Sharing stories around the table

Maura Mulligan at the head of the table with some of the Nollaig na mBan participants.

By Maura Mulligan

There was a time when women of Ireland worked side by side in the fields with their men. This, in addition to doing all the housework, and raising children made life tiresome. On this one day of the year, Jan. 6, men handled the household chores while women shared a meal and caught up with each other’s lives. It was the day for women to put their feet up – Nollaig na mBan (Women’s Christmas).

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While modern men know their way around the kitchen and now help equally in choices about raising children, Nollaig na mBan is still celebrated in some areas. Women gather in groups, share a meal and exchange news. The difference now is that this holiday, once an escape from drudgery has expanded to celebrate women's contribution to modern life, rather than patronizing the “little women” confined to the kitchen. Raising awareness of breast cancer research and other women’s issues is more in focus these days.

Denise, the manager at Connolly’s restaurant on East 47th Street where I celebrated the holiday this year, told us that her friends and relatives back home in Kerry started the day with an activity (a run) to raise money for the charity of their choice. The hotels and restaurants, she said, now offer brunches and evening meal specials on this day.

Acknowledging the move to modernize the holiday, I’ve added Nollaig na mBan to my list of Irish customs worthy of celebration. I like to gather friends together and exchange news and recent experiences that have made a difference in our lives. Our sharing this year included accomplishments such as Margaret McCarthy’s publishing a book of poems – “Notebooks from Mystery School.” Some discussed recent vacations involving the arts, soccer, love and loss. Deirdre, a budding scribe told how she wrote her first story while attending a writing course in Ireland last year. Mary, wearing a gorgeous scarf she created with crochet needles shared a family story. Dee wants to write about our recent discovery that she and I traveled on the same ship to America in 1958. Vera reminded us about the joy of reconnecting with people from one’s past. Yours truly wasn’t shy about my ventures in sean nós dancing at the Fleadh Cheoil in Sligo and Oireachtas na Samhna in Dublin this past year. It was inspiring to go around the table and listen to each woman share an event or two that made a change or brought about a new awareness in her life. We acknowledged that while we are blessed, not everyone in this city is as fortunate.

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Connolly's Denise told the gathering about her relatives and friends in Kerry. [More photographs will accompany the piece in the arts section of Wednesday's print edition.][/caption]The homeless problem being what it is, our group, Nollaig na mBan New York, has chosen to help “The Dwelling Place of New York,” a privately-funded transitional residence for homeless women located in Midtown Manhattan. We have no concrete plans yet but our aim is to attempt to make a difference.

Others interested in joining our group and our efforts to help the homeless should contact me, Maura Mulligan at