April Fools' Day in Ireland

Not that much different from the rest of the world ... but with an Irish twist

Free rides on the steam train to Drogheda? Don't be an April Fool in Ireland, you muppet!
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. Your mission? To play a prank on someone. Your secondary objective? Not to fall victim to someone else's prank. Let us have a look at how this came about ... and at some really outstanding Irish April Fool pranks.

Why April Fool's Day?

Because you can ... there is no real reason why this came about. Well, at least not in a hard and fast, provable way.

But the Roman festival of Hilaria, celebrated on March 25th, may be seen as a precursor. Here all sort of mischief was allowed.

Other commentators point to the 8th century Irish monk Saint Amadán, his feast day falls on April 1st, as the origin of the custom - Amadán was well known for erratic and eccentric behaviour and seems to have liked to play to odd (sometimes very odd) prank on fellow churchmen and even the faithful.

First mention of the tradition might have been made during 1392 in Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales", in the "Nun's Priest's Tale" - then again this might be an error made while copying the manuscript. The first undisputed English reference was therefore made in 1686, John Aubrey naming 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. And those obstinately sticking to tradition were the "April Fools".

But then this might just hold true for France ...

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 pitch 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.

Another "tradition" (if it can be called thus) is the eternal "newsflash" that Ireland (or the UK) is to adopt driving on the right from April 1st. So predictable as to become repetitive and insultingly boring. 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.

A time-honoured tradition, however, is the concoction of often elaborate April Fool stories by the media - much more effective in the days before the internet, when most people would read (and trust) only one paper or one radio station. Here is a selection of noteworthy 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 ... all complaints were dismissed with a hint at the date in question.

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 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, Lemass went ballistic. With staggering clarity he denounced the Irish Times and promised the voters: "Fianna Fail liberated the licencing laws ...

and that is our policy." Let us raise a glass to that ...

1995 - Lenin Goes Disney!

Managing to anger more politicians ... in 1995 the "Irish Times" broke an exclusive story, namely that the Disney Corporation had all but agreed with the Russian government to have the embalmed body of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin no longer on display in the mausoleum on Moscow's Red Square, but as an attraction in the then new Euro Disney (now Disneyland Paris). I guess in a "mouse-oleum", complete with what the paper called the "full Disney treatment". The only snag now being 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

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.

Weirdly enough the Irish Times in 2014 tried to pull the same stunt ... this time with Ireland 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 for an unobstructed view - a very rare event was about to happen. Nothing less the the hole in the Earth's ozone layer 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 affair.

2003 - Late and Missing the Joke?

Only in July 2003 did the "Irish Independent" pick up a story that Italy's Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was on the war path 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 up on the web since ... yes, you guessed it ... April 1st. It was pilfered from the tongue-in-cheek website P45.net (late and lamented). A quarter of a year later the spoof was front page news in the "Indo". Four weeks later the "Irish Independent" apologized for the mistake.

Groundhog Day at the Zoos

And spare a thought for those poor persons on the phones at Dublin and Belfast Zoos ... both receiving 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. Yeah, bet they never heard these before ...