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John Daly: 'An evolving celebration of womanhood'



John McGahern. Photo: Collins Agency

John McGahern. Photo: Collins Agency

John McGahern. Photo: Collins Agency

This weekend I'll be amongst women - though not quite in the manner John McGahern so memorably described in his book of the same name. Instead, my services have been volunteered as chauffeur and general dogsbody to a bevy of blondes and brunettes out celebrating Nollaig na mBan, or Women's Little Christmas.

This January 6 event, like many of our cultural milestones, dates to a time where gender roles observed a strict code determined by the society of the day. Particular to Ireland, its roots grew from man's historic position as the breadwinner and woman's role as the homemaker - a duty rota that allowed for only a single night's flexibility on the last day of Christmas.

In recognition of the constant toil that was the female lot for the preceding 11 days, women were allowed - yes, girls, only allowed - into the local pub only on that single evening.

To do so on any of the other 364 would have immediately branded them as 'loose' or worse. Even in the 1960s, most women would have opted for the polite surrounds of hotel dining rooms with their sisters or relatives, and those who dared darken the door of public houses would have been immediately directed to the snug. Discretion was paramount, as if the close proximity of female flesh and alcohol might produce a combustible combination from which the country could never recover.

The notion of wild women cavorting around Temple Bar with spandex skirts, bunny ears and bottles of tequila would have surely invoked deportation to Van Diemen's land.

Even in food, the sexes observed a strict demarcation - Christmas Day marked by typical men's fare of whiskey and meat, while Little Christmas was for ladies 'dainties', namely cake, tea and wine. Up to the late 1970s, it was a celebration mainly confined to rural towns and villages, places where shawlie women on market stalls kept some of their 'turkey money' aside for a few drinks in the local pub on January 6. It was a small gesture towards themselves in reward for having endured harsh winter conditions selling their produce, but clearly one they treasured for the independence it bestowed. As the 1980s dawned, 'Small Christmas' found a more commercial foothold across the country as pubs and hotels realised the potential of offering female-only nights in an era when the growth of women's rights groups stepped up a noticeable gear.

In a nod to the passage of time and life's all too swift journey, Seán Ó Ríordáin's poem 'Oíche Nollaig na mBan' urged a grasping of opportunities while the chance was ripe: "I hope that storm will come the night that I am weak/From the dance of life returning home as the light of sin grows bleak."

While the event may nowadays celebrate the beloved Irish Mammy's reign as a domestic goddess, she is still the same woman who, until relatively recently, was denied divorce, contraception and the right to choose her own path through life.

For the generation of genteel aunties still amongst us who can recall those days of demure deportment from the 1960s and beyond, the 'Sex In The City' antics abroad on the streets this weekend will probably cause more than one raised eyebrow at modern womanhood taken a garter length too far. "It wasn't so in my day," they'll probably murmur quietly.

But though they may be aeons apart in deportment and style, that aged generation will surely smile inwardly at the single match their brave sisterhood lit long ago to the bonfire of joy enjoyed today by their grand-daughters. They may have opted for sherry over cherry-flavoured vodka, and starched waiters over bare-chested Chippendales - but the song remains the same as an exuberant celebration of independent womanhood. You go, girl!

Irish Independent