An Island Christmas by Micheál Ó Conghaile

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An Island Christmas by Micheál Ó Conghaile

By Mairéad Hearne (Swirl and Thread)

An Island Christmas by Micheál Ó Conghaile

An Island Christmas by Micheál Ó Conghaile is published with Mercier Press and is translated from the Irish by Mícheál Ó hAodha. It is described as ‘an inspiring insight into the life of a passionate artist and powerhouse behind the resurgence of Irish language writing and publishing.’ Through his words we ‘witness Ó Conghaile’s journey from an eager young boy tapping away on a typewriter to the founder of renowned publishing house Cló Iar-Chonnacht.’

I am always, and will continue to be, in awe of Ireland’s Gaeilgeoirs (fluent Irish speakers) who keep the language alive, and have a respect for its legacy and traditions. Micheál Ó Conghaile is a native speaker, reared on the now abandoned island of Inis Treabhair off the coast of Connemara in Co. Galway. Like many folk, to the frustration of Ó Conghaile, when I think of an island off the west coast of Galway, my default is to mention one of the Aran Islands. I have never heard of Inis Treabhair, an island that once housed a small but vibrant community until its last inhabitant, Pádraig Ó Loideáin, left the island in 2010. When Ó Conghaile lived there, there were only five families remaining.

Through his memories, Ó Conghaile recalls his years as a young boy on the island, reflecting on the self-sufficiency of the islanders to survive. The day-to-day activities that those on the mainland took for granted, all required significantly more organisation and thought. With no church on the island, weekly mass was a huge undertaking but for the community of Inis Treabhair it was just something they did. Transporting heavy goods and livestock was a feat in ingenuity, with the currach (a type of Irish boat) being the main mode of transport back and forth.

When reading An Island Christmas, I was struck by the fact that Ó Conghaile is not much older than me, with less than a decade between us, yet his childhood was so very different to mine. For any Irish adult of a certain age, the name Peig Sayers brings up very strong memories. Peig Sayers was an Irish author born in Co. Kerry in 1873. Her self-titled autobiography, Peig, was a set text in the Irish Leaving Cert curriculum. It proved a bit too much for many with its depiction of a rural life on The Great Blasket Islands, off the Kerry coast. It was considered by many students to be totally unrelatable and quite depressing. An Island Christmas has inspired me to root out a copy of Peig and look at it through a more mature and, I hope, understanding pair of eyes. I will pick up a translated copy and I expect this time I will have a very different experience.

The loss of these rural island communities, that were very much part of our heritage, is terribly sad but through memoirs like Nollaig Oileáneach (An Island Christmas) from Micheál Ó Conghaile and Peig from Peig Sayers, we are reminded of the past and the history of our people.

An Island Christmas by Micheál Ó ConghaileAn Island Christmas, as its name suggests, isn’t just a book about the festive season. Ó Conghaile regularly meanders off course as though he’s sitting in the room with you telling you a story. With the style of a natural seanchaí (storyteller), he tells his story as it was. Island life was a contradiction in so many ways. Simpler living yet more challenging in so many ways, this little book provides a genuine and first-hand account of life on a now abandoned island where the ghosts of the past linger in the wind and in the minds of its last inhabitants.

(c) Mairéad Hearne (Swirl and Thread)

Order your copy online here.

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