Nollaig na mBan: A day for the women of Ireland

Legend or accurate historic fact, Joyce Fegan looks at the customs going back centuries to see how Women's Little Christmas was actually celebrated by women and we also talk to modern women to see how they are marking Nollaig na mBan in 2022
Nollaig na mBan: A day for the women of Ireland

Elaine Greavina, Trish Ahern and Antoinette Greavina at a Roaring Twenties Fundraiser at The Ambassador Hotel, Cork, on Little Women's Christmas in 2016 in aid of The Girls Club. Nowadays, modern women have reclaimed Nollaig na mBan and made it about other women in the process. Photo: Jim Coughlan

The Epiphany to some, the twelfth day of Christmas to others, but going back generations, today marks Women's Little Christmas, or Nollaig na mBan - a day when the women of the house, especially in West Cork, rested, visited friends, drank tea, ate currant cake, and even went to the pub.

Also in today's feature:

  • Nollaig na mBan events from around the country - from sea swims to groundbreaking talks to virtual concerts, see how modern women have reclaimed the day and made it about other women in the process.
  • Domestic abuse ‘not a women’s issue, it’s a men’s issue. It’s about masculinity’ - Activist and feminist Ailbhe Smyth talk's about the men's issue of domestic violence and about how non-offending men can take responsibility for a crime they haven’t committed.

We have Cork to thank for Nollaig na mBan, and Kerry, Dingle in particular, too. Women's Little Christmas, on January 6, was celebrated mostly in the south west, with some parts of Ireland claiming to never have heard about the custom.

The actual custom was about letting women rest up on the twelfth day of Christmas, having served up a feast on December 25, men's Christmas. If a man was to help out on Christmas Day he could face the wrath of being called an "auld woman".

Women visited one another's homes on January 6, having tea and sharing the last of the Christmas cake, others went to public houses, and assumed the social roles ordinarily played by men.

(Left to right): Margaret O"Donovan, Mary Dineen, Margaret Murphy and Ann Baily at last year's Women's Little Christmas Sparkling Afternoon Tea event in aid of Cork Simon Community at the Celtic Ross Hotel in Rosscarbery. Photo: Dermot Sullivan
(Left to right): Margaret O"Donovan, Mary Dineen, Margaret Murphy and Ann Baily at last year's Women's Little Christmas Sparkling Afternoon Tea event in aid of Cork Simon Community at the Celtic Ross Hotel in Rosscarbery. Photo: Dermot Sullivan

But by the 1950s, the entire tradition had mostly died out, until the last few years where it is undergoing a revival thanks to social media, hashtags, algorithmic trends and hotels offering afternoon tea deals in the dead days of early January.

But before Instagram, how did our Cork and Kerry ancestors actually mark this gender specific day? There are many Irish folk rituals associated with January 6, the day known as Nollaig na mBan, according to historian Dr Marion McGarry.

The day was seen as a "reward" for hard work over the Christmas period, where women were freed from all housework and roles reversed between men and women, says the historian.

In West Kerry it was common for women to raise half a dozen turkeys and sell them at the Christmas market to pay for provisions, and if there was anything left over after Christmas they would spend it on themselves come January 6.

Sandra Murphy, Event MC and Creation Manager of Trigo Hotels with Makeup Artist Erin Kelleher at 2018's Breakthrough Cancer Research Women’s Little Christmas Afternoon Tea and Fashion Showcase at the Cork International Hotel. Picture: Jim Coughlan.
Sandra Murphy, Event MC and Creation Manager of Trigo Hotels with Makeup Artist Erin Kelleher at 2018's Breakthrough Cancer Research Women’s Little Christmas Afternoon Tea and Fashion Showcase at the Cork International Hotel. Picture: Jim Coughlan.

Leftovers is synonymous with Women's Little Christmas - with it even making it into the Irish language - a common phrase being "Nollaig na mBan, Nollaig gan mhaith", meaning "Women's Christmas, no good Christmas", referring to the lack of supplies by the time January 6 came around.

The biggest tradition did not involve the pub or spending money, but "visiting" where women went to one another's homes for a cup of tea, a slice of currant cake and conversation.

While much of the history about Nollaig na mBan might be accurate, if you're to go by James Joyce's famous short story 'The Dead' set on January 6, not all women had the day off as "Lily, the caretaker's daughter, was literally run off her feet".

Mundy performing with the Sharon Shannon band at 2014's Women's Little Christmas in the Savoy, Cork. Picture: David Keane.
Mundy performing with the Sharon Shannon band at 2014's Women's Little Christmas in the Savoy, Cork. Picture: David Keane.

