Fascinating Irish customs you’ve (probably) never heard of

Bridig's Cross, photo by Amanda Slater

Just because Ireland is a well off, modern country, it doesn’t mean that old traditions and century old customs have no more place in the lives of the Irish. Ireland has one of the most fascinating folklores and folk traditions in Europe, and luckily enough, there are lots of people in Ireland and places where these old tales haven’t been forgotten yet, and are celebrated and passed on to the young. Even if you won’t be able to witness all of these ancient traditions yourself, get to know some fascinating Irish customs you’ve (probably) never heard of will give you a good topic of conversation with elderly locals in a cozy pub.

Funeral traditions

In most places in the world, funeral are sorrowful occasions, but a traditional Irish funeral is actually as fun as a funeral can ever get. Although the dead are grieved (the ancient practice of keening is proof or that), the merry wake is an opportunity to bond, reminisce and celebrate life. The wake is held in the house of the deceased and the corpse as well as the house are carefully prepared so that the departed soul can find its way to the afterlife. Funny stories are told, there is food and alcohol and various games. Of course, the tradition of the merry wake is seldom practiced anymore, but there are a lot of people who still remember them.

Weddings

photo by Mike Searle

Traditional Irish weddings don’t seem all that different from other regular Christian weddings, but there are scores of customs and superstitions that have to be observed unless bad luck should befall the couple. In the past, wedding dresses did not have to be white, and each color held a special significance (blue for true love, grey for living in a faraway place, but also colors that lead to unsuccessful marriage). Hearing the cuckoo and seeing three magpies on the morning before the wedding was a guarantee for happiness.

Holidays

Although Ireland is predominantly Christian, the calendar still reflects old Celtic customs. On St Brigid’s Day (also known as Imbolc or Candlemas), for example, Brigid’s crosses are made of rushes. In rural areas, various customs associated with other Celtic holidays like Beltane of Lughnasa are still observed. The most interesting ‘pagan’ traditions that survive are practiced at Halloween (which originates from the Celtic Samhain celebration). Children go out in ‘guises’, which in the past was less a fun activity and more a way of fooling the spirits who crossed into the world of the living at Halloween. An interesting Halloween tradition is the barnbrack cake, a fruit cake in which a piece of rag, a coin and a ring are hidden. If you get the slice with the rag, your financial future is not looking up, but if you get the coin, the next year will bring you fortune. If you find a ring in your slice, it means that your love life is going to take a turn for the better.

Leave a Reply