Kay Davenport – Creativity in West Cork

Writer, sculptor, ceramicist, historian . . .  the creative community here in West Cork rolls all these things into one person: Kay Davenport. For me, another side to Kay is one of the most important – she is, like me, a complete Hare Fanatic! You can tell because, when you drive past her entrance gates on the road between Ballydehob and Bantry, you are greeted by some wonderful hares which she has sculpted.

When we first met Kay – many years ago now – her Hare Pottery was in full swing, producing bespoke plates, ceramic trays, trivets and canvases with all the images inspired by the ‘marginalia’ in a series of 14th century French manuscripts. Most of these feature hares in various poses, usually turning the tables on the human world. Kay elaborates:

. . . the hare is a principal actor and unique in these books in her animosity towards the hunter/tailor who would kill her for her pelt to line hoods and cloaks. A number of marginal scenes revolves around the subject of the hare exacting revenge on the hunter and these could be described as the hunter hunted or the world upside down. The hare is also shown fighting with her old adversary, the hound, using shield and sword, or defending a castle against him and his troops. In one instance, the hare triumphs and bears him home, presumably to eat . . .

Upper: memories of Kay’s Hare Pottery, Ballydehob. Lower, a tile on the left – the title reads . . . The hare hunted for her pelt to line the hoods of ordinary people here wears the hood (lined with 100% human hair?) . . . Lower right – another of the marginalia illustrations from The Bar Books: here the hare plays a horn

2018 has heralded new ventures. She has become a prolific writer! Firstly, in March of this year she released a magnum opus: The Bar Books – a completely comprehensive study of the manuscripts illuminated for Renaud de Bar, Bishop of Metz between 1303 and 1316. It is these manuscripts that contain the hare marginalia which have always fascinated and inspired Kay. The study is about far more than the marginalia – it’s a very concentrated slice of a very particular historic period and a way of life lived then; and the book contains 242 black-and-white illustrations and 45 colour plates.

Top – from The Bar Books – examples from the colour plates. Middle – marginalia illustration, showing a hare being pursued by a boar (or, perhaps, a dragon?). Bottom – the marginalia have been used by Kay to illustrate her pottery: here the hares are making use of a temporary structure erected in the open for the king to have a bath while on the road. Hares of course are always on the road and have seized this ideal opportunity to give their baby a bath (with the baby swaddled like royalty)

As if such a magnificent achievement wasn’t enough for one year, Kay has surprised us all by suddenly launching a series of illustrated books for children – and just in time for Christmas! But it would be wrong to say that these books are only for children: we were thoroughly entertained by them – as will anyone be who has a sense of humour. And the suitable age group? Well, my grandchildren who range from 8 to 18 will be getting them – and enjoying them, I have no doubt. After all, there are terrible toddler tantrums, fierce wolves, and a hip-hop hero – what more could anyone want?

Above: the covers and a page from Sweet Dreams, in which a nightmare of a child learns the pitfalls of eating too many sweets. Kay’s rhyming text and illustrations are hilarious. below, the book Hip Hop Aesop – a wonderfully unique variation on the ‘cry wolf’ story.

Just to add to the melee, Kay has also provided the illustrations for a book by Michael Neill, Macdonald the Tiger. In my household, we always had to have books about tigers – especially those who ate children. This one would certainly have fitted the bill – and a few mothers get eaten along the way, too! But all ends well, of course.

Well, I hope this post has inspired you to go out and get some of Kay’s work. The books are available from Amazon, and they are also on sale in the Post Office in Ballydehob – what an easy way to fill your Christmas stockings!

Own a Piece of Ireland (Best Christmas Present EVER!)

Have you dreamed of owning a little slice of heaven in Ireland? Here’s your chance! Buy a tiny plot on Cape Clear Island for yourself or for someone else and when you do, you’ll know that not only are you giving someone possibly the best Christmas present ever but you’re also doing your part to conserve an important chunk of the natural world.

