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Christmas without Santa, with a goat

Bernie Ni Fhlatharta



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

Judy Murphy



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

Henshaw and McSharry set to field for Irish Wolfhounds in clash with England Saxons

Bernie Ni Fhlatharta



Date Published: 24-Jan-2013

CONNACHT’S rising stars Robbie Henshaw and Dave McSharry look set to named in the starting xv for the Ireland Wolfhounds who face the England Saxons in Galway this weekend when the team is announced later today (Thursday).

Robbie Henshaw is the only out-and-out full-back that was named Tuesday in the 23-man squad that will take on the English at the Sportsground this Friday (7.45pm).

Connacht’s centre McSharry and Ulster’s Darren Cave are the only two specialist centres named in the 23 man squad, which would also suggest the two youngsters are in line for a starting place.

Former Connacht out-half, Ian Keatley, Leinster’s second out-half Ian Madigan and Ulster’s number 10 Paddy Jackson and winger Andrew Trimble, although not specialist full-backs or centres, can all slot into the 12, 13 and 15 jerseys, however you’d expect the Irish management will hand debuts to Henshaw and McSharry given that they’ll be playing on their home turf.

Aged 19, Henshaw was still playing Schools Cup rugby last season. The Athlone born Connacht Academy back burst onto the scene at the beginning of the season when he filled the number 15 position for injured captain Gavin Duffy.

The Marist College and former Ireland U19 representative was so assured under the high ball, so impressive on the counter-attack and astute with the boot, that he retained the full-back position when Duffy returned from injury.

Connacht coach Eric Elwood should be commended for giving the young Buccaneers clubman a chance to shine and Henshaw has grasped that opportunity with both hands, lighting up the RaboDirect PRO 12 and Heineken Cup campaigns for the Westerners this season.

Henshaw has played in all 19 of Connacht’s games this season and his man-of-the-match display last weekend in the Heineken Cup against Zebre caught the eye of Irish attack coach, Les Kiss.

“We’re really excited about his development. He had to step into the breach when Connacht lost Gavin Duffy, and he was playing 13 earlier in the year. When he had to put his hand up for that, he’s done an exceptional job,” Kiss said.

The 22-year-old McSharry was desperately unlucky to miss out on Declan Kidney’s Ireland squad for the autumn internationals and the Dubliner will relish the opportunity this Friday night to show-off his speed, turn of foot, deft hands and finishing prowess that has been a mark of this season, in particular, with Connacht.

For more, read this week’s Connacht Tribune.

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Archive News

Drinks battle brewing as kettle sales go off the boil

Bernie Ni Fhlatharta



Date Published: 30-Jan-2013

You’d have thought there might have been three certainties in Irish life – death, taxes and the cup of tea – but it now seems that our post-tiger sophistication in endangering the consumption of the nation’s second favourite beverage.

Because with all of our new-fangled coffee machines, percolators, cappuccino and expresso makers, sales of the humble kettle are falling faster than our hopes of a write-off on the promissory note.

And even when we do make tea, we don’t need a tea pot – it’s all tea bags these days because nobody wants a mouthful of tea leaves, unless they’re planning to have their fortune told.

Sales of kettles are in decline as consumers opt for fancy coffee makers, hot water dispensers and other methods to make their beverages – at least that’s the case in the UK and there’s no reason to think it’s any different here.

And it’s only seems like yesterday when, if the hearth was the heart of every home, the kettle that hung over the inglenook fireplace or whistled gently on the range, was the soul.

You’d see groups gathered in bogs, footing turf and then breaking off to boil the battered old kettle for a well-earned break.

The first thing that happened when you dropped into someone’s home was the host saying: “Hold on until I stick on the kettle.”

When the prodigal son arrived home for the Christmas, first item on the agenda was a cup of tea; when bad news was delivered, the pain was eased with a cuppa; last thing at night was tea with a biscuit.

The arrival of electric kettles meant there was no longer an eternal search for matches to light the gas; we even had little electric coils that would boil water into tea in our cup if you were mean enough or unlucky enough to be making tea for one.

We went away on sun holidays, armed with an ocean of lotion and a suitcase full of Denny’s sausages and Barry’s Tea. Spanish tea just wasn’t the same and there was nothing like a nice brew to lift the sagging spirits.

We even coped with the arrival of coffee because for a long time it was just Maxwell House or Nescafe granules which might have seemed like the height of sophistication – but they still required a kettle.

For more, read this week’s Connacht Tribune.

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