The people of New Ireland are Melanesian and speak 19 local languages. The north embodies the complex system of spiritual traditions of Malagan cultures. ‘Malagan’ also refers to the northern New Irelanders’ carvings.
In the island’s south are the Tumbuan traditions. The people from the south invaded the Gazelle Peninsula and settled the Duke of York Group several hundred years ago. Dukduks and tumbuans are common to all three cultures. Around Namatanai and central New Ireland are the Kabai traditions, which are not yet as well understood.
As in most PNG islands, traditional clan power is wielded by chiefs or bigmen (important men or leaders), but clan rites and land claims are passed on in a matrilineal system.
Malagan Death Rites
For centuries, it has been kastom (custom) for the Malagan to carve wooden masks and sacred figures for their mortuary rites. There are a few dedicated regular carvers on Tabar Island and Libba village near Konos; otherwise, carvings are done only by secret men’s societies for mortuary ceremonies or rites of passage in the villages.
Different clans have different funerary traditions, including interment, cremation and burial at sea. The tatanu or tanuatu (soul) remains close to the body after death and it cannot go to the ancestors’ world until the mortuary rites are performed. The spirit of a dead person enters the ancestors’ world through the places that masalais (spirits of the bush and water) inhabit.
Feasts are often performed for more than one person as they are terribly expensive. Those deceased long ago can be included in the rite, which includes chanting, masked dancing, clouds of lime and a huge feast.
Masks may depict the totem animal of a specific tribe in stages of metamorphosis. Such was the fearful power of the mask that, in the past, they were burned after the ceremony. Designs are strictly ‘patented’ according to clan rites, and a complex ritual payment must be made to pass a design on to another carver. The problem is there are simply not enough young apprentices.
Life in a (New) Irish Village
You’ll attract a lot of attention when you show up, but it’ll trail off; there’s a quiet respect for your privacy in most villages. Take something (preferably lasting and useful) for the kids if you can, but give it to the local school or bigman (leader) to redistribute. A football (there’s no describing the joy), swimming goggles (you can carry quite a few and they’re functional) and pens are all good gifts. Salt, sugar and tea will be appreciated by your hosts in the more remote places, but don’t worry about this if you’re on the tarmac road. If you’re way off the beaten track, BYO rice or you’ll eat your hosts out of house and home.
A torch (flashlight), sleeping sheet, mosquito net, hammock, thongs (flip-flops; coral is sharp), book and roll of toilet paper are useful items to take along. Most villages have pit toilets these days, but if not, ask about the customary spot in the river or sea.
If you can, stay for Sunday. Whether you’re religious or not, you can’t fail to be moved by the whole community dressing up and heading off to church, then returning to discuss the sermon.
Geography & Climate
New Ireland is mountainous and riddled with huge, flooded caves. Midway down the island, the Lelet Plateau rises to 1481m and further south, near Taron, the Hans Meyer Range reaches 2399m. A fault line provides passage for the Weitin and Kamdaru rivers.
The area between Namatanai and Kavieng receives about 3m of annual rainfall and has a dry season between May and November. December to March is the cyclone season and can bring high seas.