Dennis Horgan’s incredible photograph of Cape Clear Island from the air showing the whole of the Island, and its relationship to Roaringwater Bay. The land the Trust is purchasing lies on the east (right) side of South Harbor, in the centre of the picture. For more on Dennis’s photography and his latest book, see the end of this post

Chuck Kruger and his wife Nell recently left Cape Clear after half a lifetime there. An iconic figure, he wrote and told stories about the land he adopted and came to love. He founded the marvellous Cape Clear International Story Telling Festival and his leaving to return to the US leaves a huge hole in island life.

The photograph above is, poignantly, of Chuck on his last guided walk on the Island and was taken by Sandra Bottcher. Have a look at Chuck’s website for more about his writing and broadcast work.

One of the ancient stone walls that define the fields along the South Harbour

Chuck and Nell’s farm bordered the South Harbour and the Islanders, rather than let it go into private hands, have formed a trust to purchase it. The plan is to provide open access to all, and to ensure that no future development can intrude upon this pristine area.

The Red Trail leads you around the southeast side of South Harbour – here, last June we viewed wildflowers, immense sea views, a dramatic sea arch and an abundance of Basking Sharks

You can purchase a five square metre piece of Trust land for €50 (currently that’s about $60US, $75CAN, or £45) or a ten square metre plot for €100 ($120US, $150CAN or £90). Just pop along to the Trust Website and choose the SHOP tab. Join Robert and me in making open access to this little patch of paradise in perpetuity a reality – it will be the best money you have ever spent!

Walking the Red Trail

Cape Clear is a very special place – an Irish speaking area (or Gaeltacht) accessible only by ferry, rich in tradition and history, and an important habitat for wild plants and creatures. We’ve written about Cape Clear in this post, and in this one, and we are fortunate indeed to enjoy a view of it from our home.

Above, Cinnabar Moth; Below, Marsh Orchids

It’s also very beautiful. Robert and I have enjoyed our trips there very much: in fact, last year my birthday present from him was a two-night break in Cape Clear. We spent our time exploring and hiking the Island, observing the Basking Sharks, and visiting the remains of the Neolithic Passage Grave, original home of the Cape Clear Stone. One of our walks was along the Red Trail – the very area that is now in the Trust.

Sea Campion

If you’re hankering after your own piece of Ireland in other ways too, allow us to highly recommend Cork from the Air by Dennis Horgan. Dennis is one of Ireland’s supremely talented aerial photographers and his latest book captures Cork as you have never seen it. He very kindly permitted me to use his incredible photograph of Cape Clear from the air – thank you, Dennis! The book is available on his website, or if you’re in Ireland already, in all good bookshops.

Go on, head over to the Cape Clear Island Trust website now – you’re just in time for Christmas!

The Nativity – by Harry Clarke and His Studio

Images of the nativity are a special part of Christmas in Ireland – as witness the proliferation of Christmas cribs in every town and in half the shopfronts. In West Cork (and not too far away in Dingle) we are particularly fortunate to have examples of nativity images in stained glass by the famous Harry Clarke, and by the Studios that bore his name, including this one (above and below) in St Barrahane’s Church of Ireland, in Castletownshend.

We have mentioned Harry Clarke, Ireland’s most renowned stained glass artist, in several posts before, and no doubt will come back to him again – his gorgeous windows repay multiple visits. In going through the many photographs I have taken I realised that Harry Clarke, at least in the windows I have visited here in the south west, concentrated on only two representations of the Christmas story – the visit of the Magi (below), and the flight into Egypt.

His focus on the the visitation of the Three Kings, traditionally celebrated on January 6th, is poignant, for it was on that day that Harry Clarke died in 1931, after a long battle with tuberculosis. He was, like the Magi, travelling at the time, in a vain attempt to get home from a sanatorium in Switzerland. He was only 41.

On a visit to Dingle we were lucky to find the Díseart Centre of Irish Spirituality and Culture open and to be able to view the magnificent windows in a tiny church previously only open to the nuns of the enclosed Presentation order. One of the windows (above and below) was devoted to the nativity – once again, the Magi scene.

