Summer is golden and endless for the boy. He’s eight and free from schoolbooks — free to run in green fields and fly his kite high in the deep-blue sky. The year is 1936, the place Donegal. He lives on a remote farmstead with his mum, aged 26, and her four older (unmarried) sisters, all of whom make up the Mundy family.
He is Michael and Mum is Christina. Kate, the eldest sister, is strict, serious, domineering. Next is Maggie: outgoing, boisterous, spontaneous, the life of any party. Third is Agnes: quiet, self-effacing, reserved. She’s intelligent and keenly observant. Fourth is Rose, lovingly called Rosie by her sisters, a bit slow, soft in the head. She fantasises that Danny Bradley loves her, but Danny is no good. He drinks and womanises and barely works. His wife has left him, taking the kids with her. But Danny the charmer sweet-talks Rose into loving him, making her feel she’s the prettiest girl in the whole of western Ireland. The baby of the family, the only mother, is Christina, as mentioned, a single mum (never married) whose shiftless husband Gerry, a Welshman, is largely absent. Michael barely knows him, having met him only five or six times in his eight years of life.
The parents of the Mundy sisters are gone, both deceased. The only other family member is Jack, the eldest sibling and only male. Father Jack he used to be called, but no longer. He’s defrocked now, newly arrived back in Ireland after 10 years in Africa where the hot sun and wild pagan rituals went to his head. He returns quite dizzy, disoriented, even demented, looking lost, weary and old. The sisters and Michael come to Ballybeg, the local village, to welcome Jack home. He arrives by bus. Everyone loves gentle Jack, but they soon realise he has become useless, unable to shift for himself. Instead, he sleeps, wanders the countryside, looks up at the stars and constellations, tells vivid tales of Africa, of its light and colours and immensity, of its people and their customs. To Ireland he brings back a fragment of its pre-Christian pagan past. Small wonder the Church has removed him from the priesthood, the sacramental blood of Christ no longer flowing as wine through his lost Communions.
A motorbike stutters along a road through dusty hills and boggy marshes. The rider is errant Gerry, headed for the farmstead. He wants to see son Michael once more before doing something useful with his aimless life. He intends to become a soldier, to fight Franco’s fascist forces in Spain. Where? The logic of the cause and destination are questioned by the family. But Gerry needs a purpose and war now provides this for him.
Meanwhile Michael has a chance to bond with his father again. They play and frolic together outside: mock football and rugby games and rides on the motorbike, the wind in their hair. Gerry is the only real man about, as Father Jack is mainly a shut-in and too old for games. Men in general, idle and feckless, are on the periphery of life in Donegal. They are also under-represented. Where are most of them? In the cities or gone abroad seeking steady work, the life of farming on peat unsustainable.
It’s hard for the women too. What can they do? Kate is a local schoolteacher but the budget for the school is strained and she’s unpopular with her students — too strict, demanding, domineering. She worries that her income may dry up. The other sisters knit and darn clothes to sell. It’s long, hard, tedious, sedentary work, but it brings in a small income. And they’re not the only poor family in the district. Everyone is hurting with so many men away. The poor have only so much income to distribute among themselves.
The film is largely about women, about mutual love, support and solidarity. Young Michael is the beneficiary of this feminine love, nurtured and protected by it. He’s the son of Christina, a love-child born out of wedlock, but he exists in a household full of caring, maternal love.
Each of the sisters aches for love and a man. Though Christina is a single mum, her sisters love and support her, perhaps even envying her motherhood. Maggie openly pines for a man, and Rose is lost in her fantasy love for the good-for-nothing Danny Bradley. It’s not likely that Kate, the eldest, now approaching 40, will ever marry. Agnes, too, looks destined for a life of solitude and loneliness, her emotional void filled by Rose, whom she loves with a kind of maternal care.
Lughnasa is a local festival that dates from pagan Celtic times. It celebrates the rising of the harvest moon. The locals light bonfires at night. Around them they sing, dance and drink. Some go wild and jump through the flames.
Ireland of course, the land of travelling bards and troubadours, is rich in storytelling, music and dance. Its music isn’t made for concert halls and polite applause. It’s the music of pubs, dance halls and village greens. Infectious music, dance music. You cannot hear it and sit still.
The sisters have a wireless, their conduit to the outside world. They hear the news, listen to stories, tap their toes in the kitchen when the fiddles and penny whistles play on the air. One afternoon the music is so infectious that Maggie jumps up from the table and starts whirling and laughing throughout the kitchen. Kate frowns, her disapproving look ignored by Maggie. Next Rose is up and dancing, giggling with Maggie. Then Agnes joins in, unable to resist. Christina too. The four sisters dance while Kate remains inert. But even she is finally unable to resist any longer. She springs from the table, entering the pagan circle. It’s ecstasy, the throwing off of all inhibition, the merging of self with some greater unity and power of expression.
They move from the kitchen to the garden, holding hands and high stepping. The males of the household look on gapingly, Father Jack and Michael from windows inside the house, Gerry from a step-ladder propped up against a tree outside. The women dance until exhausted. Then they stand in a circle of silence, looking at one another in sudden conscious confusion. The music had seized them, possessed them, temporarily driving them mad. Had there been a bonfire they would have jumped through it. The surface is civilised, polite, formal. But beneath it a great well of paganism dwells. The power of Lughnasa is always there and latent.
Michael is the narrator of the film. He is mature now. We hear the voice of a man, not that of a child. He looks back at the special golden summer, the summer when his daddy returned, when Uncle Jack came back from Africa, when the bonfires were lit and all the Mundy sisters danced during Lughnasa. That was 15 years ago. Papa was later wounded in Spain. Agnes and Rose left the farmstead, just disappeared together one night, never to return to Donegal. What of the others? Michael doesn’t say. Even his beloved mother goes unmentioned.
His voice sounds distant, spoken from a place far away. But it’s a local voice that resonates with emotion and longing, with love for a special place in time when all was fresh and innocent, when he had the sisters, his mum, his errant daddy, Uncle Jack, and the eternal golden summer whose memory he will one day carry with him to the grave.