Mighty Women: Nollaig na mBan in Ireland
Nollaig na mBan means ‘Women’s Christmas.’ The last of the twelve days of the Christmas season, it’s celebrated on 6 January, when the men take over the household duties and 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 village pubs and restaurants are full all night, and the dancing often spills onto the street. Grannies and aunties dance with little girls, friends get up and sing songs together, and houses are full of music. Nollaig na mBan used to be celebrated all over Ireland, and in lots of places it still is. It’s a meeting of generations and a time for sharing.
I remember the first time I joined a table of women in a candlelit pub in Ballyferriter for Nollaig na mBan. The singing had already begun. The barman was carrying trays of drinks and platters of food from the kitchen. A couple of older women, in seats closest to the fire, were keeping an eye on a group of little girls, dressed in their best, who were already jigging to the music. It was a cheerful, welcoming night of shared talk and laughter. And when the dancing started, it was the oldest women who were first onto the floor.
I can’t remember if that was the first time I saw Cáit dancing, but I’ve seen her many times since. I’ve even seen her dance to the music of the organ as she walks out of a church. The first money she ever earned she spent on a bicycle, so she could cycle to the dancehalls. Cáit grew up at a time when the grip of the Roman Catholic Church on the community was rigid here, and priests often broke in on dances with threats of hellfire. “They’d come into Muiríoch Hall and they’d scatter the dancers. They’d drive us out the back and through the river!” “They would! And they’d break into the houses cursing us.” “He’d be reading out of his book.” “He’d be in one door and we’d all be out the other!”
The women laugh now when they remember it, but at the time it must have been frightening. The priests tried to ban music and dancing at the crossroads too, and at the patterns by the holy wells. Mostly they succeeded, and for most of the twentieth century the Irish state was dominated by the Church’s ideal of celibacy, so authorities’ attitudes towards sexuality, and towards women, became more and more warped. Yet nothing stopped the dancing in Corca Dhuibhne. Jack’s sister Nóirín can remember girls cycling through the dark to the dancehalls with high heels hanging round their neck. I’ve heard that same story from almost every woman of her generation.
Ireland rears powerful women. I have neighbours who grew up without electricity or running water, on isolated farms, doing back-breaking work. They led lives that would exhaust the average woman today. They looked after families, milked cows, made butter, cared for calves, raised poultry and baked their bread in iron pots at the side of an open fire. As children, they walked barefoot to school. As adults they often worked barefoot too, and helped the men in the fields. I once asked a neighbour how a woman coped if a man was hurt and couldn’t work. She told me she got up sooner and went to bed later. ‘Whoever did it, the work still had to be done.’
And beneath a compliant surface, women hereabouts never lost a sense of their own identities. Cáit’s generation grew up with the tradition of arranged marriages. Some friend or relation would act as matchmaker, and couples might spend very little time together before their wedding. But traditionally, a girl could send an offer to a man just as easily as a man could send one to a woman and if a man married into a woman’s people’s land, he was expected to bring a dowry. Cáit sent an offer to the man she married. “I chose my husband. I said no one else would satisfy me, and if I didn’t get him, I’d go to America.” She sent him a message by her aunt. He was twelve years older than Cáit, and had ‘two left feet’ on the dance floor. But “he was kind and good humoured, and he was good company.” They had a long and happy marriage and, even when he was dead and gone and she faced old age without him, it needed no more than two bars of a tune to get Cait up dancing.
Text extracted from my memoir The House on an Irish Hillside
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