Saturday 24 February 2018

The Other Side of Christmas: ‘Ireland hasn’t lost true meaning of Christmas yet’ – Irish woman working in world’s ‘most violent’ country

Aoife Ni Mhurchu outside the MSF hospital in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea.
Aoife Ni Mhurchu outside the MSF hospital in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea.
Denise Calnan

Denise Calnan

An Irish woman working abroad in one of the most violent places in the world for Christmas said she doesn’t believe Irish people have lost the true meaning of the festive season.

Aoife Ní Mhurchú is working on a sexual violence assignment with Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea.

The country is often labelled the worst place in the world for gender violence.

The most comprehensive survey to date was published in 1992 and found that family violence occurred in more than two-thirds of households, and in almost all households in the Highlands region.

Cork woman Aoife works in the Highlands in a village that is inaccessible by road. There are no lights, decorations or frantic shopping days in the lead-up to Christmas and the celebrations remain as traditional as they were hundreds of years ago.

“Christmas here is very organic. There is no television, no television advertisements, it is lacking in Christmas carols and decorations,” Aoife told

“Where I am in the Highlands is the most traditional part of the country, most people still wear traditional dress, the women wear grass skirts.”

Locals gather for the festive meal, each bringing something different to the feast, and there are no presents exchanged.

“The main Christmas celebration is very traditional, they have a massive sing-sing. I’ve been at one big one and it was absolutely amazing,” she said.

“The sing-sing is a gathering of tribes where they celebrate and show off their cultures.

“Tribes that only live an hour’s distance away from each other would still have very distinct ways of dressing and painting their faces.

“There are no presents exchanged, but everybody contributes to a big feast called a moo moo.

“It is very similar to the concept of the ‘fulacht fiadh’ in Ireland.

“That is basically what they do for Christmas, there is no big run-up to it and no Christmas decorations.

“It is very organic, it is just about being together and eating together and dancing together.”

Although Ireland’s Christmas has become more commercialised in recent years, Aoife believes the true meaning of the season is still apparent at home.

“To be honest it is very hard to believe it is Christmas here, I definitely miss it, you feel the distance,” she said. 

“Even though I would now notice materialism of Christmas at home, I still don’t think we have lost sight about what it’s about and that’s about being with loved ones.

“I do think there is crazy spending in Ireland, but I still think it’s a big part of our culture to just be together at Christmas and be together with family.”

“It‘s two very different worlds, but I don’t think Ireland has lost the true meaning of it yet.”

Aoife works in a hospital which runs an emergency surgical project and family support centre which provides care to victims of sexual violence and child abuse.

She described how the men and women live separately in the village.

“The patients are very poor, the level of education is very low, the families are very large,” she said. 

“The men and women live separately, the women and children live together with the livestock and the pigs.

“My life here is very confined due to the security risks and the widespread violence.

“And my main interaction with the population would be within the hospital confinements.

“But my experience with them is that they are very welcoming and they love that I am trying to learn the local languages.

“The reason we are here is because it has one of the highest rates of violence in the world.”

“I’m not sure if I could possibly be any further geographically from Ireland,” Aoife continued. 

“I am up in the mountains, I’m a flight from anywhere, it is very remote.

“The village isn’t accessible by road, the town is centred around the air strip.”

Despite the extremely high rates of violence against the women in the region, Aoife described the people as “resilient”.

“The people are very resilient – because of the hardship in their everyday lives they have developed the capacity to deal with anything. 

“Sometimes you would expect them not to speak to you in their situation, but they will still find the time to be amused that you are treating them.

“Even if they are really injured they can still find it in themselves to be amused at me being there.”

Aoife worked as a nurse for a few years in Cork before deciding to go abroad with MSF.

“I’d been working with other organisations overseas. I was on an emergency mission with Operation Smile Ireland in the Philippines after the typhoon when I first made contact with MSF.

“We ended up collaborating in the Philippines, when I came home I was thinking about it more and more. I decided to take the chance and go work with them full-time.

“My primary role is working as a nursing activity manager and supporting the nursing team,” she said.

“It’s amazing to work somewhere that integrates so many parts of nursing that I love.

“It’s the perfect job. In any one day I could be found in A&E, in scrubs in the theatre, working in the ICU, basically anywhere that needs my support.

“It’s a very diverse job and there is great job satisfaction.”

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