Aran is pretty well off the beaten track, three islands of bare rock thirty miles out from
Galway Harbour in the Atlantic Ocean, and in winter it is quite wild as well. Some of the
1,500 inhabitants emigrate, so to speak, to the mainland during the harshest months, to
lodge there with relations. Or they head off for Galway or Dublin, or maybe go to England
to look for temporary work.
The Islanders’ Winter
Because of the severe weather hardly anyone leaves their thatched cabins after sunset
during the latter part of November, December, January and early February. The occasional
comparatively young person will go to the technical school to attend a class or play table
tennis; on the odd night the lifeboat will be called out; there will be a rare soul calling in
to the pub for a drink, perhaps. But on the whole it is the milking of the solitary cow or
goat that sounds the knell of closing day for the majority of the islanders.
Christmas comes as a break in winter just as St. Patrick’s Day gives an opportunity for
merrymaking in the middle of Lent. The kids come home from the secondary school on the
mainland and the students from their colleges while a share of young people come
home for a holiday from their work in the towns on the continent of Ireland. In their wake,
and in the spirit of Christmas, comes jollification to brighten up the islands a little bit.
There will be folk dances and ceilidhs in the parish hall, others will get
together to sing ballads and to play the melodeon, the fiddle and the pipes while the
mammies and the grannies will work together to provide rich cakes and puddings. The
big ship that carries supplies from Galway twice each week is not always able to dock in
winter because of the weather, so everyone will be trying to hoard food, tobacco and
drink for the festival.
Carols and Mass
They don't have Midnight Mass on Aran the way they do in Wales on Christmas Eve: it is
too cold for everyone to turn out and cross the islands on foot or on pony or by horse and
cart, but the vigil is observed in a very special way.
The cabins of Aran are dispersed all
over the island rock, without a street light or a shop or a hotel to break up the velvet
darkness of the nights. There is but little talk of magic and of enchantment connected
with the festival, and virtually no mention of Santa Claus. But on the eve of the feast day
a candle is lit in every window in every house so that, on the threshold of the birthday of
the Lord, it may be seen that there is a welcome at every hearth. On Christmas morning
there is a festival Mass with carols and pealing bells and the children are able to understand much of the significance of this Mass as they gaze at the
Crib with its statues of the Family of Bethlehem and of their worshippers‒men and
animals‒that is to be seen in every one of the island churches. That is more or
less the only time that carols are heard on Aran.
There are other differences too in their way of celebrating Christmas. Very few of the
islanders will have a bird to eat; many will have beef which they regard as a delicacy.
On the evening of Christmas Day there will be more dancing and that will go on until the
New Year. On St. Stephen’s Day (the day after Christmas Day), in accordance with their
custom, the men and the boys will get together during the afternoon and evening to sing
and to dance and to tell stories, show-off dances, the way the Welsh do clog
dancing with a broom. I remember seeing an old man last year, he was 93 years
of age, taking the floor to the sound of pipe and fiddle. He was flicking his legs
and his knees artfully and his pounding shoes drew echoes from the floor. His hands he
held close to his sides and his body was practically rigid from the waist up. But it was his
eyes that danced the liveliest and the excitement of the day and of the company drew
streams of recollections and fancies from his memory as he entertained us by telling and
singing his stories. And how can I forget that little, Teresa, who believed that the
fairies were dancing around a bonfire in a lit tle clearing at the bottom of her grandad’s
bagpipes, as she listened to the sounds of his tobacco juice sloshing around in it! That is
part of the spirit of Christmas on the Aran Islands.
To the people of these islands, Christmas is not just a big festival to celebrate, it is also
an important break in the middle of the adversity of life, a brief interlude in the midst of
the purposeful monotony of their daily lives. The harshness of its weather helps to
highlight its joy, just as the cold, cloudless sky over Galway Bay intensifies the glittering
of the stars.
And on Christmas Eve a star can be seen in every one of the windows there!