Dancing at Lughnasa’s origin story: Those five brave Glenties women

London’s National Theatre is reviving Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa. Breandán Mac Suibhne recovers the lives of the actual women on whom the characters are based

And the flesh was made word. The “five brave Glenties women” to whom Brian Friel dedicated his great play Dancing at Lughnasa (1990) were his mother Chris (née MacLoone) Friel (b. 1896), and four of her sisters, all of whom were single and childless - Kate (b. 1882) and Maggie (b. 1884), also known as Peg, Rose, (b. 1889) and Agnes, commonly Aggie (b. 1891).

Chris had other sisters. Mary (b. 1886) who became a nun, Sr Casimir, and entered a convent in Manchester, and Sarah (b. 1873) who married contractor Hugh McGill and made a home in Glenties. But Sr Caisimir was gone from Donegal before Friel’s birth in 1929, and Sarah died aged fifty eight in 1931 when he was but a small child.

So it was that he bestowed the first name of his mother and those of the four aunts whom he knew best—and something too of their lives and personalities—on the Mundy sisters in the play. And it is for that reason that they are “those five brave Glenties women”—the real acknowledged, the dead thanked, for who they had been in life and for the parts of them that come alive on stage, when, in the imagined summer of 1936, five sisters dance.

The flesh and blood women danced too. In February 1905, Kate MacLoone, the model for the prim schoolmistress in Lughnasa, was, aged 22, working as an assistant to master Joe MacAuley in Kilkenny National School, about 8 kilometres west of Glenties. And that month, with MacAuley, she put on a concert, having first secured the “approval” of Canon James MacFadden, the parish priest of Inishkeel and manager of its “Catholic” schools.

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MacFadden was a formidable figure, known far from Glenties. He had been active in the land agitation in north-west Donegal during the 1880s, becoming at once a nationalist hero and villain to loyalists when he declared, in defiance of police and judges, “I am the law in Gaoth Dobhair”. Then, in 1889, he had been at the centre of a sensational trial, after a crowd dispersing after mass, bludgeoned District Inspector William Martin to death for attempting to arrest their priest.

The Church had no qualms about cashing in on MacFadden’s hardline reputation. In 1897, his bishop sent him to America to raise money for a grand cathedral in Letterkenny, and then, in appreciation of his efforts, when he came home, in 1901, with American false teeth, big cigars and a Yankee accent, he gave him the coveted parish of Inishkeel. Here, the great defender of the poor of Gaoth Dobhair aligned himself with the well-to-do in the town of Glenties, supporting a hike in rates across a wide district to pay for a water scheme that only served the town. The proposal saw some seven hundred ratepayers from the “mountain districts”— the people of Baile na Finne and Na Sealgáin, Éadan Anfa and Na Cruacha —assembling in the town to protest against these water charges, and when a local merchant tried to mollify them by mentioning their “revered pastor’s” support for the scheme, they booed and groaned. But Glenties got its water scheme and MacFadden an extraordinarily ornate blue and white lavatory, today preserved in the town museum.

MacFadden was present, as guest of honour, with one of his curates on the night of the concert in Kilkenny. The Derry Journal described how, in the “tastefully decorated” schoolhouse, “a number of the school-children” appeared on stage — meaning not all did — and complimented their parents on “providing them with beautiful white dresses for the occasion.” Aggie, then aged 11, and Chris, aged 9, were singled out for special praise: “The step-dancing by Miss Christina M’Loone, Miss Agnes M’Loone, and Miss Winnie Gallagher was much appreciated. The recitations delivered by Miss Christina M’Loone deserve special mention. She displayed much ability for one of so tender an age.”

Chris and Aggie, who danced that February night in 1905, more than 30 years before the dance imagined in Lughnasa, also played music together. Among the few items belonging to the MacLoone sisters that have survived the wreck of time is sheet music for a piano duet on which is written “Aggie and Chris MacLoone, 10th March 1905.”

It is a score for Theodor Kullak’s The Children’s Ball. Who knows now that it was not some reward for that performance a few weeks earlier in Kilkenny School? After all, it was a children’s ball.

