April Fools' Day in Ireland

The Irish twist on the trickiest day of the year

Free rides on the steam train to Drogheda? Don't be an April Fool in Ireland, you muppet!
© Bernd Biege 2015

April 1st is April Fool's Day - in Ireland as well as in many countries of the world. The whole point of the day is to see if you can get away with playing a prank on someone. All this trickery needs to take place without you yourself falling victim to someone else's prank. Naturally, Ireland has its own history with April Fool's Day so here is what you need to know about pulling off some really outstanding Irish April Fool pranks and the best tricks pulled on the public to date.

Why April Fool's Day

The history of April Fool's Day in Ireland and the reason why it became associated with practical jokes is still up for debate. However, the Roman festival of Hilaria, celebrated on March 25th, may be seen as a kind of global precursor. During this ancient holiday, all sorts of mischief was allowed.

Other historians point to the 8th-century Irish monk Saint Amadán as the origin of the custom. His feast day falls on April 1st and St. Amadán was well known for erratic and eccentric behavior and seems to have enjoyed playing strange (and sometimes very odd) pranks on fellow churchmen and even the faithful.

First mention of the tradition for practical jokes on April 1st might have been made during 1392 in Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales", in the "Nun's Priest's Tale." Might is the keyword here because this mention of pranking might have been an error made while copying the manuscript. The first undisputed English reference was therefore made in 1686 when John Aubrey named April 1st as "Fooles Holy Day". 

And why April 1st? One theory says that well into the 16th century, New Year's Day was celebrated around this time. Then it changed to January 1st. Those who chose to keep the tradition and celebrate the new year in April were the "April Fools". This is likely true for France, but it remains to be seen if the custom reached Ireland at the same time.

April Fool's Day Traditions in Ireland

The traditions connected with April Fool's Day in Ireland are much the same as in Britain - you set up your prank, if somebody falls for it, he or she is finally exposed by a loud shout of "April Fool!" The playing of pranks has to cease at noon - anybody who attempts a prank after that time is, instead, making an instant April Fool out of himself or herself. Those are the local rules of the game.

Another "tradition" in Ireland is the "newsflash" that is usually jokingly released by the media on April 1st. However, the public is now so used to this joke news that any attempts by the media usually fall flat. The only novel approach to this was in a West Berlin newspaper in the 1980s, which announced that the British Sector of Berlin would henceforth adopt driving on the left. Lots of people fell for it.

A time-honored tradition of fake news was much more effective in the days before the internet when most people would read (and trust) only one paper or one radio station. While it doesn't work as well these days, the April Fools jokes have enjoyed a good deal of public success over the years. Here is a selection of the best Irish examples:

1844 - Free Train Rides to Drogheda!

At the end of the month of March 1844, all over Dublin advertisements could be found posted - with the splendid offer of a free train ride to Drogheda and back. This was the bee's knees in high tech at the time. So on April 1st, the date shown on the posters, large crowds gathered at the stations involved. And, seeing a rather low-capacity train approaching, surged forward in a free-for-all for the free seats. Thoroughly alarmed, conductors and station personnel attempted to keep the crowd away from the train. Yelling at the top of their (soon faltering) voices that there was no free transfer. Pay or you don't go. Not quite catching on to what happened, the crowds started to feel short-changed, insisted on their right to a free ride and proceeded to riot. A number also tried to take legal steps and proceeded to complain to the police about the false advertising but all complaints were dismissed given what day it was.

1965 - No More Guinness For Ireland!

A true classic was achieved by the Irish Times in 1965, when the April 1st editorial commented on Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Sean Lemass' plan to introduce prohibition in Ireland. The headline was "Staggering" and the writer berated Lemass mightily for this attack on all that is holy (and the economy). While political opponents had a good chuckle over the joke, Lemass was offended and took the prank personally. He publically denounced the Irish Times and promised the voters: "Fianna Fail liberated the licensing laws ... and that is our policy." Let us raise a glass to that to beer being still allowed in Ireland!

1995 - Lenin Goes Disney!

Managing to anger more politicians a few year later, in 1995 the Irish Times broke an exclusive story, about the Disney Corporation's new deal with Russia. The paper reported that Disney had all but agreed with the Russian government to have the embalmed body of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin moved from the mausoleum on Moscow's Red Square, and places as an attraction in the new Euro Disney (now Disneyland Paris). I guess in a "mouse-oleum", complete with what the paper called the "full Disney treatment". The story went on to focus on what to do with the original mausoleum - liberals wanting to keep it open and empty as a symbol for the "emptiness of the Communist system", nationalists wanting to transform it into a memorial for the last tsar. Of course, none of it was true.

1996 - Ireland Takes Croatia's Place!

Seasoned broadcaster Joe Duffy, man of the people and advocate of the downtrodden, really pulled off a great one when he announced breaking news on April 1st - Croatia had voluntarily withdrawn from the Euro '96 football championship finals. Not much of a coup on its own, but the Croatian decision meant that the Republic of Ireland would now compete in the European championships, taking Croatia's place. Seconds later the Football Association of Ireland (FAI) had the phones ringing off the hook. With thousands trying to buy tickets. The FAI was not very amused but the prank was certainly a good one.

Weirdly enough the Irish Times in 2014 tried to pull the same stunt. This time they reported that Ireland was going to the World Cup in Brazil due to a French disqualification. Was this a case of "the old ones are the best ones" or simple laziness to come up with an original idea?

1997 - Watch the Skies!

Meteorologist Brendan McWilliams hinted during his bulletin that eager skywatchers might want to head outside for an unobstructed view of a very rare event that was about to happen. He explained that the hole in the Earth's ozone layer was passing over Ireland, clearly visible without a telescope. Several people actually camped out during the night and failed to see either the hole or the funny side of the whole public April Fool's joke.

2003 - Late and Missing the Joke?

Only in July 2003 did the newspaper the Irish Independent pick up a story that Italy's Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was on the warpath and demanded the return of Caravaggio's "The Taking of Christ", on exhibition in the National Gallery of Ireland. It must have been a slow news day. Because the original story was already circulating online since, yes, you guessed it - April 1st. It was pilfered from the tongue-in-cheek website P45.net that was a bit like the satirical newspaper The Onion. A quarter of a year later the spoof became front page news in the "Indo". Four weeks later the Irish Independent apologized for the mistake and hopefully started to check its sources a bit more carefully. July Fools, in this case.

Groundhog Day at the Zoos

Whatever you are doing on April 1st in Ireland, let's all spare the poor people working at the Dublin and Belfast Zoos. Irish zoos tend to get a high number of prank calls on April 1st, again and again, with persons asking to speak to (to name but two of the most popular) Mr Albert Ross or Miss Anne Tellope. Say those slowly and you'll see why.

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