On a dreek Irish November afternoon, when the cloud and the rain have made it dark by half past three, it is easy to understand how former generations regarded this month as the first of the winter, and if this month of November is the first of the winter, then August, that height of the English summer, is the first of an Irish autumn.
Lughnasa, the Irish for August, was the harvest festival, the pre-Christian celebration of crops gathered in, of the Earth once more yielding it increase. The harvest is at once the high point and the dying point of the summer. Watching a school production of Brian Friel’s brilliant Dancing at Lughnasa last night, there was a sense of Friel having captured both the magic and the melancholy of the month; dancing capturing those emotions and moods that we cannot articulate.
The closing speech of Michael Evans, the narrator of the story, includes a sublime passage:
But there is one memory of that Lughnasa time that visits me most often; and what fascinates me about that memory is that it owes nothing to fact. In that memory atmosphere is more real than incident and everything is simultaneously actual and illusory. In that memory, too, the air is nostalgic with the music of the 30’s. It drifts in from somewhere far away-a mirage of sound-a dream music that is both heard and imagined; that seems to be both itself and its own echo; a sound so alluring and so mesmeric that the afternoon is bewitched, maybe haunted, by it.
And what is so strange about that memory is that everybody seems to be floating on those sweet sounds, moving rhythmically, languorously, in complete isolation; responding more to the mood of the music than it its beat. When I remember it, I think of it as dancing. Dancing with eyes half closed because to open them would break the spell. Dancing as if language had surrendered to the movement-as if this ritual, this wordless ceremony, was now the way to speak, to whisper private and sacred things, to be in touch with some otherness. Dancing as if the very heart of life and all its hopes might be found in those assuaging notes and those hushed rhythms and in those silent and hypnotic movements. Dancing as if language no longer existed because words were no longer necessary.
Words were no longer necessary . . .