Clarke scholars will only assign a window as a true ‘Harry Clarke’ if it was designed and executed by him or under his close supervision. His studios carried on after his death and windows made at that time are labelled ‘Harry Clarke Studio’ windows. While the Castletownshend and Dingle windows are undisputedly Harry Clarkes, there is a differences of opinion about the ones in Timoleague. When the Timoleague church celebrated its centenary, the Southern Star ran a story with this entry:

Pride of place in the church must go to the beautiful Harry Clarke windows at the back of the church as you exit. Harry Clarke achieved fame for his unique style, his incredible use of colour, his decorative designs and the beautiful medieval-styled figures that have rarely found an equal in the medium of stained glass. These windows were put in place in 1929/’30 and were among the last to be made by Clarke who died in 1931. The windows were in memory of Rev Fr Timothy O’Hea PP (1912-1929) by the parishioners and by his successor as parish priest, Rev Fr  Jeremiah O’Driscoll (1929-’49).

However, these windows are not identified as Harry Clarkes in Nicola Gordon Bowe‘s authoritative book, implying that these are Harry Clarke Studio windows. They are certainly ‘in the Clarke style’, and very striking. Recent scholarship, in fact, has revealed that these windows were a collaborative effort between Richard King and William Dowling, both stained glass masters in their own right, working at the studios to complete orders while Harry was in the Swiss sanatorium.

The Kilcoe Church of the Most Holy Rosary has a stained glass rose window over the entrance. A sign states that it was made by Harry Clarke Stained Glass Ltd (the Studios), designed by T Clarke and installed in 1943. T Clarke, was Terence Clarke, Harry’s nephew, the son of his brother Walter. Like Timoleague, it is also in the Clarke ‘style,’ and although it certainly does not compare to Harry Clarke’s own work, it is beautiful in its own right and expertly done. One of the small windows of the rose depicts the flight into Egypt.

A Midwinter’s Tale

winter gales

We’ve established a little tradition for Christmas: we include a story, ideally to be read by candlelight huddled beside the stove just at the turning of the shortest days. Last year Finola wrote of childhood memories – Christmas in Dublin; the year before that I penned a version of a haunting Irish folk-tale. This year it’s my turn again, and I’m including a story which is based largely on events which really happened many years ago in the small Devon village where I lived. They bring to mind our own stormy winter which we survived earlier this year here in Nead an Iolair…


Kathleen by Robert

Kathleen was a large woman alright.  If you saw her in the field, there was no mistaking her profile:  she always wore two coats, one on top of the other, and at the bottom they flared out like a church bell.  I never saw her without her great legs jammed into a pair of old wellington boots – except in chapel of a Sunday – and on her head was the same shapeless piece of faded red knitting, year after year after year.

Kathleen became a neighbour of ours soon after Mr Monihan’s passing.  – And there was a strange thing, too.  I never heard it from Kathleen’s mouth direct – but then I never heard her deny it either – but everyone in the village was sure enough of the story.  He had been a smallish man, I suppose; certainly, he was small by comparison with Kathleen.  They shared the marriage bed late in life, for he’d taken herself – a confirmed spinster – as his second wife long after his own children were out in the world.

Well, it was about two years into the union that Kathleen first noticed her husband’s night wanderings.  She would wake in the morning – so the story goes – and find him cold and shivering beside her, with the smell of the sea all around.  Time and again this happened, and because he would say nothing about it, she determined to find out what was going on.  A certain night they went to bed as usual; she lay quiet but kept herself awake by repeating the Our Father over and over into the bolster.  It came to the deepest part of the night, and Mr Monihan seemed to be peacefully asleep, while Kathleen was feeling very tired and wondering what she was about.  Suddenly, he started up, crept across the room to the door, and in a minute was out of the cottage.  He had paused only to put on his old black cape that always hung on the peg.  Just as quickly, Kathleen was out too, but she was careful to keep hidden away behind him.  Down the hill they went, through the sleeping village and out on to the beach, he walking so fast that she had some difficulty in keeping him in her sights.  Eventually, she lost him altogether in the rocks over by where the cliffs start.  She searched for an hour and then gave up, returning crossly to her bed.

In the morning he was back again, but cold and shivering as usual.  Kathleen went over to the peg by the door and felt his cape:  it was streaming wet, and flecks of sea-foam still clung to it.

