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Dancing at Lughnasa (1998)

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Five unmarried sisters make the most of their simple existence in rural Ireland in the 1930s.


Pat O'Connor


Brian Friel (play), Frank McGuinness (screenplay) | 1 more credit »
2 wins & 7 nominations. See more awards »



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Cast overview, first billed only:
Gerard McSorley ... Narration by (voice)
Meryl Streep ... Kate Mundy
Michael Gambon ... Father Jack Mundy
Catherine McCormack ... Christina Mundy
Kathy Burke ... Maggie Mundy
Sophie Thompson ... Rose Mundy
Brid Brennan ... Agnes Mundy
Rhys Ifans ... Gerry Evans
Darrell Johnston Darrell Johnston ... Michael Mundy
Lorcan Cranitch ... Danny Bradley
John Kavanagh ... Father Carlin
Marie Mullen Marie Mullen ... Vera McLoughlin
Dawn Bradfield Dawn Bradfield ... Sophia McLoughlin
Peter Gowen ... Austin Morgan
Kate O'Toole Kate O'Toole ... Chemist


A young boy tells the story of growing up in a fatherless home with his unmarried mother and four spinster aunts in 1930's Ireland. Each of the five women, different from the other in temperament and capability, is the emotional support system, although at times reluctantly, for each other, with the eldest assuming the role of a 'somewhat meddling' overseer. But then into this comes an elderly brother, a priest too senile to perform his clerical functions, who has "come home to die" after a lifetime in Africa; as well, there also arrives the boy's father, riding up on a motorcycle, only to announce that he's on his way to Spain to fight against Franco. Nevertheless, life goes on for the five sisters, although undeniably affected by the presence of the two men, they continue to cope as a close-knit unit... until something happens that disrupts the very fabric of that cohesiveness beyond repair. Written by BOB STEBBINS <stebinsbob@aol.com>

Plot Summary | Add Synopsis

Plot Keywords:

boy | 1930s | ireland | time | motorcycle | See All (174) »


Five sisters embrace the spirit of a people.


Drama | Romance

Motion Picture Rating (MPAA)

Rated PG for mild language and thematic elements | See all certifications »


Official Sites:

Sony Pictures Classics


Ireland | UK | USA



Release Date:

13 November 1998 (USA) See more »

Also Known As:

Bailando entre sueños See more »


Box Office

Opening Weekend:

£97,077 (United Kingdom), 27 September 1998, Limited Release

Opening Weekend USA:

$83,759, 15 November 1998, Limited Release

Gross USA:

$2,285,194, 11 April 1999
See more on IMDbPro »

Company Credits

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Technical Specs


Sound Mix:

Dolby Digital



Aspect Ratio:

1.85 : 1
See full technical specs »

Did You Know?


The play originally opened in Dublin, Ireland in 1990. It opened on Broadway in New York City on 11 October 1991 and closed on 25 October 1992 after 436 performances. In the cast were Brid Brennan, who originated her role as Agnes and won 1992 Tony award as Best Featured Actress, and Gerard McSorley as the adult Michael, the narrator in the movie. The play also won a 1992 Tony award as best play. See more »


The song 'The homes of Donegal' was written in 1955 while the movie was set in the 30s. See more »


[first lines]
Narration by: When I cast my mind back to that summer of 1936, different kinds of memories offer themselves to me. We got our first wireless set that summer. Well, a sort of a set, and it obsessed us. We called it Lugh, after the old pagan god of the harvest, and his festival was Lughnasa, a time of music and dance. Then my mother's brother, my uncle Jack came home from Africa for the first time in twenty five years. He was the oldest in the family, and the only boy.
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Crazy Credits

During the opening credits, stills of African tribal dances and of Jack as priest in Africa are shown. See more »


Featured in Dancing at Lughnasa: On Location (1998) See more »


Down by the Salley Gardens
Poem by William Butler Yeats (as W.B. Yeats) (1889)
Set to music by various composers
Sung a cappella by Sophie Thompson and her sisters (uncredited)
Sung by Dolores Keane during the end credits
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Frequently Asked Questions

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User Reviews

Irish Stage, Irish Screen: An unhappy marriage
27 September 1998 | by HarveySee all my reviews

Watchable but instantly forgettable film of Brian Friel's award-winning play which provides its greatest pleasures through the strong performances of its ensemble cast. Five independent-minded sisters living in Donegal in the mid 1930s face the possibility of change when economic and emotional circumstances conspire against them. The return of their brother from religious missions in Africa signals the beginning, and as the pagan festival of Lughnasa, which celebrates the harvest and forebodes the coming of winter, is celebrated around them, they must come to terms with changes in their own relatively comfortable middle class world. The ten year old son of one of them views events with a nostalgic eye which nonetheless sees the hardship and heartbreak which occurs around him.

Despite director Pat O'Connor's valiant attempts to ‘open out' the play, the film is still extremely theatrical. The inclusion of landscape shots and the restaging of certain scenes in outdoor locations unavailable in the theatre does not really make the film cinematic. It merely adds visuals to what is still a complex series of linguistic exchanges which delineate and explore character. Authentic production design and costuming and the persistent presence of a traditional-themed score by Bill Whelan contribute to the feeling of the film, and with the help of good accent work by the cast, it manages to successfully evoke a feeling of time and place. However it remains an extremely well produced stage play on film, and is still bound by blocking and staging conventions which allow the actors to meet and greet one another to exchange their thoughts and feelings. The closest the film comes to a visual symbolic system is the use of dance and ritual to underscore the social and emotional tensions. The undercurrent of paganism which defines the relationships between people and their sense of the cosmos is constantly evoked (as it was in the play), and the film begins with a credit sequence featuring images of African tribes people in traditional costumes. But other than the climactic dance scene where the sisters celebrate their sisterhood to the strains of ceili music, the film rarely manages to escape the enclosed and cerebral world of the stage version.

But paradoxically, the reliance on actors plying their trade on well written words (rather than visuals) is the thing which saves the film from itself. Meryl Streep gives a convincing performance (and manages a creditable accent) as the repressed, authoritarian schoolteacher who heads the female clan, and she is more than matched by Michael Gambon's endearing performance as the slightly baffled priest whose exposure to the customs and rituals of Africa have coloured his perceptions of home. The rest of the cast (the non-stars, so to speak) are equally good, particularly Sophie Thompson as the simple minded Rose and Kathy Burke as the chain smoking Maggie. Catherine McCormack and Brid Brennan (the latter a veteran of the Abbey Theatre production) have less showy roles, but work distinctive characterisations in with those of the others with ease and skill. Supporting male performances from Rhys Ifans and young Darrell Johnston are also good, and the film also comes with a rich voice over provided by Gerard McSorley (who played the part of the the child at an adult remembering in the stage version).

This aspect of the film alone is probably worth the time and attention required to view it, but on the whole it is a less rewarding experience than the play itself. While an unfair basis upon which to criticise a work of adaptation, the material was perhaps fundamentally unsuited to cinematic treatment. Though Frank McGuinness has done his best to translate the themes and character issues, and has successfully done so insofar as it applies to theme and character, this is not so much a film version as a film of the play with some additional settings and scenes which prevent it from becoming completely unwatchable. What power it has comes from the power of the play, and it is mostly evinced at the level of verbal discourse. Theatrical adaptation is a minefield for film makers and has produced varying results in the past. Dancing at Lughnasa does not distinguish itself in the annals of this sub-section of film history, but for those patient enough with its lack of genuine cinematic interest, it offers certain pleasures which should pass the time painlessly enough.

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