An Irish Teacher in Papua New Guinea

Tom O’Donoghue from Lismore, The Déise, Co. Waterford is a retired professor of education from the University of Western Australia. He is spending his retirement writing his memoirs, in Irish as in the recently published Déise i Nua-Ghuinea Phapua, an account of his years teaching in Papua New Guinea, and in English in this piece below written especially for Tinteán.

Living Amongst the Tolai in Rabual, Papua New Guinea

Tom O’Donoghue

I reached Rabaul on the island of New Britain in Papua New Guinea (PNG) in June 1989 and lived just outside it, at Kokopo, for the next two years. The island is 600 kilometres long and 80 kilometres wide and is the largest island of the Bismarck Archipelago. In 1989, two-thirds of its population of 210,000 was living in East Britain, with most of them located in and around Rabaul.

The wonderful deep-water and sheltered Simpson’s harbour on which Rabaul is situated is a gigantic drowned crater surrounded by sub-cones that extend high towards the sky. The harbour has long been of great importance for all in PNG as nowhere else in the South Pacific is more copra and coconut oil shipped out. It indicates also the amazing speed with which such a landscape can change; when Matupit, one of the volcanic cones, erupted in 1878, a new island, named Vulcan, arose from the sea. On the 28th May 1937, 49 years later, a new eruption made this island mobile and it moved from one side of the harbour to the other.

The volcanoes that ring Simpson’s Harbour enclose Rabaul in a half circle. The huge depth of the harbour was itself created by a gigantic volcanic eruption in the long distant past. That resulted in the creation of an enormous span of water more than 5 km deep. Things began to change in 1984, however, when the old volcano started to become active again, and soon the harbour was only 1,000 meters deep. Because of the seismic activity, the area can be very scary for newcomers. The local Tolai people of Rabaul and its hinterland, however, have always tended to be relatively calm about it all.


Early one morning on my way to Rabaul with my family we did not see even one woman. However, we overtook many men on foot and on bicycles, all moving in the same direction with their bodies naked from the waist up. Each wore a bright red lap-lap or long piece of cloth knotted at the hip to form a skirt. Eventually we saw 500-600 Tolais come to a stop. Then, out of the bush stepped a figure with naked legs. It had a pyramid-shaped hat that covered its face. On that were painted round eyes and a laughing mouth. It also wore a dress made of coconut fronds that swayed as it moved. Observing from a great distance, we noticed that the strange figure, a Dukduk, disappearing back into the bush for a while. The Tolai kept moving until they were up to their knees in the sea and then they sang a piercing tune. Not one, but two of the strange figures appeared before them, dancing on a canoe to the tempo of the singers, accompanied by the beating of drums made of thick bamboo. One was the Dukduk and the other the Tubuan. Other Dukduks then appeared with the Tubuan taking centre stage showing off his pair of prominent feathers on the tip of his headgear.

Simpson Harbour, Raboul (Wikipedia)

My later reading of anthropological studies informed me that Dukduks and the Tubuan symbolise the spirits, Utuapui and Tenata. Tolai legend tells that long ago those changed themselves into old men and lived peacefully with the villagers, teaching them many skills and much wisdom. The local medicine men, however, felt threatened and so tried to poison them both. The plan failed. The spirits trembled with anger and caused the earth to tremble too. Issuing a severe warning never to approach them again, Utuapui and Tenata then took themselves off to a deep lake. Centuries later, descendants of the villagers who treated their elders’ historical memory with disdain threw large stones into the lake. Utuapui and Tenata became so angry that they then moved to the sea. When doing so, they gave a final warning of what might happen if disturbed; they created the harbour of Rabaul with much thunder and noise. Ever since, the Tolai have performed the Dukduk ceremony to appease the spirits and try to ensure that the whole Gazelle Peninsula is not destroyed.

Tom’s Irish language memoir is published by Coiscéim and is available from An Siopa Leabhar.

2 thoughts on “An Irish Teacher in Papua New Guinea

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