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Christmas without Santa, with a goat

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Date Published: 24-Dec-2009

Tradition is a vital part of our Irish Christmas, with cribs, candles in the window, midnight Mass, cake, pudding, and of course Santa Claus being a core part of the annual celebrations. But other countries where Christianity is also the norm – such as Poland and Uganda – have other traditions, which are equally important to them, and members of Ireland’s immigrant community have brought those to Ireland with them. Then there are other people, for whom December 25 is just another day – people who follow the Muslim faith being among them.

Judy Murphy spoke to three Irish residents who tell what Christmas means to them.

MIRIAM Birungi Omoro, from Uganda will be spending her second Christmas in Ireland this year. Currently living in the Eglinton Hotel in Salthill, she is seeking asylum from Uganda where a bitter civil war has torn the northern part of that country apart.

Miriam who was reared as a member of the Church of Uganda, now worships in the Church of Ireland and has recently joined St Nicholas’s choir, where she is a welcome addition given the wonderful singing traditions of her own country.

As in Ireland, Christmas in Uganda was an occasion for families to gather, says Miriam who was reared in a rural part of West Uganda, where her father had a banana and coffee plantation, a eucalyptus forest and also ran a small shop.

For those people living in the cities, who had to travel home for Christmas, the journey would often begin two weeks before the feast day for women and children, with the heads of the family arriving home later, she recalls.

Some gatherings featured extended families, especially in the case of polygamous husbands – two of Miriam’s maternal uncles were polygamous and had two wives each. Mostly it was Muslims who were polygamous, but sometimes Christians were, too, although it breached church teaching.

For family gatherings, farmers would kill a goat and chickens, and if there were large families, cows or sheep. Those families who had their homesteads around the village, would spend Christmas Day at home and the following days visiting aunts and uncles having “lunch here and lunch there”.

Miriam’s family were relatively prosperous, living in a cement house with a corrugated roof and it was traditional for neighbours to visit their house after service on Christmas Day.

On Christmas Eve carols were a big tradition and sometimes “you would be woken up by people outside, with lanterns and African candles, singing carols”. African candles consisted of a small tin, with a cloth pulled through, onto which paraffin was poured. This was lit and the paraffin kept the flame alive.

There was no Santa in Miriam’s childhood years, although when they went away to boarding school, they heard of his existence. But there were gifts.

“My father would give us presents according to how we performed in class, to encourage us to do better.”

These were always books or clothes, never toys. In her youth there were no decorations or cards, although both became reasonably common subsequently.

Christmas Day saw people getting up at daybreak and Miriam has happy memories of breakfasts with bread, butter, jam, queen cakes and tea. Before going to church, the dinner would be prepared in the banana plantation and left in the kitchen for later.

There were local, parish and main churches in their community, and at Christmas all worshippers would go to the main church. This was a half an hour from Miriam’s house, but some people had to walk for hours to get there and one of the best things about Christmas was meeting the many people she hadn’t seen for ages.

Since moving to Ireland, following a difficult time in her life, Miriam has become involved in local charity groups, including Cope and various women’s groups. She has also been involved in a project, supported by the Dublin-based Akidwa group which published a book of children’s stories from Africa entitled Horses and Tortoises.

Since that was published, Miriam has been involved in storytelling workshops, and gave one to teachers during the Baboró Festival for children. She is doing her best to integrate and hopes she will get asylum here. But for the moment, her life is not easy. On Friday, Miriam will attend service at St Nicholas’ Church, and after that, she will return to the Eglinton Hotel where she will spend Christmas Day in an environment as far away from her childhood as it would be possible to imagine.

See also

  • From fasting to feasting is the Polish tradition
  • We don’t celebrate but we are part of the community so people visit friends

Galway in Days Gone By

The way we were – Protecting archives of our past

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A photo of Galway city centre from the county council's archives

People’s living conditions less than 100 years ago were frightening. We have come a long way. We talk about water charges today, but back then the local District Councils were erecting pumps for local communities and the lovely town of Mountbellew, according to Council minutes, had open sewers,” says Galway County Council archivist Patria McWalter.

