When I was growing up in Ireland, my only experience of Nollaig na mBan (Women’s Christmas) was through Seán Ó Ríordáin’s poem, which I remember learning in Irish for the Inter Cert when I was about twelve. I was sure there was a goat in it somewhere, but that was probably my poor Irish, and when I see the translation below (thanks to the Irish Times), I think I must have confused gealt (lunatic) with gabhar (goat) – my Irish has never been brilliant.
I didn’t realise until some years later that Nollaig na mBan is still strong in the west and south of Ireland. It’s celebrated on 6 January, twelfth night, and translates as Women’s Christmas. Importantly, it is a celebration by women of women. It marks the official end of Christmas, where women get together and celebrate their hard work over the Christmas period with a feast of shared food, drink and conversation.
In Adelaide, we have been celebrating Nollaig na mBan with a core group of women for the past fifteen years or so. We gather in the evening as it gets dark. Ideally, it is neither too hot nor too cold to sit outside. This year it was perfect, and eighteen women gathered round candle-lit tables in the back garden, bringing plates of food to share, and drinking Pimms, champagne and copious cups of tea. It comes to a close when the last person goes home.
The tradition of Nollaig na mBan is not well documented. It was described in a 1998 newspaper article as ‘a custom which seems to have been passed on orally and informally, drifting down like feathers from one generation to the next’. So this post stands as a witness to its continuation into the 21st century, with Irish women standing strong for a festival worth having.
And here is the poem, as Gaeilge first and then in English, and also read here by Tadgh MacSuibhne:
Oíche Nollaig na mBan
Seán Ó Ríordáin
Bhí fuinneamh sa stoirm a éalaigh aréir,
Aréir oíche Nollaig na mBan,
As gealt-teach iargúlta tá laistiar den ré
Is do scréach tríd an spéir chughainn ’na gealt,
Gur ghíosc geataí comharsan mar ghogallach gé,
Gur bhúir abhainn shlaghdánach mar tharbh,
Gur múchadh mo choinneal mar bhuille ar mo bhéal
A las ’na splanc obann an fhearg.
Ba mhaith liom go dtiocfadh an stoirm sin féin
An oíche go mbeadsa go lag
Ag filleadh abhaile ó rince an tsaoil
Is solas an pheaca ag dul as,
Go líonfaí gach neomat le liúrigh ón spéir,
Go ndéanfaí den domhan scuaine scread,
Is ná cloisfinn an ciúnas ag gluaiseacht fám dhéin,
Ná inneall an ghluaisteáin ag stad.
Seán Ó Ríordáin, translation by Theo Dorgan
There was power in the storm that escaped last night,
last night on Women’s Christmas,
from the desolate madhouse behind the moon
and screamed through the sky at us, lunatic,
making neighbours’ gates screech like geese
and the hoarse river roar like a bull,
quenching my candle like a blow to the mouth
that sparks a quick flash of rage.
I’d like if that storm would come again,
a night I’d be feeling weak
coming home from the dance of life
and the light of sin dwindling,
that every moment be full of the screaming sky,
that the world be a storm of screams,
and I wouldn’t hear the silence coming over me,
the car’s engine come to a stop.