Christmas on the Aran Islands

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.

Festive Fun

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.

Dancing Away

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!

©: Dr. Harri Pritchard-Jones, doctor, writer, and broadcaster, lives in Cardiff, Wales.

This description of a special Christmas in 1964 was published in Welsh in the magazine, Byw, in December, 1965.
We are grateful to the author for permission to publish it again.

Translation: Wales Famine Forum

Published in The Green Dragon No. 5, Winter, 1997.

Cymraeg / Welsh.

Cuireadh do Mhuire
A Christmas poem from the Aran Islands in Irish with a translation into English.

The Day of my First Communion
A story from the Aran Islands translated from the Irish.

Christmas Box