Cancel my seat at the Nollaig na mBan table

Patricia Feehily


Patricia Feehily

Cancel my seat at the Nollaig na mBan table

TWO days to the Epiphany, 2018, and I’m in a foul mood. All my New Year’s resolutions went out the window two days ago before I even had time to challenge myself.

I’m suffering from the usual surfeit of festive indulgence on top of the January blues, and now I think I’ve developed gout. Despite all the woe, however, I’m expected to put on some kind of a show to celebrate Nollaig na mBan.

I’m sorry, but such patronising drivel as Nollaig na mBan was never part of my agenda. I don’t know who invented it if it wasn’t the fairies down on a rare trip from Slieve na mBan. It reminds me too much of tokenism, Christmas left-overs and the day when the presence of women in public houses was only tolerated if they sat in the snug gossiping and sipping sweet sherry, while their men folk deliberated over weightier matters while downing weightier sustenance in the bar.

I’m told I must lie back and relax on Saturday while I’m served breakfast in bed. Afterwards, I must sit back and put my feet up in anticipation of a slap-up Nollaig na mBan dinner, which I must not, under any circumstances, prepare or cook myself. I must stay out of the kitchen even if I smell a conflagration in the making and feel a pressing need to ring the Fire Brigade. It’s Mothers’ Day in disguise!

But I’m not going to put my feet up on Saturday, and that’s for sure. I’d be afraid the gout would spread to my brain while someone was burning down the house. I’m going to honour tradition instead and go to early Mass for the Feast of the Epiphany as I always did. Nobody is going to hi-jack my ‘Little Christmas’ or dampen my absolute fascination with the three wise men, Melchoir, Casper and Balthazar.

The trouble is somebody has already hi-jacked the feast of the three wise men, presumably because they were men and because if there was a single wise woman in the east at the time who spotted the star, she must have been airbrushed from history. The promoters of ‘Herstory’, which started I believe in Dublin a couple of years ago, are using this period of the year when Irish women are told to take it easy, to tell the story of women who have been airbrushed from history. But isn’t that what usually happens when you let your guard down and take it easy?

Anyhow, the upshot of the new development is this. Nollaig na mBan is being globalised and will be celebrated joyfully this year in a different context all over the world by latter day feminists hell bent on telling ‘Herstory’. Every woman from Countess Markievicz to Queen Maeve of Connacht – who by all accounts was every bit as belligerent in her day as the present Kim Jong Un – will be honoured, while the star is dimmed and Melchoir, Casper and Balthazar will have to take a back seat on the camel.

The ‘Herstory’ project is slightly disturbing from my point of view – which, as the title of the column indicates, shouldn’t be taken too seriously in case I end up like Kevin Myers. The ‘hers’ whose stories are being told are invariably wealthy women from privileged backgrounds who never had to slave over a pot on Christmas day - although in fairness to the Countess, she did try to help out in the soup kitchen during the Lockout, until Sean O’Casey told her she was in the way.

But combined with the concept of Nollaig na mBan, it is downright intimidating. It’s all very well for a woman to allow herself to be pampered for one day at the tail-end of the Christmas period after slaving for everyone for the nine days beforehand. She can do it even after making a New Year’s resolution to cut down on the calories and the demon drink. But how is she going to sit back and let others take the helm while being serenaded with the daring exploits of other women whose lives were too exciting for such indulgence?

There’s a time and a place for everything and the Feast of the Epiphany is not the time to be making either a feminist statement or a token thank you to the woman who cooked the Christmas dinner. The messages are contradictory and confusing, and to be honest, we could all do without the pressure.

It’s probably only a matter of time, however, before they’ll be selling Nollaig na mBan cards and other merchandise in the shops, and we’ll all have to light up our houses again for a day after throwing out the tree, hoovering the pine needles and stacking the decorations for next year.

As they used to say before we all lost the run of ourselves, a woman’s work is never done, and Nollaig na mBan will never change that.