The MacLoones’ respectability is easily read in both the Journal’s report of the concert and that surviving score. Kate was an assistant teacher; Chris and Aggie, attired in white dresses, had been chosen to perform for the parish priest; and those two young girls had access to a piano. Their family was above the common run, then—a pillar of the community.

Respectability does not mean that, down all the generations, the MacLoone family was without sin. There had been MacLoones who drank hard and some of them got involved in petty corruption when elected to public office in the late 1800s. Also, the girls’ father, Barney Petey, had been a cess (tax) collector, as had his father, Petey, before him—and collecting the pennies of the poor (and prosecuting those who could not pay) was an unsavoury business, respectable but scarcely decent. No, respectability meant only that, over generations, the MacLoones’ sins were not cast up to them and they did no penance.

Still, while the family was privileged, a poignancy attaches to the concert and the music. Aggie and Chris had danced together as children and played duets on the piano. But in the early 1910s, it was Chris alone who was sent to Kate, then teaching in Gortalowry, near Cookstown, Co Tyrone. It was Chris who was later enrolled as a correspondence student of Hughes Academy, a grind school in Derry. And in 1913, well-tutored by Kate, it was she who secured first place in Ireland in the Female Learners’ Examination for the Royal Mail. Chris duly got a job in Omagh post office, and in 1924 married Paddy Friel, a highly accomplished teacher working in a school outside the town—an appropriate spouse for one of the MacLoones.

Other siblings made their way in the world too. Kate was not the only teacher in the family. Although the character based on Peg in Lughnasa was not a school mistress, she too had gone away to teacher training college. Both she and Kate would spend the bulk of their careers many miles from Glenties—after Gortnalowry in east Tyrone, Kate taught in Mín Charraigeach, outside Ballybofey, in east Donegal, and Peg, after a spell in Maghera, south Derry, for almost thirty years in Newtownstewart, west Tyrone.

Then, there were four brothers who apprenticed in the finest drapery stores in Dublin, with three of them rising to hold managerial positions. The one who did not, Barney, left the shop floor and trained to be a Mill Hill missionary, becoming, with Sr Casimir, a “gift to God” from the family of Barney Petey MacLoone. In fact, the missionary was a celebrity, the “Wee Donegal Priest Known to Millions” for his letters to the press soliciting support for lepers in Uganda.

And all the while Aggie, who had danced with Chris in 1905, remained at home, held back to care for her mother, Sarah (commonly called Sorcha), and her father, Barney Petey, and a sister, Rose, who, in Friel’s telling in Lughnasa was “simple”. Rose is also a character in “A Man’s World” (1960), a memorable short story in which Friel picks over the same fragments of his childhood later assembled in Lughnasa—a boy in his mother’s homeplace with her sisters and his feckless father, in this instance an alcoholic. And here too Rose is “simple”.

Their mother died in 1922; their father held out until late 1935. And when Aggie finally could leave, in 1936, after her father’s death, she could only do so if Rose left with her; and if Rose was “simple”, then Aggie would leave with “obligations” that diminished, in her late forties, the scant chance she then had of getting a man and a place of her own.

But that she must have known. Perhaps, indeed, as the narrator Michael says of Aggie in the play, she “just wanted … away.” Away from her father’s house, where she had been obligated to remain, into middle age, serving others, while her sisters and brothers got to live their lives.

Brian Friel “got” Aggie MacLoone and what she had given up or rather all that was taken from her. In Lughnasa, when the sisters dance together it is Aggie who, per Friel’s directions, “moves most gracefully, most sensuously”. And Michael, who had been a boy in 1936, remembers that the note announcing the sisters’ departure was written in Aggie’s “resolute hand”.

Kate MacLoone was “resolute” too. For sure, she pushed boundaries all her life, pressing herself into spheres heavily male. In the first decade of the twentieth century, she was one of the most prominent women in the National Teachers Association in south-west Donegal and she was active too in cultural organizations, including Coláiste Uladh—an Irish-language college established by the Gaelic League in 1906—and Feis Thír Chonaill, a festival controlled, in the diocese of Raphoe, by the Catholic Church; she was often the only woman on lists of its subscribers. She herself had, it was said after a performance in Gort an Choirce in 1915, a “beautiful, well-trained voice”.

