Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Nollaig na mBan - Another Great Irish Winter Festival.

Corca Dhuibhne rears powerful women. I have elderly neighbours here who grew up living lives that would flatten me in a week. They kept house, looked after kids and old people, milked cows, made butter, cared for calves, raised poultry, grew their own food, and cooked it in iron pots over turf fires. As children they walked barefoot to school. As adults they often went barefoot too, and worked in the fields with the men; a friend of mine remembers women with legs and ankles cut raw by the stinging wind.

Electricity and piped water didn't come to the houses in this village till the nineteen sixties. In the days before they got here, women washed everything by hand, carrying water from the spring, and boiling it on the fire. Last winter, during a week of power-cuts, I got an inkling of what that meant. And I just had to wash dishes. They washed laundry too, for households of up to fifteen people, and dried it on lines or on bushes.

Living miles from help, and often too poor to pay a doctor, women were their own healers. My neighbours remember how stinging nettles were used to treat rheumatism and people drank hot milk with onion juice for a cold. Women here still remember those cures, and they still trust in bone-setting and midwifry skills passed down from mother to daughter across generations.

Nobody here wants the hard times back. But I've often heard friends envy their mothers' and grandmothers' spiritual and emotional strength, and marvel at their resilience. They call them 'mighty women', and they love their feistiness and self-respect.

And those qualities are celebrated each year here, at Nollaig na mBan.

Nollaig na mBan means 'Womens' Christmas'. It's a traditional Irish occasion, held on January 6th, when women of all ages get together and party. They meet at home, or go out in groups, to eat, sing, drink, dance and generally hang out together. The pubs and restaurants are full, and the celebrations often spill onto the village streets. Grannies and aunties dance with little girls and teenagers, friends get up and sing songs together, pubs lay on karaoke, and houses are full of music.

As I write this, texts are flying all over the peninsula as people get ready for Nollaig na mBan

Like the mighty women it celebrates, it's a tradition that's still going strong.


  1. Thank you for telling this story - the story of women is so often forgotten. I've posted it and you link to my facebook history page

    My names Gill by the way but I'm a great fan of Boudica - another strong woman!

  2. Hi Boudica and Listowel Connection, glad you liked it. I hadn't realized till I came to live in Corca Dhuibhne how many women's memories got lost and sidelined in the last hundred years or so, while folklorists have been collecting. Women here say the collectors were often men and that women's customs, stories and so on weren't normally discussed with men, so they often weren't considered (or considered suitable) for recording. That's changed now but, as well as being wonderful to see what's still remembered, it's awful to think what's been lost. Best, Felicity.

  3. lovely post I too wrote a post on Nollaig na mBan which you might like to read http://www.thegardendesignco.blogspot.com/2011/01/nollaig-na-mban.html

    @plantmad is now following you on twitter and @thegardendesignco is liking you on Facebook.

    Best wishes for this special day!

  4. I adore this! I hope you are having a wonderful day!

    I am planning a couple trips to Ireland next year (if all goes as planned). I do hope I can meet in "in real life" on one of them!

  5. Thanks, Jody,

    a friend of mine who read the blog to her mum, who was raised here in Corca Dhuibhne, sent me this.

    ' She told me that her own mother used to make a currant cake for this day. She used to kneel in prayer and tap the cake on the door saying the following:

    Sonas isteach is an donas amach
    Fógraím an gorta go tír na dTurcach
    ó anocht go bliain ó anocht
    le cabhar o Dhia.'

    The prayer means
    'Happiness in and sorrow out
    I send famine to the country of the Turk (in other words, far away)
    From tonight to a year from tonight
    With the help of God.'

  6. You helped to inspire my own post on the subject today. Namaste.

  7. Lovely to have links between mighty women!

  8. Lovely post, very colourful and evocative :)

  9. Really enjoying the posts today about Nollaig na mBan (read Ena's earlier) ~ love the idea of women getting together and celebrating - power to the women. Lovely post,thanks :D

  10. Openid and Dee - glad you liked it. I've just come in from a brilliant night in the village here - left a bar full of women dancing and singing. Many of them half my age again, and all telling me I'd no stamina!

  11. Women's Christmas was celebrated joyfully in Castle Gregory again this year. I enjoyed your historical perspective Felicity.

  12. Glad you did. When I was celebrating in Ballyferriter I found that the people of a village not half a mile away from this one have a variation on the last two lines of the Nollaig na mBan prayer I quote above, used by my neighbour's mother. Both have survived, distinct and intact.

  13. Thanks for visiting me. I celebrated our Mighty Women here in Newfoundland last week. Nollaig na Mban, she lives!

  14. Felicity,

    Hello. My friends and I are coming to Ireland in May. So, please tell me what you think. Should we drive the Ring of Kerry or the Dingle Peninsula? If we drive the Dingle Peninsula we would have more time to visit (I think) the town of Dingle or any other special things you would recommend in the area.

    1. The Ring of Kerry's beautiful but (inevitably) if I were you I'd go for the Dingle peninsula. And I'd stay somewhere west of Dingle rather than in Dingle town. But it really depends on what you want to see and do. If you're in town it's nice to be able to walk to restaurants and pubs. If you're back west you get a different experience. You could always go for the option of combining the two. One thing to remember if you're coming to Ireland. Bring warm, lightweight waterproof clothing - which includes proper boots if you want to go walking. They say we can get the four seasons here in a single day and they're not exaggerating!

  15. Thank you so much for replying so quickly. I appreciate the advice. We are staying in a B&B in Doolin and then one in Kilarney. Any advice on pubs and places to eat while we are
    in that area will be much appreciated. I know I need to carefully read your blog and take note of places in which you have already written. I will. Thanks again, Felicity.

  16. I'm sorry, I don't know much about what's available in the Killarney area. But pub food's usually very good in Ireland. My favourite sandwich choices are crab salad or smoked salmon. - but that's because I adore seafood. It's always worth asking if produce is locally sourced. There's a big initiative all over Ireland to promote local and artisan produce. (And now that I think about it the last time I was in Killarney we bought beautiful locally-made bread and cheese and had a picnic in the National Park there.)

  17. Hiya Felicity, I have organised a few Nollaig na mBan sessions in Birmingham over the years in a lovely pub in Digbeth called The White Swan. I started trying to do another one this year but I'll be in Ireland Jan 6th so I've decided to leave it and organise something for St Brigid's Day (Feb 1st) instead. Na mBan abu! Pauline

  18. Hi Pauline, hope you'll have a brilliant Nollaig na mBan this year in Ireland. The St. Brigid's Day idea sounds great. Living in Corca Dhuibhne, and while writing The House on an Irish Hillside, I've realised how many women's stories, festivities and customs have been lost, or gone underground, over the centuries. Time to bring them back! Best, Felicity.

  19. Lovely post Felicity to remind us of how important it is for women to have a day to themselves....I love to celebrate it whenever I can. It's just the right time of the year too when you are done in from caring and feeding everyone.....Here's to the mighty women, you included a stór:~))

  20. Here's to the lot of us and the way we appreciate each other :-D

  21. Hi Felicity - I'd forgotten that I'd commented on your blog this time last year (I'm 'Unknown2 January 2013 06:52' above) - I have organised a N na mB session in the White Swan again this year and I can't wait! Pauline