Like Hilary Copeland from the Irish Writers Centre, I grew up North of the border knowing
nothing of the Irish language and much less about traditions like that of Nollaig na nBam,
where, after the madness of Christmas, women had a night to celebrate their own ‘little’
Christmas with one another.
So it was that my first ever experience of Nollaig na nBam was to be at EPIC the Irish
Emigration Museum in Dublin to witness the sold out Irish Writers’ Centre’s event, and one
of the first women I would come face to face with that night would be Amy Carmichael- her
picture displayed in the Irish Emigration Museum. Amy Carmichael was a Northern
Presbyterian, famous for becoming a missionary in India and saving the lives of young girls
who were to be sold into sexual slavery. I knew about her because when I was at school the
‘house’ or grouping that I belonged to was named after her.
A reconnection with Amy, this practical woman who wanted to get out in the world and do
things, was an appropriate start to an evening which would see a number of women from
many different walks of life getting directly to the heart of the prevalent women’s issues in
modern Ireland: abortion, disability, menopause, justice and the Magdelene laundries, love
and relationships, minority culture, the Irish language.
I could relate to Hilary’s opening address having lived through a period of conflict in NI to
develop a sense of myself as Irish only to become re-anxious about the border as Brexit
approaches. It seems we can never escape identity problems in Ireland, or maybe, as Hilary
said, it’s more that we develop questions which don’t necessarily have answers. She
concluded by saying that it is in places like this, with artists and writers, were we can ask
The evening continued as women from diverse experiences began to speak for themselves
and on behalf of those in prison or those who had died before them. There was poetry,
prose, comedy and appeals for signatures and for action. I liked the variety of it. Highlights
for me included hearing from Rosaleen McDonagh of Skein Press who writes from the
perspective of a disabled feminist with Traveller roots, Wuraola Majekodunmi – a Nigerian
Irish woman who spoke about names and migration- the only speaker to use Irish in her
story, Caelainn Hogan who read from her book – Republic of Shame – which features true
stories from women who survived the Magdelene laundries, and Fionnuala Kennedy- a
writer from Belfast who told a story of personal integration about meeting a close friend of
the ‘other’ religion.
The two halves of the evening were punctuated with the music of Farah Elle. Farah is a
Dublin-based musician with Libyan roots. You can find her music on Soundcloud and Spotify
but I’d urge anyone who enjoys music at all to seek out a live performance. Writers often
get asked what inspires them, where do we go for artistic refreshment? For me it is mostly
music rather than books that I turn to. Maybe it is my church background. Certainly,
listening to Farah singing in Arabic and English felt a bit like the best parts of church. There
is something about good music that raises humanity up while digging deeper into the
ground and maybe it’s just the start of the year, or the start of this year, but I think we could
all do with that kind of grounded suspension at the minute. If you need a lift, look her up.
I look forward to seeing what the Irish Writers Centre has in store for the rest of 2020 as it
continues to create spaces where people can ask the questions which might not have
answers. You can see for yourself what their plans are at The Irish Writers Centre and I
would encourage more writers from the North to cross over and take a visit. Happy New
Year to all!