Projections of bold female faces from Irish history were projected on to public buildings across Dublin’s city centre at the weekend to mark Nollaig na mBan (Women’s Christmas).
Architect Eileen Fray, computer programmer Kay McNulty, poet and trade unionist Eva Gore-Booth, tennis champion Mabel Cahill and medical missionary Sr Dr Maura Lynch were just some of the pioneering women whose images appeared on the GPO, Trinity College and other landmarks.
Held on January 6th - coinciding with the feast of the epiphany and of the three kings - Nollaig naBan is seen as the day when women take a break from the cooking and cleaning of the festive period.
While domestic duties may be more equally shared across households in contemporary Ireland, this day of celebration and reflection remains popular among Irish women of all ages.
Ellen O’Malley Dunlop, chair of the National Women’s Council of Ireland, says the 21st century Nollaig na mBan should be about “reinterpreting the old tradition” while protecting the value of a day which encourages women to “celebrate, collaborate and make a difference”.
“I think it’s really important that women get their time off and gather together,” she said. “It doesn’t have to stay in the rigid form of the traditional day; it’s not just about women in the kitchen. It’s about celebrating women and seeing the contemporary value of the tradition.”
For 23 years, Ms O'Malley Dunlop has run a Nollaig na mBan breakfast fundraiser for the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre and, more recently, the National Women's Council of Ireland.
The event, started by her aunt Betty Rock, was held at the Dean Hotel on Harcourt Street this year and featured a discussion of what it would be like to have an all-female cabinet of ministers. The breakfast also honoured the late Irish Times literary editor Caroline Walsh, who regularly attended the celebration.
Melanie Lynch, the founder of the HerStory movement, which organised the projections in Dublin, said the women’s Christmas celebration should be “reinvigorated” to reflect the positive achievements of Irish women while challenging the traditional, old fashioned notion of a woman’s place in the home.
“The tradition comes from quite a dark part of Irish history. We’re coming at it with fresh eyes and breathing life into an opportunity to celebrate women.”
Senator Ivana Bacik, who chaired last year’s Vótail100 committee to commemorate the centenary of women’s suffrage, has “mixed feelings” about marking a day that focuses on women’s position in the home.
“It’s mired in a very different time when women bore the brunt of all the domestic work and on the notion that it’s somehow an escape for women after the drudgery of Christmas.”
Ms Bacik said this year’s Nollaig na mBan marked the culmination of a particularly poignant 12 months on the path towards the creation of a more equal Irish society.
“It’s been an overwhelming year,” she said. “The repeal of the eighth (amendment banning abortion) by 66.4 per cent would have been unthinkable a year ago; we weren’t even sure there would be a referendum and now we have legislation and services in place.”
The next step for the Irish people is to see the passage of legislation on the gender pay gap, Ms Bacik said.
“I’d like to see positive change on childcare and I hope to see a referendum this year on the women’s place in the home in the Constitution. It would have been appropriate to finish 2018 with that referendum and 100 years after women won the right to vote it’s unfortunate that we still have that language in the constitution.”