While Kerry and Cork seem to be where it was celebrated most, there is evidence that it was marked in Galway too, with women taking walks together on January 6.

In looking for hard evidence about the traditions, or reality of Nollaig na mBan, there is written evidence of the men of west Cork making things as "pleasant as possible" for women, courtesy of Dúchas - the project that's digitising the Irish National Folklore Collection, one of the largest folklore collections in the world.

ABBA Revival at the Cork Opera House on  2008's Women's Little Christmas. Picture; Larry Cummins
ABBA Revival at the Cork Opera House on  2008's Women's Little Christmas. Picture; Larry Cummins

"The Women's Christmas is so called in West Cork because the men try to make everything as pleasant as possible for the women so that they can enjoy a peaceful and happy time, the women having worked so hard to make the real Christmas day a happy one for everyone else," reads a handwritten testimony about the custom on Dúchas.ie.

Events around the country

Some of our grandmothers and great grandmothers may have rested up on January 6, enjoying the Christmas leftovers amongst friends, but in our revival of the old Irish custom, modern women have reclaimed the day and made it about other women in the process. 

This year there are more events than ever for Nollaig na mBan, ranging from sea swims to breast care, and from groundbreaking talks to virtual concerts.

Here is a round-up of some events and fundraisers taking place today for Nollaig na mBan.

TEDx Talks

Five speakers will take to the stage from 2pm today, to share ideas worth spreading as part of the world-famous and globally-renowned TED and TEDx talk community. Previous TED speakers include Brené Brown, Bill Gates and Simon Sinek.

Hosted by Aine Linehan under TEDxMerrionSquareWomen the free event, which you must register for to get tickets on Eventbrite, includes speakers such as communications expert Sally Murphy, former financial services director turned menopause coach Catherine O'Keeffe and psychologist Susannah Healy.

The idea is that experts share novel ideas in a never-before-heard speech, so you attend the events with an element of surprise - only discovering the topic of each speakers' talk as they start. Known to go viral, these speeches are one-of-a-kind and go through a rigorous editing process.

To book see: eventbrite.ie

Sea swimming 

A pandemic staple, especially amongst women, sea swimming past New Year's Day is being used to raise awareness and funds for women experiencing domestic abuse and coercive control.

Snámh4Mná is a national event, as led by journalist Dearbhail McDonald, encouraging all swimmers to take a dip in the sea today and donate to your local women's refuge, Women's Aid or SAFE Ireland.

Instead of going it alone, the ask is that you recruit a friend, a sibling or a neighbour to swim with you and to try and increase the money raised.

The event which is in its second year also asks people to share a post-swim selfie from wherever you are in Ireland.

To donate to Women's Aid see: https://www.womensaid.ie/donate/ or follow the hashtag #Snamh4Mna on social media

Online gathering

Women's Circle Menstrual educator and yoga teacher Kitty Maguire is hosting a two-hour online gathering tonight from 7.30pm called 'Nollaig na mBan - The Epiphany'.

The night will include breast care and massage techniques to help "nourish your lymphatic system". The techniques learned are to help support the hormonal imbalances people experience during their menstrual cycle, while breastfeeding or during their "peri-menopause adventure".

Anyone attending online is encouraged to bring pens and pencils to journal with, tea to sip and blankets and candles to create a cosy space at home.

Event models, Aisling Nolan, Nicole Nagle, Mary Geary, Roisin Molloy, Elaine Costello, Teresa O'Donovan Wyatt at the 2018 Women's Little Christmas Afternoon Tea and Fashion Showcase, in aid of Breakthrough Cancer Research, at the Cork International Hotel. Photo: Jim Coughlan
Event models, Aisling Nolan, Nicole Nagle, Mary Geary, Roisin Molloy, Elaine Costello, Teresa O'Donovan Wyatt at the 2018 Women's Little Christmas Afternoon Tea and Fashion Showcase, in aid of Breakthrough Cancer Research, at the Cork International Hotel. Photo: Jim Coughlan

"When women and people born with a vulva sit in a circle to honour their inner wisdom, dreams and desires, we create new belief systems and pave a potent path for ourselves and those who follow in our footsteps," says Kitty.

Tickets range from €6 to €26.

See @kitty_maguire_menstrual_mentor on Instagram for more details

Direct Provision 

Let’s Help Direct Provision: Let’s Match Mums — is doing a collaboration with Kindora, the quality resale website for baby goods. The initiative is seeking to raise €20,000 worth of buggies and accessories for mums living in direct provision centres in Ireland.

