“Yer only mBan”: A celebration of Oíche Nollaig na mBan in Smock Alley Theatre


Bronagh Kieran gives an account of Oíche Nollaig na mBan, an event run by Smock Alley Theatre that reclaims the day for women in the arts.



Oíche Nollaig na mBan, which translates to Women’s Christmas, traditionally falls on January 6th. For decades, women have gathered on this date to relax after the mayhem of the Christmas season, and to be fair, they needed the break. The tragedy of Nollaig na mBan is that historically it really was the one day of appreciation for mothers in Ireland; the one day off in a year of hard labour. However, this year, Smock Alley Theatre played host to a fresh celebration of the holiday, in light of the ever more popular feminist movement in Ireland. The evening included various performances of poetry, story-telling and music, but in a broader sense, it was a rallying cry for the appreciation of women and their work, be that in the home, or in the arts. Organised in tandem with the waking the feminists movement, the political dimension of the event was conspicuous. As one the event organisers, Maeve Stone, put it, “people are moving”. All over the country, similar gatherings were taking place and the energy of this greater movement roused the atmosphere of the evening.


As with all proper celebrations, this one involved cake. The event description stated that cake would be accepted in exchange for free entry. True to form, the predominantly Irish audience seized the opportunity to avail of a bargain, and the back of the venue (the banquet hall) was lined with cake covered tables (the most impressive of which was a tie-dye multi-coloured rice crispy cake). Thankfully, there was also tea and coffee, not to mention a selection of alcohol at the bar to warm the shivering hands of the audience. The atmosphere was almost like a church celebration, with doily bunting, pushed together pews acting as seating and an age bracket that spanned at least fifty years.


Though the performances were as disparate as they were moving, there were a few highlights to the night. A poem written and performed by Sarah Griffin was stand out. Before beginning her recitation, she explained that the following was “aspirational fanfiction about clothes that (she) could not afford”.  Expecting a light illustration of shopping fervour, what Griffin provided instead was a cutting Fight Club style inspection of the gratification derived from projecting identity and ambition onto one’s purchases. She writes “let’s say that new clothes changed who you were both inside and out”. Through the process of online “window shopping” on Urban Outfitters, it would be possible to dream of infinite versions of oneself. A flower crown turns into a desperate bid to hold onto youth as it slips away. Armed with a set of stained-glass pattern leggings, she imagines her body would be venerated and that her hips would “swing the angelus”.  More than anything, this poem is about hope; the hope of an imagined better self and a better future. Despite a guise of superficiality, this poem rings true, especially to the ever yearning and often depressive generation Y.

Music by Irish folk trio The Evertides enriched the evening, the high point of which was a ukulele accompanied sing-along. This up-and-coming band have recently supported Wallis Bird and The Lost Brothers as part of their European Tour, and hope to release their new E.P in the coming weeks. The matching of their acoustic sound and ethereal harmonies resulted in infectious melodies that would be at home by a campfire, late at night.

The night was peppered by the presence of the Amy Gill and Mark Conton of the podcast “Trival Cahoots”, a pair that learn about their guest(s) through asking them trivial pursuit style questions. The audience were their guests for the evening and were set the challenge of answering their questions, the most challenging of which was “What is the maximum number of women who appear in the 12 days of Christmas?”*See below for the answer. Incidentally, the Trivial Cahoots team also recorded the evening as a whole, so if interested in listening to the evening from start to finish, follow this link, https://soundcloud.com/user-982958478/yer-only-mban.


Later in the night, Moire Brady performed among other things, a hard-hitting critique of American exceptionalism, through the medium of poetry. Over the course of this performance, the American flag was equated to “an infinitely vulgar beach towel”, and “a canopy under which Iced Coffee is a right”. Her delivery was deadpan, farcical, and equally loaded with conviction. This resulted in a pointed political charge which, though at odds with the warm atmosphere established by the wooden rafters and gentle lighting, was in keeping with the call to subversion of the status quo present in almost every performance.


Time was put on hold for Olwen Fouéré’s recitation of the poem, “Speak White”, written by Michéle Lalonde in 1968. Though mostly written in French, Fouéré drew a dignity from the rhythm and intonation of the words that transcended the language barrier. Historically, “Speak White” was an insult used against French speakers by English speakers in Canada. The poem looks at the contrasting abilities of language to include and exclude. The performance was in itself a testament to this contradiction, as Fouéré held the rapt attention of the audience, despite the intermittent lilting French.


Vickey Curtis may as well have z-formation clicked her way on to the stage, with the levels of sass and energy she brought to her performance. Her poem ‘Quagmire’, looked at the inconsistencies between being a lesbian and being a feminist. Where is the line between coveting a woman’s body and objectification? How does one reconcile oneself with wanting a woman for her body as well as her mind? This struggle was communicated through sharp American spoken word style beats, and an endearing honest humour.


Other stand-out performances on the night included Alison Spittle, Dylan Coburn Gray, Erica Murray, Róise Goan and Sonya Kelly. After the show, as the audience poured out of Smock Alley, the crowd was imbued with giddiness. There was an excitement that hung in the air; a sense that what had just been shared was irreproducible. Even if just for an evening, it was an energy that could have convinced the most cynical of spectators that there will be a meaningful future for feminism in this city. For all those interested in this event, or in others like it, there will be a follow on public meeting regarding waking the feminists on the 8th of February (International Women’s Day). The meeting will take place in Liberty Hall.


* It’s 130 women. 8 maids a milking X 5. 9 ladies dancing X 4. 10 drummers drumming X 3 (The drummers could be female!). 11 pipers piping X2, and “my true love and me” (Both could be women).