Patria believes we “need to take pride in our history, and we should take the same pride in our historical records as we do in our built heritage”. When you see the wealth of material in her care, this belief makes sense.

She is in charge of caring for the rich collection of administrative records owned by Galway County Council and says “these records are as much part of our history as the Rock of Cashel is. They document our lives and our ancestors’ lives. And nobody can plan for the future unless you learn from the past, what worked and what didn’t”.

Archivists and librarians are often unfairly regarded as being dry, academic types, but that’s certainly not true of Patria. Her enthusiasm is infectious as she turns the pages of several minute books from Galway’s Rural District Councils, all of them at least 100 years old.

Part of her role involved cataloguing all the records of the Councils – Ballinasloe, Clifden, Galway, Gort, Loughrea, Mountbellew, Portumna and Tuam. These records mostly consisted of minutes of various meetings.

When she was cataloguing them she realised their worth to local historians and researchers, so she decided to compile a guide to their content. The result is For the Record: The Archives of Galway’s Rural District Councils, which will be a valuable asset to anybody with an interest in history.

Many representatives on these Councils were local personalities and several were arrested during the political upheaval of the era, she explains.

And, ushering in a new era in history, women were allowed to sit on these Rural District Councils – at the time they were not allowed to sit on County Councils.

All of this information is included in Patria’s introductory essay to the attractively produced A4 size guide, which gives a glimpse into how these Rural Councils operated and the way political thinking changed in Ireland during a short 26-year period. In the early 1900s, these Councils supported Home Rule, but by 1920, they were calling for full independence and refusing to recognise the British administration.

“I love the tone,” says Patria of the minutes from meetings. “The language was very emotive.”

That was certainly true of the Gort Rural District Council. At a meeting in 1907, following riots in Dublin at the premiere of JM Synge’s play, The Playboy of the Western World the councillors’ response was vehement. They recorded their decision to “protest most emphatically against the libellous comedy, The Playboy of the Western World, that was belched forth during the past week in the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, under the fostering care of Lady Gregory and Mr Yeats. We congratulate the good people of Dublin in howling down the gross buffoonery and immoral suggestions that are scattered throughout this scandalous performance.

 

For more from the archives see this week’s Tribunes here

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Archive News

Real Galway flavour to intermediate club hurling battle in Birr

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Date Published: 23-Jan-2013

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Athenry fail to take chances as they bow out of Junior Cup

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Date Published: 29-Jan-2013

Athenry FC 1

Kilbarrack United 2

(After extra time)

For the second year in succession Athenry were done in extra time in the FAI Junior Cup as last season’s beaten finalist’s came from behind to snatch an excellent game in Moanbawn on Sunday afternoon.

On a heavy pitch that was only playable following extensive groundwork by club officials all morning, the home side were by far the better side in the opening half, but failed to take advantage of a number of opportunities that came their way.

An Alan O’Donovan penalty gave them a merited advantage just after the restart, but thereafter were on the back foot as Kilbarrack took over, but for all their pressing, the home rearguard were dealing comfortably with their forays.

However they were struck a body blow just six minutes from time, as big striker Keith Kirwan was left all alone at the far post to head the equaliser and from that point on the Dubliners were the better side.

They started off the extra time in the ascendancy and enjoying all the momentum before striking for a good winning goal on 104 minutes. A strong bench allowed them to make some necessary changes and it was not a facility that was available to Athenry manager Gabriel Glavin.

With Gary Forde and Gary Delaney out through suspension following their sending off against OLBC in the previous round, and Seamie Crowe injured, it left their bench rather threadbare with just a number of young squad players available.

Playing with the aid of the slight incline and any wind advantage going, the home side had a Connor Cannon effort on target in the opening minute, while John Meleady was just over with a flick at the other end.

Meleady then tested Andrew Walsh who saved comfortably, before the goalkeeper pulled off a brilliant double save on 14 minutes.

Firstly he went full length to push away a Meleady shot and was then back on his feet to parry David Jackson’s close-range rebound.

For more, read this week’s Connacht Sentinel.

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