fire photo by Meritt Thomas on Unsplash