Memories of island life—Cathal Póirtéir on glimpses of Micheál Ó Conghaile’s childhood on Inis Treabhair
by Cathal Póirtéir
As a treat to myself I removed Micheál Ó Conghaile‘s Nollaig Oileánach from the book pile and made myself comfortable on the sofa in front of the fire. A day well-spent.
The author was brought up on the small Irish-speaking island of Inis Treabhair in Connemara and most of his Christmas memories recalled here were dictated by that island upbringing in the 1960s and 70s—but the book is rounded off with some adult memories of Christmas and New Year spent in the somewhat more exotic locations of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand.
While the trappings and traditions of Christmas on Inis Treabhair are the central theme of this book, the writer uses the opportunity to sketch in some of the wider social history of the area that readers need to get a fuller picture of island and family life on the now abandoned island.
Micheál Ó Conghaile has been one of the powerhouses responsible for the resurgence of Irish language writing and publishing in the past forty years or so.
A celebrated and award-winning writer of novels, short-stories, plays, social history and translations, he is also the founder and recently retired director of the successful publishing house Cló Iar-Chonnacht, publishers of the present volume.
Artist as a boy
I therefore found it interesting to get glimpses of the artist as a growing boy and to hear about the stories his mother read to the children before they began to read on their own. The surprise arrival of a typewriter for an older sister soon had the aspiring writer tapping away on the keyboard and bringing his first literary efforts to the primary school to have the teacher read excerpts to the class.
That’s a bit of a digression from the central theme—but it’s appropriate enough when summarising an account which makes a virtue of its forays into non-Christmas related memories, to recall a more complete version of an island childhood.
Another island writer, Breandán Ó hEithir, described Christmas in Inis Mór on the Aran Islands in the 1930s and 40s in his An Nollaig Thiar, originally published in 1989 and republished recently by Cló Iar-Chonnacht. Perhaps re-reading this volume inspired Micheál Ó Conghaile to pen his own account.
Many of today’s children would find a pre-electronic Christmas had to imagine but Micheál’s account goes back even further to a time that was pre-electric on Inis Treabhair. It was an era of candle-light on the island—as it still was in quite a few rural communities at the time.
Battery-powered toys were not top of the list on Inis Treabhair due to the need to replace batteries regularly but did allow the author to read secretly under the bed covers—something that wasn’t possible with candles. Many of these island childhood memories of Christmas will be shared by mainland children of the same era, and many of the simple toys and presents were the same.
I too still remember the sound and smell of my own cap-gun which was probably the last noise-making present I was ever given, and the pride of putting on a new Christmas shirt.
Where island life differed from life on the mainland was of course the need to travel by sea to get to the mainland for all sorts of reasons—harvesting turf, secondary education and Christmas shopping included. The short sea crossing to Inis Treabhair was made by Father Christmas in a helicopter, a magically silent helicopter that deposited gifts outside the house rather than come down the chimney as he did in some other places.
Christmas is the hook on which the writer hangs many of his more general childhood memories of family and neighbours, the work that had to be done, his school days, the social gatherings, memorable island personalities and childhood friendships.
There are no longer any full-time residents on the island, all having eventually moved to the mainland or further afield for employment and ease of access to services. A young child doesn’t need to worry about such things and the young Micheál Ó Conghaile was untroubled by them.
His world was his family and his island community and Nollaig Oileánach recalls those days in an account that can be enjoyed at any time of the year.
Cathal Póirtéir has specialised in researching, presenting and commissioning Irish interest material in various radio formats and in books, including history, literature and folklore in Irish and English, as well as current affairs and drama.