Ash Wednesday is one of the most obvious religious festivals in Ireland - not as a public holiday (it isn't), but because of the way you will encounter signs of the holiday on many public streets and on people's faces. Especially the more active Catholics will sport a spot of ash on their foreheads, applied in rough cross form. Find out more about how Ash Wednesday is celebrated by Catholics in Ireland:
What is Ash Wednesday?
Generally speaking, Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent and follows on the heels of the pancake feast that is Shrove Tuesday (known as Mardi Gras is some corners of the globe).
Though it changes as a date on the calendar every year, Ash Wednesday takes place forty-six days before Easter and is a moveable feast tied to the Easter date. The earliest possible calendar date any year is February 4th, while the latest March 10th. Most notably, Ash Wednesday also marks the beginning of the Lent period which is roughly defined as forty days of fasting before Easter.
Lent lasts for 40 days - so why is Ash Wednesday actually 46 days before Easter? This is because the Catholic Church has policy which excludes the six Sundays during Lent from the actual Lent fasting.
Ash Wednesday takes its name from the day of the week on which it always occurs, and the symbol used to mark the day. Traditionally, a priest dips his thumb in ashes and uses this to draw the sign of the cross on the foreheads or heads during mass. Ash Wednesday is a solemn holiday and the use of ash is meant to serve as a reminder of mortality as well as a sign of mourning and repentance. Often the ashes were produced by burning the palm fronds from Palm Sunday of the year before.
Ash Wednesday is also a very inclusive feast - Anglican, Catholic and other (reformed) Christians celebrate the day.
What Ash Wednesday Looks Like in Ireland
Catholics will traditionally observe Ash Wednesday by fasting - meaning abstaining from meat and repenting at church. When practicing Catholics attend mass on this day, the ashes are received from the priest. The ash cross is not wiped off after leaving the church, but is instead allowed to naturally fade away.
If you are a visitor to Ireland and not observing the feast, you'll no doubt be struck by the number of people walking about this Wednesday with "smudged foreheads", especially in the afternoon. It is considering impolite to point out the ash mark or to offer to wipe it off.
You may even see public officials going out their business with the sign of the cross. Gardai (Irish police) are officially forbidden to display religious (or political) insignia on duty and in uniform, but an ashen cross on the forehead seems to be tolerated.
How to Observe Ash Wednesday in Ireland
Ash Wednesday is not an official state holiday in Ireland and observing the day depends entirely on the individual. Many people do not observe the religious holiday in any way. Others go to mass and the receive the mark of the ashes and stop there. Still others continue with a full, traditional religious celebration.
Adult, healthy and not-too-old Catholics are, in theory, only permitted to eat one full meal on Ash Wednesday, but two smaller meals might be permissible (as long as the amount of food in those two meals together do not exceed the full meal). Ash Wednesday is traditionally also a day of abstinence from meat (which, by the Catholic Church's definition, means mammals and fowl - fish is permitted). But some Catholics may go beyond the minimum obligations in favor of either a complete fast or a fast with only bread and water on the day.
Very few Catholics will actually continue their fasting until the end of Lent - though this would not mean total abstinence from food. It is now more common to give up certain food groups, chosen by the individual, for the full 40 days of Lent. Some people choose to give up sweets or fattening food like butter as a kind of symbolic fast.
How Has Ash Wednesday Changed?
Ash Wednesday has changed slightly, but the exact measure of this evolution would depend very much on the individual. Generally speaking, traditionally in Ireland, more people would have observed Ash Wednesday more rigidly and every household would make sure to have at least one member in attendance at mass (who could then take ashes for the other family members home).
Fasting for the religious holiday would also be longer and more austere - which might have to do with the necessities of late winter/early spring as being a lean period in nature as well. Animal products would not have been eaten or used in cooking, but fish and seafood would have been acceptable. So no meat, eggs, butter, milk and animal fats. Traditionally, the frying pan was cleaned after the pancake bonanza of Shrove Tuesday and then put away for the season.
All socializing would be suspended too: no music, dancing or games were allowed. Even friendly visits between neighbors might be frowned upon. Alcohol and tobacco? Absolutely not!
New Traditions in Ireland
One of the most striking new developments was to designate Ash Wednesday as "National No Smoking Day" a few years ago. This nicely ties in with the tradition of letting go of bad habits and luxuries during Lent.
Ash Wednesday has also become a focal point for many a charity drives. The idea being that you give up a little bit of luxury for the next forty days and give the money saved to a good cause. So it would not be unusual to be stopped by people in the streets of Dublin, who might ask total strangers what they are planning to give up for Lent. Regardless of race or religion. It is used as an opening to then ask if you would like to give a donation to whatever charity they are representing.