The Feis remained a life-long interest for Kate. And it was an interest too of her sister, Chris, with Brian Friel once ruefully recalling of his mother that, if there was a feis within fifty miles of them, she dragged him along and sat him on the platform: “I entered for whistling competitions on Narin strand, mouth-organ competitions in Ardara, violin and singing competitions in Letterkenny, Lifford, and Derry. Until I was ten years of age, she exhibited her protégé in every hut and hall in Donegal, Derry and Tyrone.”

What Friel never mentioned was that his aunt’s cultural interests—and ability and ambition—led her to enroll in the Abbey School of Acting. Friel, in fact, several times disavowed having had any theatrical background: he had honed his craft, in his thirties, under the auspices of Tyrone Guthrie in Minneapolis was his preferred story.

“Now, if you want to be a playwright”, he wrote in 1971, “you must either arrange to be a child of theatrical parents and be born preferably in the greenroom in the interval between Act 1 and 2 of Separate Tables; or you will have to have been dragged to theatrical matinees every Wednesday and Sunday by an eccentric maiden aunt; or played the Gravedigger in the school production of Hamlet; or at very least you will have to have been an usher for the local amateur dramatic association. Now I was privileged in none of these ways.”

An eccentric maiden aunt? Was that a tease? Who knows now? But one way or another, a single aunt in the Abbey School of Acting does not a theatrical lineage make.

In 1939, after many years teaching in Mín Charraigeach, Kate became principal of the Girls’ School in Stranorlar, a lap of honour (and pay rise) prior to her retirement in January 1943, when she came back to live in the old family home outside Glenties. She was a devout woman, a daily communicant, and she took over the local Children of Mary, a sodality for young girls that was organized across the country. The Glenties sodality had managed to get a hall erected in the convent grounds in 1939, and Kate found a use for the building, establishing a Dramatic Club that staged plays, not all of a religious nature, with herself as director.

Public performance invites public criticism. In December 1949, Kate produced The Message of Fatima, a new play in four acts by a Dominican nun in Blackrock, County Dublin, with a view to touring it around the parochial halls of the north-west. The cast was drawn from the Children of Mary and the pupils of the Convent School, with music by St Connell’s Choir. Tickets were 3/6, three shillings and six pence.

The production’s first night, in St Dominick’s Hall, Glenties, was the subject of a sharp, if not entirely negative, review on the front page of the Donegal Democrat on 23 December. It averred to the producer having failed to strike the right balance between “pageantry” and “drama”. Compounding matters, a photograph of a production of the same play by the Ballyshannon Children of Mary, that had been glowingly reviewed in the previous week’s Democrat, appeared alongside the review of the Glenties one.

Insult had been added to injury. Kate stewed through the twelve days of Christmas. Then she stewed another twelve days and more, until, finally, and at last, a letter dated 25 January—over a month after the review—appeared in the Democrat on 3 February 1950.

Sir—Just a word from one “who did not even essay to introduce drama” into the Message of Fatima. Now, friend, since when did you qualify as a drama critic? And what, in your opinion, is the chief constituent of drama? I remember in my Abbey School of Acting days, we were always told that acting—the actual acting—came before setting, scenery or any of the other absolute necessities. And in the opinion of those who know in our Sunday night and Monday night shows, the children’s acting right through was “full of drama” and well nigh perfect. But then we are to assume, I suppose, that these people do not possess your superior knowledge.

Before I finish, allow me to tell you that professionals often do kitchen scenes against a black curtain.

Now I was advised to pay no attention to that “old screed” in “the little Democrat,” but I could just not forbear to let all your denunciation go unheeded.

Thanks very much indeed.

Yours faithfully,

K. MacLoone (Miss)

The Laurels

Glenties

The letter had effect: the Glenties Children of Mary Dramatic Club later toured the play across Derry, Donegal, Tyrone and Fermanagh with only positive notices appearing in the Democrat.