Of course, Kathleen confronted him with the story and wanted to know what it all meant.  He just shrugged and claimed to know nothing of it; as far as he was concerned, he had slept all night in his bed and woke up in the morning as cold as any old man would be.  So there was a pretty poor state of affairs for Kathleen.  But she accepted it in the end, as we all accept the mysteries in our lives.  She did try to follow him again, but had no more success than before.  She closed her mind to it and denied its happening, even to herself.

A while after, he was gone altogether, and his black cape with him.  She waited a day and a night, then went down to the rocks to search for him.  He was never found, and everyone accepted that he was drowned while in pursuit of his trade, which was kelping.

After that Kathleen moved up the hill into the little thatched cottage across the lane from us, and took up the kelping herself.  I would often meet her coming across the sand of an evening, the great dripping net slung over her back and she bent with the weight of it.  Yet I never heard her complain, and she a widow so soon.

She was not companionless for long.  One of her husband’s daughters who lived away in the city with a family of her own fell on difficult times and sent her own son to stay with Kathleen.  This was a weak looking boy of about fifteen years old.  The arrangement was meant to help Kathleen as well as the mother, but I never once saw him lift a kelp net, and doubted if he was even able.  Instead, he followed her around like a dog, and seemed more of a worry to her than ever her widowhood had been.

What happened after was only learnt by the villagers in the course of time, and much of it hearsay in any case, as Kathleen always kept herself to herself.  She must have been aware of the stories that went about but was never known to confirm any aspect of them.  On the other hand, she never uttered against them, so they are probably worth the telling.  I saw little enough of the events myself, although I was aware at the time that Kathleen was in some way troubled.

Storm clouds

It was late in the year; nights were long.  The cottage had only one bedroom – Kathleen’s – and the boy slept on a settle in the kitchen.  On our wild coastline, dawn is hailed not by a cock’s crow, but by the first wailing of sea birds that collect in huddled crowds over the off-shore rocks.  One of these winter mornings Kathleen was just stirring herself when she was startled to find the boy standing by her bed.  He had thought that she called him – somebody or something had called him – so he came from his place on the settle to see what was wanted.  She paid little enough heed of it the once, but when it happened again a second and a third night, well – then she started to worry.  On the fourth she stayed up, sitting herself in a hard chair by the embers of the hearth so that the discomfort of it would keep her awake.  She kept the Good Book beside her.  She was determined to wait the night out, but drowsiness overtook her and she suddenly awoke in the early hours to find the boy had sat bolt upright and was staring sharp at the cottage door.  He seemed not to hear her when she spoke but eventually came to, like one shaken out of a dream, and told her that – again – there had been the voice crying to him in the night.  She made light of it, and convinced him it was no more than the wind and the sea, but inside herself she knew there was something else.

After that, Kathleen could not rest easy without taking the precaution of fitting a large lock to the door which faced down the shore road – something she had never lived with all her life before – and when she went to her bed at night, the key was firmly under her pillow!

The solstice passed, and days grew longer.  Gales came, as they always do in January on our coast.  But in that year these were savage gales, far wilder than anything I had experienced in my lifetime.  The glass in the hall fell and fell again, until the little brass pointer was hard against its bottom stop.  We kept around our firesides, then, and listened to the storms hurling themselves against us, our windows and doors rattling and moaning from the wind wanting to tear us from our refuge.  Some days there would be a little respite, and we would venture outside to pick up the broken slates and chimney caps that littered the lanes and gardens.  At these times, we saw how the sea had thrown itself halfway up the village street as though angrily trying to reach out for our hillside homes, having already washed over those against the harbour.  There was no kelping could be done – the huts on the shoreline were in any case smashed and the nets all gone – but Kathleen could never be idle:  she feared for her roof and I watched her throw thick cords across the ridge of it, and lash them to great boulders at the eaves to weigh it down.  All this she did from ladders with the wind still high, she heaving the heavy rocks on her own while the boy stood under her, useless as a lame sparrow.