See: @letsmatchmums on Instagram 

Breast Cancer 

The National Breast Cancer Research Institute is running a fundraising drive for Nollaig na mBán by encouraging people to organise a walk, swim, online quiz or virtual concert to take place today. See breastcancerresearch.ie

Domestic abuse ‘not a women’s issue, it’s a men’s issue. It’s about masculinity’

In 2019, after decades of campaigning, long-time feminist Ailbhe Smyth found her name alongside Taylor Swift, Michelle Obama, and Lady Gaga in Time magazine — on its list of the “most influential” people. She had spearheaded the ‘Together For Yes’ campaign, which the previous year had seen Ireland’s constitutional abortion ban overturned.

However, the year is now 2022, and the 76-year-old activist and former academic — she founded the women’s studies course in University College Dublin — finds herself talking about empowerment more than ever, especially today as she marks Nollaig na mBan.

When it comes to what women want and need, she says, the pandemic has made it glaringly clear.

“The old issues we still have with us.,” says Ailbhe 

What the pandemic has made very clear to people who didn’t want to see it before, and to all those who knew, is that men’s violence against women is endemic. It’s a pandemic that is always with us.

In 2020, Women’s Aid saw a 43% increase in demand for its services compared to 2019. However, domestic abuse is not a women’s issue, states the feminist; it’s a man’s one. In order for it to be tackled, it first needs to be properly framed.

“This is not a women’s issue, it’s a men’s issue. It’s about masculinity. I would say there isn’t a woman in Ireland who isn’t in favour of 150% tackling this.

“There is a national strategy on violence coming up on the Government’s agenda in the next couple of months. We will all be having a discussion about men’s violence against women — and let’s not lose those important words,” she says, referring to the words “men’s violence”.

“We now say, ‘violence against women’. We’ve lost the word of the perpetrator — that it’s men’s violence.

“What happens when you remove the agent’s of the crime is that it all centres on women. But this is a crime committed against women by men. It is not some perpetrator-less crime that just falls out of the sky.

“It happens in real-life dating, real-life homes. It’s a crime that is committed in each case by a particular man, and men must take responsibility,” says Ailbhe.

But how do non-offending men take responsibility for a crime they haven’t committed?

Ailbhe refers to the new mandatory training that’s being brought in for judges seeking promotion. Part of the training will include education around men’s violence against women.

“There has been some unevenness in the sentencing of these crimes. There is a very serious misunderstanding by those in charge of sentencing. That’s what I mean about men taking responsibility,” says the activist.

Other ways men can take responsibility is by ensuring boys are reared with an “understanding of relationships” and how power imbalance is absolutely not a part of that.

Also, it is not just what men can do in the home or on judicial benches that matter, but in every decision-making role in our society.

“In relation to the year ahead, when you are thinking about men’s violence against women, you have to realise that men have more power than women in Ireland generally,” says Ailbhe.

Ailbhe Smyth: “What happens when you remove the agent’s of the crime is that it all centres on women. But this is a crime committed against women by men. It is not some perpetrator-less crime that just falls out of the sky."
Ailbhe Smyth: “What happens when you remove the agent’s of the crime is that it all centres on women. But this is a crime committed against women by men. It is not some perpetrator-less crime that just falls out of the sky."

“They have more resources, more leadership power, more political power, and more property.”

These structural inequalities are contributing factors to men’s violence against women that we can all do something about, women included.

“I can say this because of my age but, for most of the women I know, it’s time for us to move aside, to make space and clear the path for other women who are not like me, that didn’t have the education I had.

“They might have different ideas to me, some argument is always healthy, but everybody has their right to the place in the sun,” says Ailbhe.

Progress comes when those “who have kept the privilege to ourselves” make way. She is referring also to politics, and to the local and general elections.

There is no gender quota at local level, “the training ground for Dáil Éireann”, and come 2023, at least 40% of the candidates parties run for general election will have to be female. This is another opportunity to take responsibility, says Ailbhe.

“Political parties, again it’s taking on responsibility. It’s a disgrace there aren’t more women at local level. Women are excellent at local politics and local is a training ground for general.

“Parties need to ask themselves, ‘Who are we going to be putting forward and where are the women?’” states Ailbhe.

However, it’s not just about finding and fielding more women when it comes to building a safer society for all, it’s about making government work in such a way that “allows women to participate”.

“How can women participate if meetings take place when they’re getting the tea and doing the homework?”

- If you are affected by any of the issues raised in this article, please click here for a list of support services.

  • Ailbhe Smyth is taking part in the Irish Writers Centre’s annual Nollaig na mBan event at 7pm this evening. The theme of the event is ‘Emergence, Empowerment, Evolution’. For more information, go to: irishwriterscentre.ie

More in this section

IE_logo_newsletters

Select your favourite newsletters and get the best of Irish Examiner delivered to your inbox

Execution Time: 0.265 s