That was Kate—stern and severe, preoccupied with others’ perceptions. There was a softness too, however. In 1938, when she was in her final year in Mín Charraigeach, her pupils gathered rhymes and riddles, songs and stories from old people as part of a state-wide project conducted by the Irish Folklore Commission. Song is unusually well-represented in the materials submitted from the school after filtering by the teacher. Besides well-known republican ballads and songs of emigration, the submission includes a good many love songs.

Come, judge me all man-kind, am I not worth a-having?

Come, policeman; come, sailor; come, brewer; come, baker;

Come, weaver; come, tailor; come, fiddler; come, piper;

But nothing ever came but an old chimney sweeper.

She lay in the arms of this old chimney sweeper.

There is also “The Laurels”, the romantic name that Kate gave the family home a few years after she retired there in 1943. It replaced “Railway View”, which her father had named it in the 1890s when the railway came to Glenties. In return for a right-of-way through his holding, the railway company gave him a job for life, doing nothing in particular if not, in fact, nothing at all. In truth, the name had to be changed for the station closed in 1947: there was no railway left to view. Still, in “The Laurels” one glimpses a woman with an artistic sensibility, clutching after romance, replacing a name chosen by a hard man with eye to the main chance.

Peg retired from Newtownstewart in April 1949 and returned to live in “The Laurels” with Kate and Fr Barney, who had retired from the missions in 1946; he died in 1950. Both sisters had been involved in the republican movement during the Troubles of the early twentieth century. They were members of Sinn Féin, which in the general election of 1918 swept away the Irish Parliamentary Party, the jaded outfit preferred by the recently deceased “gombeen priest” MacFadden, and certainly Peg served in the paramilitary Cumann na mBan; and so too may Kate, for in Lughnasa allusion is made to her service. They were in their thirties then and if their activism involved defiance of the British, it involved defiance too of the clergy who vilified republicans, and, perhaps, defiance of their elders.

When the Split came in 1922, both women stuck with Éamon De Valera and, from 1926, they were staunch supporters of Fianna Fáil, cleaving to it even when it divested itself of the last of its radical garments—threadbare as they had become by the late 1930s—and settled into being a party with little or no purpose other than keeping the other crowd out. “Will you vote for De Valera, will you vote?” Maggie sings in Lughnasa. “If you don’t, we’ll be like Gandhi with his goat / Uncle Bill from Baltinglass has a wireless up his —— / Will you vote for De Valera, will you vote?”

And that was about as sophisticated as it got. Locally, real or imagined “pull”—influence that could secure favours—was more important than policy. The location of streetlights and payphones were pointed out, rightly or wrongly, as the products of “pull” and so too were council houses, repaired roads and, above all, jobs funded from the public purse. And that carry-on persisted into our own time.

The forties and fifties were a dreary period around Glenties, with emigration removing a swathe of the young and a large proportion of those who remained never marrying. In the 1960s, it was Donegal, not some sophisticated arrondissement of Paris with a superabundance of co-habiting couples, that had the lowest nuptiality rate in Europe, and here, back then, there was little sexual activity outside marriage, so one might venture that it had the highest celibacy rate, that is, there was less sex in Donegal than elsewhere in Europe.

Then as now, Fianna Fáil was inscrutable, its strategy for achieving its avowed core objective—the reunification of the country—as obscure as the third secret of Fatima. Whether Kate and Peg MacLoone ever pondered that mystery is not now known. But one doubts they did.

In 1950, Fianna Fáil established Ladies Cumainn. It was part of an effort to modernize and revive the party yet the leadership itself did not take these ladies branches very seriously and, in many places, their activities were largely confined to fundraising—”raffles, outings, fancy dress parties, dances, and suppers”, according to historian Bryce Evans, who observes that the dominant attitude was “The men dealt with the politics, the ladies could make the fairy cakes.”