These lulls were short, and were each time followed by yet worse weather.  The peak of it came towards the end of the month, with a roaring wind that you could not stand up against.  It brought our chimney down, and the church steeple too, which went through the nave and ruined it.  A day and a night it lasted with us all crouching indoors, wondering what havoc we would find around us if ever we survived.


The morning that followed after was, unbelievably, as quiet and as calm as spring.  There was not a breath of air moving; the wind seemed to have blown itself right away.  We crept out and viewed the devastation.  It was bad, but it could have been worse.  There would have to be a lot of roofing done, but generally the old stone walls had taken the battering well.  In the course of time we were thankful to discover that no-one in the village had suffered injury to themselves.  Like us, they had each one hidden away by the safety of their own hearth.  Kathleen was not so relieved however, and I realised her agitation as soon as I crossed the lane to find how she herself had fared.  She showed me where her door lay half in and half out of the tiny porch, as though it had been picked up in the night by some gigantic hand.  The rest of the cottage was undamaged, the roof intact under its protection.  But the boy was vanished.

We got together a search party as soon as it could be managed, and went after Kathleen who had gone straight down to the rocks at the end of the beach, close under the cliff.  All that day and all the next we searched, but never a trace we found.  I happened on an old black cape lying half in one of the pools but left it for the tide to take back again.

A few years have passed since these things occured.  The winds have never been as rough again as on that night when Kathleen’s boy was lost.  The village gradually got itself back to normal, and the sea has done its best to wash over the memories.  The cottage across the lane is unchanged, except that it has a new entrance door.  I often meet Kathleen striding across the beach with her loaded kelping nets:  I would like to ask her if she still locks herself in at night.

storm sea

The gale found us again this last January.  I lay in bed unable to sleep for the fury of it beating itself over the sea walls.  Or perhaps I did drowse – for I fancied that just before daybreak the storm dropped, and from beyond it there came a faraway sound unfamiliar to me, as of someone calling out of the night.  Calling my name.  I shook myself properly awake.  No, I could not still hear it; it must have been one of the sea birds on the islands shouting in advance of the dawn chorus.  In the morning I went down to the beach.  There was Kathleen as usual, pulling through the combings of the high tide with her long wooden rake.  I passed her by, and walked out to the end of the sands, where the cliffs begin.  I had thought that the sounds of the breaking surf would wash the night-cries from my ears or my head.  Yet they still rang clear inside me. I started, then, when I suddenly came upon two figures – they were two great black seals who when they saw me threw their heads in the air and cried out, and their cries were carried away by the wind over the village and over the hills.  I watched as the creatures slid back clumsily across the sand until the water took them.  Still they cried as they swam away, their snouts raised up through the racing froth.  At the far end of the beach I saw a small stooped figure – Kathleen it was – raise her hand briefly to her eyes to watch after them.

church tower

The church in Hatherleigh, Devon, destroyed by the hurricane of January 1990

Monica Sheridan’s My Irish Cook Book

Last year I decided to make Christmas cake according to Monica Sheridan’s recipe, which I remembered from my childhood. A comment from a reader got me curious about her other Christmas recipes and I got out my dog-eared copy of My Irish Cook Book to look up how to make a traditional plum pudding. Fatal mistake! Instead of cracking eggs and and soaking fruit I have been chuckling over the book and insisting that Robert listens as I read bits out loud.

I have already posted about Monica’s Kitchen and the delights it contains. The audience for that book was the modern Irish home cook (assumed to be female) of the 1960s. My Irish Cook Book focuses on traditional Irish foods and recipes. The emphasis is on fresh ingredients and fairly simple cooking methods – the kind of thing we call Slow Food nowadays. But because it’s about Irish food it is also an extended piece of nostalgia, replete with dewy-eyed memories of her childhood and her trademark stories and trenchant wit.

The book starts with an essay on the cooking traditions of her family, from her great-grandmother cooking stews in a bastable oven over an open fire, to her grandmother (who actually had running water from a tap!) to her mother who continued to churn her own butter, cure her own bacon, bake her own bread and make the most outlandish hats with feathers purloined from the cock.

