Tautitotito Whenua: Reciprocal songs of the land: WORD Christchurch Festival 2021

Being a librarian can be rather surreal at times— getting to experience the powerful statement that was the opening event for this year’s WORD Christchurch Festival, all for price of writing this blog post, is one of those.

Tautitotito Whenua had noted Irish Gaelige authors Micheál Ó Conghaile and Máire Uí Dhufaigh beam in from the West of Ireland (with only one minor glitch from the internet, that resulted in event MC and festival co-director Nic Low smoothly changing the order of readings) to join Ngāi Tahu authors and composers Hana O’Regan and Charisma Rangipunga in leading us through an emotive and striking kōrero on the shared Irish and Māori histories of grief and revitalisation, with regard to language and land.

Hana and Charisma collaborated to create a stunning waiata tangi (lament) to parts of Te Waipounamu that have been — and continue to be  — adversely affected by climate change and human interactions. From snow melt on Aoraki – Mt Cook, the seaborne erosion of an urupā at Moeraki, the slow choking sedimentation due to deforestation of a lake on Banks Peninsula, to the continued impact of the aluminium smelter at Tiwai Point; all of which have brought unprecedented change to these places and of the people that connect to them.

Micheál and Máire shared short stories that told of the deep importance that place names hold when it comes to knowing the history of a place and its people.

Micheál’s was a profoundly moving story inspired in part by the remains of up to 800 children in an unmarked grave in former Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home in Tuam, County Galway in 2017. He recounted how an old man had the skull of his baby sister returned to him, and his journey through the land where he grew up (where she never did) to lay her to rest with a dignity that had been denied her in life.

Máire’s was a contemplative autobiographical tale of her journey growing up as a child on the Aran Islands — from being questioned by her teacher about what a field used by her father was called, to eventually building her home on that same field. This led to the audience contemplating how the name of the field was intrinsically connected to the history of that place.

All three of the works were translated into English so the audience could follow the narratives as they listened to the words spoken by the authors in their native tongues.

To finish off the night, sections of the Irish stories were translated into Te Reo Māori and re read to us. The waiata tangi was translated into Gaelige, then performed by a traditional Irish keening woman as a darkly evocative lament mirroring the original, and highlighting once again the many similarities between the two cultures

To hear both the native tongues of my direct ancestors spoken with pride and confidence affected me more than I thought it would and I have no shame in admitting to a few tears being shed.

Despite the pain of English colonisation, the impacts of climate change, industrialisation and the never-ending march of time that have played their part in the respective journeys of Te Reo Māori and Gaelige — the overwhelming sense from all involved was one of hope and revitalisation.

To paraphrase Micheál Ó Conghaile "To name a place is to give it personality" and Máire Uí Dhufaigh "to learn your language, through place names is to learn your history and from there your place in the world".

Thank you to the teams from WORD, Cúirt International Festival of Literature, Cultúr Ėireann, Creative NZ, and Christchurch City Libraries for bringing such an important event to the stage in these uncertain times.

To Hana O’Regan, Charisma Rangipunga, Máire Uí Dhufaigh, Micheál Ó Conghaile and Nic Low thank you. I don’t have the words to describe the impact that this event had on me other than I walked away with a sense of whakamā at not knowing my own languages but filled with a hope that with time and through my finding my place this Unlikely Librarian will.

Micheál Moroney


Watch the Tautitotito Whenua: Reciprocal Songs of the Land livestream.

WORD Christchurch

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