It was an insincere initiative. But Kate, who was sincere to a fault, was the first President of the Ladies Fianna Fáil Cumann in Glenties which, on its establishment in January 1950, quickly enrolled some 95 members. Things did not go well. At its annual general meeting in 1951 the Ladies carried resolutions, proposed by Kate, announcing that “We of this cumann view with bewilderment the amazing resolutions of the Glenties and Ardara Fine Gael branches calling for a boycott of Dutch goods”.

At issue here was the decision of the Netherlands to send seamen to Eglington, County Derry, for training, by the Royal Navy, in anti-submarine warfare. The inter-party government and Fianna Fáil opposition tried to outdo each other in deploring the Netherlands’ recognition of partition. Kate’s resolutions were intended to upbraid the local Fine Gaelers for what she saw as their faux indignation. So she had upped the ante, demanding the Fine Gaelers join with the Glenties Ladies Cumann of Fianna Fáil and ask the Taoiseach to either support a boycott of British goods or resign:

We would be glad to forget a lot of the British corrupt tyranny of the past but we cannot forget that this same tyranny still exists and triumphs in part of our territory at the expense of our Nationalist people with the active support of the British government. Because of these facts we feel that is not a boycott of Dutch goods that is necessary but a rigid boycott of everything British including the English papers that regrettably carry their malicious British propaganda into our Irish homes. If the members of the Glenties and Ardara Fine Gael branches are sincere in the principles which they claim underlie their motions, we feel sure they will join with us in forwarding to the Taoiseach a resolution demanding his resignation or else an early fulfillment of his almost forgotten pledge of hitting Britain in her pride, in her prestige and in her pocket.

“Miss MacLoone and her pupils” were now objects of derision among supporters of Fine Gael. A correspondent of the Donegal People’s Press deplored the resolutions as “an incoherent, meaningless lot of ráiméis”. A letter signed “Can’t Help Laughing” appeared in the Donegal Democrat, congratulating the People’s Press correspondent on his letter: “Imagine any people in their sober senses trying to make us believe that tyranny still exists in the Six Counties with the support of the British Government. … It is going a bit too far asking for a boycott of British goods when England is at present taking all the eggs, beef, etc. that we can produce. How would we like it if the British tourists refused to visit our shores during the holiday season? I am afraid our hotels etc. would suffer a severe loss.”

Brian Friel drew Kate MacLoone well, or, more correctly, he drew well on her when, on stage, he conjured Kate Mundy, a conspirator in her own unfulfillment.

In January 1952, Kate died of a heart condition in the Sheil Hospital, Ballyshannon. An obituary remembered one of Glenties’ “most respected citizens”, a “brilliant teacher” and a woman of charity and generosity, “always prepared to assist the needy and poor and visit the sick.” She was, above all, a “true Irishwoman”: “An early supporter of Sinn Féin, she never wavered from the Republican path, and was President of the town Ladies Fianna Fáil Cumann.”

Left then at home was Peg. Later that year, on De Valera’s 70th birthday, which he celebrated in Utrecht where he was undergoing eye surgery, the Derry People noted that one of the telegrams he received was from “that staunch nationalist, Miss Margaret McLoone, ex-NT”: “congratulations. hurry home. indispensable.”

Peg died on May 11th, 1960 at Nazareth House care home in Derry, aged 76; a heavy smoker, she had suffered a stroke. In Lughnasa, Maggie, the character based on her, is heavy on the fags too. “Wonderful Wild Woodbine”, she says after taking her first drag on a long-awaited cigarette, “Next best thing to a wonderful, wild man.”

After a requiem mass in Derry on Friday, May 13th, Peg’s remains were taken to Glenties, where she was buried in the old Glen graveyard north-east of the town. The Democrat noted that news of her death had “evoked feelings of deep regret in the town and district”. She had been a teacher in Newtownstewart, it reported, and belonged to a “highly esteemed family”, carefully noticing the signifiers of respectability—the late brother a priest, another surviving brother with a good job in Dublin, the sister married to a teacher in Derry, and the many cars in the cortege.