The photographs above and below, by the way, are from my own copy of the book A Taste of Ireland by Theodora FitzGibbon – a book that deserves its own post one day. The photo above is labelled A traditional Irish Kitchen, about 1888, and the one below is of the ancestral home of US President William McKinley in Co Antrim.

Her soup chapter begins thus:

The Geography we learn at school tells us that Ireland has a moderate climate, warmed by the Gulf Stream without any great variations of temperature either in summer or winter. This is a flagrant piece of Celtic exaggeration…

You wouldn’t be long in Ireland before realising that soup is an essential part of our daily fare. Like whiskey it is our internal central heating, raising the temperature of the body and thawing out the gastric juices so that they will be receptive to the delights that are to follow. Remember, in Ireland, except in the cities, domestic central heating is still a rarity (we are a credulous people and believe what we read in the geography books). We need soup to warm us.

This chapter includes instructions for making a Nettle Tonic. This essentially involves boiling a pound of young nettles in water. Strain and drink a tumblerful, hot or cold, first thing in the morning. Guaranteed to put roses in your cheeks and a glint in your eye. Not pleasant, of course, but you must suffer to be beautiful.

This is the same pre-feminist era woman of Monica’s Kitchen: she gives the following directions for serving steak and fried onions.

Carve the steak by cutting it in thick slices along the grain of the meat. Give a good slice of the fillet to your most important male guest (all men are knowledgeable about steak – all that expense-account eating, I’m sure) and never you mind about his wife. The chances are she is so delighted to be away from her own kitchen stove she won’t mind what she gets.

There are lots of recipes for offal, and indeed as children we ate lots of organ meats – although I drew the line at tripe and my mother finally relented after an epic battle of wills. Kidneys, tongue, liver, sweetbreads, heads, brains, cheeks…all get a look in.

Traditional Cork Christmas Meats at the English Market

Some Cork specialties get special attention, like Skirts and Bodices. Bodices are pickled spareribs because they are like the boned bodices our grandmothers wore and skirts are the fluted trimmings that are cut away from the pork steak. Drisheens sound, er, appetising: They are made from sheep’s blood. In appearance they resemble a blown-up bicycle tyre, but they have a wonderful texture, like baked egg custard. Serve with butter, she recommends, flavoured with tansy. Crubeens, meanwhile, are pigs’ trotters. Crubeens should always be eaten with your fingers. They lose half of their magic if you attack them with a refined knife and fork. You will need a bath afterwards, of course, but their sweet savour is well worth the extra ablution.

Tripe and Drisheen courtesy of the Eat This Town blog

She finishes the pork section with the following: I will tell you an interesting thing about ham. The true ham epicure will always look for the left ham of a pig. It is considered more tender and delicate. You see, the pig scratches himself with the right leg and consequently exercises it far more. So now you know!

There are many recipes for poultry, some of which involve boiling the fowl, or, in the case of Uncle George’s Turkey, injecting cream into the breast with a syringe. Chickens, of course, must be young – a digression is called for: Describing a woman of certain age, my mother would often say, “She wouldn’t tear in the plucking” (young birds have very delicate skin that breaks easily with inept plucking) or, “A chicken of her age wouldn’t fall off the roost.” Mother had a tongue that would clip a hedge.

Monica in 1968, from the Australian Womens' Weekly
Monica in 1968, from the Australian Womens’ Weekly

When Monica talks about a soufflé (although she doesn’t provide a recipe) she says, it should rise gradually, like a careful civil servant, consolidating its position on the way up. She devotes five pages to talking about soda bread before she even gets to a recipe for it. But that recipe is one I used often, when I lived in Canada, before the days of the internet opened up a world of online recipes. I can attest that it’s a good one.

But, like Monica, I digress – my intention was to give her recipe for plum pudding. Alas, it is hardly a recipe – little more than a list of ingredients followed by instructions to mix it all together, put into greased pudding dishes, and boil for 5 hours. Like many of her recipes, it calls for booze – in this case a glass of whiskey (she has a whole chapter on ‘Drink’). So instead of detailing how to make the plum pudding I will leave you with her approach to serving it.

