Northern Ireland

'Women's Christmas' illuminations shine a light on Irish heroines of the past

The 'HerStory' festival of illuminations is paying homage to great Irish women over the weekend Image copyright Andres Poveda Photography
Image caption The 'HerStory' festival of illuminations is paying homage to great Irish women over the weekend

As the Christmas lights go out and decorations are packed away for another year, it's a gloomy week for festive souls.

But if you're still looking for a reason to raise a glass this weekend, an old Irish celebration known as Nollaig na mBan, or 'Women's Christmas', could give you just the excuse you need.

In the Christian calendar, the Feast of the Epiphany on 6 January is viewed as the last day of Christmas - marking the revelation of God as human in Jesus Christ.

It was also, historically, a day when weary Irish women were freed from domestic Christmas chores to enjoy the festive leftovers with their female friends and neighbours.

Nollaig na mBan has been reclaimed by a cultural movement, using it as an opportunity to pay homage to their female ancestors.

Image copyright 36 Degrees
Image caption The Festival of Lights in Lyon, France, has inspired the organisers of the Irish illumination event

'Illuminate Herstory' was thought up by former advertising and marketing executive Melanie Lynch.

Melanie explained that the light projection festival will illuminate towns and cities across Northern Ireland and the Republic with images of women as the last of the Christmas lights go out.

"From the shadows into the light, we want to share women's stories from families and communities and resurrect tales of lost national heroines and women admired around the world," she told BBC News NI.

"We want to light up homes, town squares, theatres, museums and iconic buildings."

Image copyright Szabolcs Karikó
Image caption Aviator Lilian Bland is one of the many Irish women celebrated in the festival

The festival also incorporates music, comedy, theatre, fashion, dance, photography, poetry, fine art and film.

"It doesn't have to be complicated - every classroom and boardroom have projectors, most towns have at least one outdoor projector, and in our homes there are great family photographs.

"The national archives have incredible images of women too. So we're appealing to community groups and wider, national organisations, to get involved by organising an event that can be big or small.

"You can arrange storytellers, performers and 'herstorians' as we're calling them, or just keep it simple and host a small gathering of friends and family."

Image copyright National Portrait Gallery London
Image caption In Londonderry, astronomer and mathematician Annie Russell Maunder will be remembered

The objective, she says, is to start an annual event that inspires the world to celebrate women.

The Palace Street Offices on Dame Street in the heart of Dublin are already lit up with images of six iconic Irish women to launch the event.

Aviatrix Lady Mary Heath, astronomer Agnes Clerke, Queen of Paraguay Eliza Lynch, St. Brigid, Gormlaith 'High Queen of Ireland' and renowned computer programmer Kay McNulty are all depicted in the exhibit.

Image copyright Andres Poveda Photography
Image caption Dublin is just one of the cities celebrating the event - it is also being marked on Manger Square in Bethlehem

"But Illuminate Herstory doesn't stop in Ireland," said Melanie.

"Irish Diaspora networks have already sent the invitation to participate around the world. We've been told that Manger Square in Bethlehem is going to be lit up with images of Irish women at the weekend, which will be incredible if it happens."

She said the interest in the event was particularly keen in Northern Ireland.

Image copyright Fermanagh & Omagh District Council
Image caption Enniskillen Castle and the Strule Arts Centre in Omagh have been lit up in a purple hue until Sunday to mark the event

"The north is just so full of inspirational women, women who sacrificed so much for the peace process and beyond, so we're delighted towns and cities across Northern Ireland have got involved."

In Fermanagh, Enniskillen Castle and the Strule Arts Centre in Omagh will be lit up in a purple hue until Sunday to mark the event.

In Belfast, the WANDA feminist group will be driving around the city in a campervan on Sunday night from 19:00 GMT projecting images of female filmmakers onto walls, and Carnmoney in County Antrim will be illuminated in memory of aviator Lilian Bland.

Image copyright Andres Poveda Photography
Image caption This image of Boann, Goddess of the River Boyne, is one of the many images being projected onto buildings across Northern Ireland and the Republic

But unsung heroines are just as important, said Melanie.

"The Irish are known as great storytellers but until now, we've only told half the story. As well as the great artists, aviators, astronomers and politicians, we want to hear about the mothers and mavericks and wives and women who were never celebrated before.

"We want to start the year with a bit of optimism and hope and it's really easy to get involved and pay tribute to the women you love."

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