Aggie had died in London on 9 May, two days before Peg, from an infection contracted during surgery for esophageal cancer. Although Rose was still living, word had not yet reached Glenties of Aggie’s death when they buried Peg nor, indeed, had it arrived a week later when, on 20 May, both she and Rose were listed among the bereaved in newspaper reports of the funeral.

Aggie and Rose’s life in London had been stable. Having left Glenties in 1936, if Lughnasa can be credited, they had settled together, by 1939 at the latest, in Pimlico where they worked as canteen ladies. They moved around Pimlico a bit in the forties, but from 1949 through to Aggie’s death in 1960 they had the same decent flat, a place of their own, at 26 Cambridge Street. Now, her protector gone, things came undone for Rose. The following year she became an inmate of Newington Lodge, on Westmoreland Road, Southwark, a notorious dumping ground for destitute women and children. She died there in 1962.

Chris, the youngest, was the last of the five brave Glenties women. In 1939 she and Paddy Friel had moved the family from Omagh to his hometown, Derry, when he became principal of the Long Tower School. There, Paddy involved himself in politics and, after his retirement in 1961, he took a seat for the Nationalist Party on Derry Corporation. In 1964, Radharc filmed a documentary on discrimination in the city that opens with him pithily explaining the condition of its nationalist majority: “We are not regarded as the equals of the others in the city. They try to make us feel — and do everything in their power to ensure that we feel — that we are second-rate citizens.”

And second-rate they were — no more to unionists than to Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour, for each of those three parties turned their back on them, never organizing in that part of the country left in the United Kingdom. And no more to those parties than to RTÉ, which did not broadcast that documentary until 1989, a quarter of a century after it was filmed.

Chris MacLoone had been in her twenties at the time of partition which in the north-west involved cutting Derry off from its natural hinterland or, looked at from another angle, the periphery off from the core. The Glenties “local notes” appeared in the Derry Journal — it was the equivalent of cutting Clare off from the city of Limerick or Kildare from Dublin.

The sectarian discrimination decried by Paddy Friel in 1964 had been forecast at the forging of Northern Ireland, and, in the mid-1960s, when people politely asked that Stormont adopt “British” standards and a modicum of “social justice”, there were some voices, particularly older voices, quietly warning that that unionists would respond with violence. And sure enough there came the revival of the Ulster Volunteer Force in 1965 and its murder of randomly selected Catholics in Belfast in 1966, the Royal Ulster Constabulary’s attacks on civil rights marches in 1968 and 1969 and in April of the latter year its infliction of an unprovoked battering so severe on Sammy Devenney, a father of nine, in his own home on William Street, Derry, that he died the following July.

Chris, who had seen trouble in her youth, saw it come again in her old age. On Sunday, January 30th, 1972, her son, Brian, then in his early forties, marched in Derry for civil rights and he was there when the British Army let slip its Paratroop Regiment. Ireland’s most eminent living playwright, a man feted on Broadway, cowered with other “second-rate citizens” in an alleyway in the Bogside, while around the corner the Paratroopers shot dead 13 men, all unarmed and all innocent.

“It was a really shattering experience”, Friel recalled, “that the British Army, this disciplined instrument, would go in as they did that time and shoot thirteen people. To be there on that occasion — and I didn’t actually see people get shot — but I mean, to have to throw yourself on the ground because people are firing at you is a very terrifying experience.”

On that horrendous day, mothers across the city and beyond waited to hear that their sons were safe and not all did.

Chris, the last of five brave Glenties women, died in Derry in 1978. Her son’s journalism and stories and, most especially, his plays had exposed aspects of her life and her family history. If proud of his achievements, she remained a proud woman who, on occasion, bridled at being eclipsed by his celebrity.

“I was Chris MacLoone”, she used to say, “long before I was Brian Friel’s mother.”

She was. And there was flesh before the word. But mere facts can never detract from her son’s imagining of herself, Kate and Peg, Aggie and Rose in August 1936 when, in memory, “atmosphere is more real than incident and everything is simultaneously actual and illusory”.

Breandán Mac Suibhne is a historian at the University of Galway.

Dancing at Lughnasa opens on April 6th at the National Theatre, London.