The most exciting thing about a plum pudding is the presentation. To capture the spirit of Christmas it must come to the table lapped in blue flames – and this can be quite tricky with the weak quality of booze nowadays. When I was young we always doused the pudding in poteen and you got a flame that would singe the rafters. To make sure of a good flame it is most important to warm the spirit (cheap brandy is better than whiskey) before pouring it over the pudding.

If you want to make a spectacular entrance to the dining-room with the flaming pudding held on high, this is what you do. Scoop out a hole in the top of the pudding and place half and empty upturned eggshell in the hole. Fill the shell with warmed brandy, ignite and move the dish to spill out the spirit as you enter the dining-room.*

I couldn’t resist this photo of a flaming pudding, which is from Jamie Oliver

In preparing this post I looked up lots of plum pudding recipes, then decided to buy one from my favourite market stall. But if you really want to make a traditional Irish one, Brenda Costigan’s mother’s recipe, from the Independent, looks like a wonderful, rich, boozy pudding that would have done Monica proud.

*Disclaimer: Roaringwater Journal will not be responsible for house fires caused by following these directions.

Nollaig na mBan

This post was first published many years ago – in 2014! The subject matter – Women’s Little Christmas – is just as relevant today. So, have another look…

Sounds like ‘Nullig ne mon’ and translates as ‘Christmas of the Women’, but is also known as ‘Little Christmas’. It’s today – the 6th of January – and is celebrated in Ireland and wherever else in the world there are Irish communities. There are other traditions surrounding this day (quite apart from the arrival of the Three Wise Men), and they are confusing. I was brought up knowing that the Christmas decorations have to come down today otherwise there will be some bad luck in the year. Finola, however, knows that they have to stay up all through the day as it’s still part of Christmas – so she would have them down tomorrow instead. Maybe this is a Catholic / Protestant divide? And when is Twelfth Night: 5th or 6th of January? Either one, it seems, depending on which of the many traditions you choose to follow, or which part of the world you live in.

Layout 1

In Tudor Britain the whole winter festival started on All Soul’s Eve (Halloween) and lasted until Twelfth Night. On the first day a cake was baked with a bean in it. Whoever had the slice with the bean was elected Lord of Misrule and presided over a topsy turvy time when the peasant ruled the master and so on. The World Turned Upside Down is a wishful thinking concept that has inspired many artists ever since.


In some parts of Europe a custom of house-blessing takes place today. Dried herbs are burnt and their scents fill the building. Doorways are sprinkled with holy water and the master of the house writes with chalk above the house and barn doors the initials C M B enclosed within the year (eg 20 C  M  B 14). According to the ritual he says: Caspar, Melchior, Balthasar, protect us again this year from the dangers of fire and water. Alternatively it could stand for “Christus Mansionem Benedicat” (May Christ bless this home).

Some traditions closer to home: McCarthy + Hawkes write in Northside of the Mizen

…On Nollaig na mBan (Woman’s Christmas or Epiphany), the women put all the scraps and leftovers from Christmas onto the kitchen table and it was then up to everyone else to cope the best they could. At midnight, on the eve of Nollaig na mBan, the water in the spring well turned to wine. Now that was a great thing! Ne’er a man or woman has ever supped any and that was because it was only for the Little People…

Perhaps to emphasize that such miracles should be the preserve of only the Fairy Folk, there is a tale told of the blessed well of St Brendan in Cill a ‘Ruith, near Ventry in County Kerry: here in days of yore Three Unwise Men sat up to drink their fill of wine at the appropriate hour and were turned into three large boulders which stand there as a warning to this day.


As this is a Monday, and the first one of the new year, it is also known as Handsel Monday, when children used to visit neighbours and friends and ask for money or cakes. Such a gift was known as a suggit which may derive from the Irish so dhuit – ‘here’s for you – here you are’.

Finola is off out tonight with friends to celebrate Nollaig na mBan, as she used to in Vancouver where the tradition was strongly followed in the Irish community. It is said that the term ‘Women’s Christmas’ can be explained because Christmas Day was marked by beef and whiskey – men’s fare – while on Little Christmas Day the dainties preferred by women – cake and tea – were more in evidence. Finola will no doubt tell me whether this is still the case.