Nollaig na mBan: A night of women’s literature

The Irish Writers Centre celebrated Nollaig na mBan by bringing together some of Ireland’s most talented writers and performers

Traditionally, the 6th of January, Nollaig na mBan, was the day when the woman of the house would finally put her feet up after all the turkey basting and sprout peeling of the Christmas period and her husband would take over the domestic duties. The Irish Writers Centre marked this occasion with a showcase of work by some of the most talented female writers who call Ireland home in EPIC, The Irish Emigration Museum. 

The MC for the evening was Irish comedian and actress Tara Flynn who kicked the night off with a piece of her own: a surprisingly humorous tale of the rift that has formed between a married couple after the husband’s almost-infidelity, which he attempts to remedy with an extra effort on Nollaig na mBan. The story got the event off to a great start, striking the perfect balance between tugging on our heart strings and making us chuckle. 

Following Flynn were two speakers from Skein Press, a new Irish writing platform which represents diverse writers and provides a medium for their work. The first speaker, Rosaleen McDonagh, is an activist and playwright from the Traveller Community. Her work includes The Baby Doll Project, Stuck, She’s Not Mine and Rings. The piece she read was a striking exploration of grief and the politicisation of the body. Bereft after the death of her best friend Declan, the protagonist searches for resolution before finally deciding to get a tattoo. Her incredibly visceral description of this experience captivated the audience. 

The next speaker, Philomena Mullen is a Trinity graduate and writer. Her piece was based on her childhood in St. Anne’s Industrial School in Booterstown and the phenomenon of the “black baby box”, a cause which all Irish families, rich and poor alike, habitually contributed to in order to keep up appearances as well as support those in need. Mullen’s story was an account of a time when she was persuaded by two older girls to steal the black baby box, and it provided a sharp and witty observation on the shame-ridden society of old Catholic Ireland. Her description of her role in the black baby box heist encapsulates her experience of growing up black in Dublin, where, due to her skin colour, she “would be the visible one”. 

Kate Ennals from the Freedom to Write campaign took to the stage following the speakers from Skein Press. The Freedom to Write campaign is an independent group of writers who aim to bring awareness to the oppression and imprisonment of writers around the world. Ennals, an award winning poet, read a poem called Cry, Wind by poet Chimengul Awut. Awut is an Uighir Muslim from the Xinjiang region in China and worked as an editor for the state-owned Kashgar Publishing house before her arrest in July 2018 for publishing books which the government deemed “problematic” and “dangerous”. She is currently in one of China’s “vocational training camps” while her case remains under investigation. Through celebrating our own freedom of expression, Ennals’ heartfelt reading of this poem gave necessary recognition to the writers who are deprived of this right. 

Before the interval, the incredibly talented Farah Elle performed her songs ‘Strange Boat’ and ‘Lunar’. Her gift for story-telling through song was brought to life by her distinctive and striking vocals.

After the break, the soap box commenced. Eight speakers spoke for four minutes each on a topic of their choice. First up was Chiamaka Enyi-Amadi, who read a piece she had published in 2019 questioning the role of poetry in Ireland today. She reflected on how poetry currently represents an escape from the disillusionment often associated with contemporary life. She also pointed out the necessity of poetry in a time when, despite the representation that social media presumably brings about, people still feel unseen and unheard. 

Next was Sarah Davis-Goff, a writer who had her debut novel Last Ones Left Alive published last year. She vented to us eloquently about why we shouldn’t congratulate Irish writers when they sell their rights. She remarked that this ‘Golden Age’ of Irish writing we are living through is simply Irish writing getting the recognition it has always deserved. She expressed her frustration with London publishers who entice authors with offers they would never receive at home, and also expressed that Irish vernacular and Irish subjects are becoming watered down by these publishers. Her solution is that we, as a community, demand inclusivity. 

Comedian Jagruti Rathod gave a hilarious take on being thirty and single with Indian parents. Most of all, she appealed to anyone who might know a suitable man to set her up ASAP – not because she wants to find love or get her parents off her back, but because she needs access to a Netflix account, a struggle which resonates with all of us. 

Caelainn Hogan read from her debut book which was published last year. Republic of Shame is based on interviews she conducted with survivors of Magdalene Laundries and those who ran them. The story she read was an account of a woman who kept her baby, but at great personal cost. She was shunned by her mother and all but excommunicated from the family. The persecution this woman was subjected to paints a harrowing picture of the culture of shame that allowed these institutions to exist for so long. 

Actor, writer and director Noelle Brown then spoke about menopause – something she feels isn’t spoken about enough. The audience was cracking up as she spoke of her dealings with a male librarian who couldn’t bring himself to read the titles of her menopause-related books. She believes the solution to destigmatising menopause is simply to shout the word at the top of your lungs. 

Following her was Wuraola Majekodunmi, who gave a comical, although quite shocking account of ignorant things that have been said to her as an Irish Nigerian. These ranged from surprise at her being a fluent Irish speaker to invasive questions about her hair and everything in between. 

Fionnuala Kennedy, a playwright from Belfast, then took to the stage and read a piece that was both heart-warming and  hilarious. She spoke about her late friend Julie, who was born in Belfast to one Catholic parent and one Protestant. Kennedy recalled the freedom she felt around Julie to ask the questions you weren’t meant to ask, and how this opened up a much needed dialogue. More than anything, she highlighted the need for people like Julie now, when the Northern Irish identity is in a state of turmoil and tensions brew once again. 

Jessica Traynor finished up the soap box with what she described as “three angry poems”. The first was provoked by three articles she read about the murders of women during the first week of January 2019. She expressed her anger that the epidemic of domestic violence has been allowed to go on unaddressed. Her second poem dealt with the portrayal of childbirth as a beautiful and joyous experience, which can often make mothers feel inadequate if they don’t experience childbirth this way. Her third poem was simply about “men talking”. 

To finish up, Farah Elle once again graced us with her musical talents, performing her songs ‘Desert’ and ‘Silk.’ 

The line-up for the evening was a group of diverse, intelligent and creative trailblazers, which is perfectly representative of the ever-growing canon of Irish female writers. Giving their work the platform it deserves was the perfect way to celebrate Nollaig na mBan.