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Review: Oonagh Kearney’s feminist reimagining of Oíche Nollaig na mBan

Walking into The Wild at the Project Arts Centre exhibition space, among the sculptural and painted works a television screen shines in the dimly lit room. Director and filmmaker Oonagh Kearney’s captivating Oíche Nollaig na mBan (2016) invites us to put on the headphones and immerse ourselves in the film’s magical imagery. The installation juxtaposes traditional Irish customs and poetry with contemporary political momentum and ideology.

Oíche Nollaig na mBan, which translates as Women’s Christmas or Little Christmas, is held on the sixth of January each year. A strong tradition in Ireland when the females in a household are relieved of their duties for an evening spent with female friends and family members, it echoes a more conservative time in Ireland. Though this custom may cause the contemporary viewer to question its archaic gender divide, Kearney’s film offers a strong feminist twist bringing new meaning to Oíche Nollaig na mBan.

The film’s title is shared with an iconic Irish poem by Sean O Riordain, which is about a powerful and turbulent storm. The poem describes the Night of the Big Wind in the opening verse, a devastating storm which hit Ireland leaving hundreds of fatalities on January 6th, 1839. In the final verse, the poet expresses his desire for a second storm to hit when he is on the brink of death, to distract from his final passing. O Riordain’s poem is synonymous with death, rather than commemorating Women’s Little Christmas (a tradition where men take on household duties for the day) and the singular night of freedom it represents for women. Kearney’s film offers a contemporary feminist visual interpretation of O Riordain’s writing, while simultaneously paying homage to the original work.

Oíche Nollaig na mBan begins with an elderly man driving an old Morris Minor through the woods. Confronted by a crowd of dancing women, the man sits stunned in the safety of his car. The voice of this same man offers a reading of O Riordain’s poem in Irish, supplemented with subtitles underneath.

Following the opening title sequence, we are brought to an all-girls classroom in which students recite the same poem. Cut with scenes featuring girls and women playing basketball, drinking tea and chatting in their homes, we witness a strange force taking over. The various congregations of women - young and old - are suddenly interrupted and beckoned by the energy of Oíche Nollaig na mBan; an energy that is repeated and reinforced through the poem’s description of the storm.

“What's this poem about? Does anyone know?”, the female teacher quizzes her students. The force begins to take hold of her, and her pupils. Swaying powerfully, she continues “You have to feel this poem”. Young girls spring up from their seats, as if if summoned by a divine power. Oíche Nollaig ceases to be read by the elderly man, or by the young schoolgirls, but begins to be sung by an all female school choir. The choir produces a very powerful and spiritual sound, which is complemented by the dynamic dancing of the congregations of various women and girls.

Shots move from outside the school, with images of women being liberated from classrooms, homes and asylums, and gathering in the forest that appeared at the beginning of the installation. As symbolic candles are dramatically blown out by something unseen, the women run free. The women featured are mostly in groups; gathering strength from the wild force, and from each other. Naturally, the visual connections between the woman and their wild surroundings point to age old associations surrounding the maternal and biological gender divides. However, in Oíche Nollaig Kearney pushes these associations into something more powerful and commanding. The choreography present in the installation has a very natural and fluid movement. The dancers, especially in the woodland setting, are like trees blowing in the wind. This strong wind that takes them is not only a visual representation of the original poem, but also signifies the winds of change.

The women's escape and liberation leads us again to the opening scene. A wild woman hangs from a tree howling and beckoning more women to emerge. The elderly man sits in his old Morris Minor, stunned and puzzled by the wild women before him and their new found freedom. Some of the congregation are now decorated with colourful face paints, pointing to a further sense of spirituality and otherworldliness. As the group dance their way closer to the elderly man, he turns on his headlights in order to illuminate what is before him. Approaching closer, the group of women lift a young girl onto the hood of the car: she peeps into the front window at the driver as he closes his eyes. The final shot shows the male protagonist passing away while O Riordain's poem also comes to a close.

Following the end credits, the film finishes with “Tiomnaithe do #WakingTheFeminists”. This dedication highlights a prominent campaign primarily directed at achieving equality for women within the Irish theatre sphere. The campaign’s website insists that they “encouraged and supported individuals to speak up; to interrogate what stories are told, who gets to tell those stories, who makes those decisions, who is represented, and who has the money.” The page also provides a list with a plan of action and change for prospective or existing feminists. Oíche Nollaig’s dedication to #WakingTheFeminists further substantiates claims that Kearney’s film is a reimagining of the original poem in a contemporary and feminist light.

In a time when Irish women are fighting more than ever for a chance at equality and rightful political recognition, Oíche Nollaig na mBan reinforces the power of women, especially when united. More recently, the Repeal the Eighth movement has gathered both national and global attention, in a bid to overturn laws against safe abortions in the Republic of Ireland. As the women (and men) of Ireland wait for the government to acknowledge the demand for a constitutional reform, Kearney’s installation offers an insightful vision of a feminist reawakening in our country. Oíche Nollaig na mBan brings a new feminist meaning to the poem, with visual interpretations of the death of patriarchal governance by a forceful, female independence.

The Wild takes place at the Project Arts Centre, Dublin from 11 November 2016 until 28 January 2017. Words by Elly Collins

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