By Carmel McMahon
I had the good fortune of meeting Maura Mulligan at the Women’s March on Manhattan in January. We were among the Irish American Writers & Artists cohort. Maura invited me to celebrate St. Brigid’s Day, and the feast of Imbolg, Feb. 1, with her Nollaig Na mBan NYC group. Nollaig Na mBan means “Women’s Christmas” which was traditionally celebrated on Jan. 6 in Ireland. The men took care of the household, and the women got together to eat, drink, sing, tell stories and relax. In recent years, groups have formed to address the needs of women in the community.
Nollaig nBan NYC is a group of female artists who create events that celebrate the four seasonal fire festivals: Imbolg, Bealtaine, Lughnasa, and Samhain. They raise funds to support the Dwelling Place of New York, a privately funded transitional residence for homeless women.
Our host, Karen Daly, introduced the program at the Ripley-Grier Studios on Eighth Avenue. First up, singer and actor Dolores Nolan channeled the spirit of Saint Brigid. She told us what it was like to be born out of wedlock in 5th century Ireland. Brigid was moved to help the poor from an early age. Strong-willed, she set out with a group of women for Kildare. They rekindled an eternal flame that had burned in dedication to the earlier pagan goddess, also Brigid. Here they set up a convent for women, a monastery for men and an art school. Kildare became a destination and a center of culture and learning. Saint Brigid is the patron of many groups including women, babies born out of wedlock and artists. At the time of her death, as Abbess of Kildare, she was not only the most powerful woman, but also the most powerful person in all of Ireland.
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Mary Courtney, who has a new album out in March, was
accompanied by Vonnie Quinn, left, at the Nollaig Na mBan
In later years, to make converts, Christian monks grafted many of the saint’s attributes from the beloved pagan goddess of the same name.
Next up, actress and writer Nancy Oda channeled the Goddess. She was a member of the Tuatha De Dannan. They were deeply connected to the earth, as they depended on dairy farming for survival. Brigid is the archetype of spring. Feb. 1 is the midway point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. Imbolg (in the belly) refers to the approach of the birthing season. New life is generated from old. The ground is beginning to soften. This is the time for planting seeds both in the earth and the imagination. Nancy explained that the goddess often appears in triumvirate form as smith-worker, poetic inspiration and healer. The fire of her forge and the fire of inspiration are the same fire. She gave us each a candle to take home. We can burn them in honor of the goddess whose help we can invoke when challenging ourselves to articulate our visions for the coming season.
Author Maura Mulligan is also a sean nós (old style) Irish dancer and Irish language teacher. She challenged herself (and us) by teaching us the Bonfire Dance as Gaelige. 2018 is Bliain na Gaeilge (the year of Irish). It was so much fun, we clamored rosy-cheeked and breathless, to find out where and when Maura teaches her céilí classes in the city.
Dolores Nolen taught us how to weave a Saint Brigid’s cross. Dolores made it look so easy, but it proved quite the spring challenge for some of us. We howled with laughter at each other’s efforts; everyone’s personalities evident in their handiwork: some were wooly spiders, others symmetric perfectionists.
After intermission and refreshments, Maura presented Sister Joann Sambs, CSA of the Dwelling Place, with the contributions of the evening. Sister Joann read a letter from one of the residents, a woman who went by the name of “T.” She told of how she lost her temporary job and could not find another. Without much savings, no family in New York, she had worn out the generosity of friends, and found herself in a desperate situation. The Dwelling Place is providing her with a safe environment, and the help she needs to get her life back on track.
Finally, there was a live music performance by singer-guitarist Mary Courtney, accompanied by Vonnie Quinn on the fiddle. As a young person, I had no interest in traditional Irish anything. I remember my father saying as I left for America, “Someday you will hear that music, and it will bring a tear to your eye.” It was so unexpected, a little song we all learned in primary school, words that meant nothing to me then, about an emigrant returning home:
“Trasna na dtonnta, dul siar, dul siar!
Slan leis an uaigneas is slan leis an gcian;”
“Over the waves, going west, going west!
Goodbye to the loneliness and the distant remoteness;”
The loveliness of the lines. The lump expands in my throat. The melody stays in my head for days.
I was delighted when Maura Mulligan, the founder of Nollaig Na mBan NYC invited me to join the group at the end of the evening. I have had a devotion to Brigid since 2011. When I was living downtown, a young Irish woman died an alcoholic death outside St. Brigid’s Church in the East Village. The church was built by the famine Irish of the 19th century. I wondered if she sought comfort there. She was born out of wedlock in the 1970s. She wanted to be an artist. I started writing her story and ended up writing my own, but she stayed with me until the end, holding the torch, lighting the way.
There is archaic energy seeking new expression. It runs through our DNA; it runs through our music and poetry, it runs through our impulses to band together, so more women do not fall through the cracks. It is the flame passed down to us from the goddess, we pass it to each other, and on to those generations who are still seeds in the dream of the earth’s imagination.
We hope you will join us for the Bealtaine celebration on May 1. Everyone is welcome.
Carmel McMahon recently completed a memoir, “In Ordinary Time.”