Easter in Ireland

A Short Overview of Irish Easter Celebrations and Traditions

The Stations of the Cross in the Woods at Multyfarnham
Bernd Biege 

Let us talk about Easter in Ireland - many people would think about two things first: the alcohol-free (and thus often panic-inducing) Good Friday and the ill-fated Easter Rising of 1916. The actual celebration of Easter as one of the most important Christian feasts seems to play third fiddle. Despite Easter Monday being a public holiday in both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Then again, Easter is not that different at all on the Emerald Isle ...

Why is Easter Celebrated?

Easter (the word comes from the Old English "Eostre", which may refer to the pagan goddess Ostara) is a central and important feast in the Christian liturgical year. Jesus' resurrection after his crucifixion on Good Friday is celebrated on Easter Sunday, sometimes also called Resurrection Sunday. By the way, the historical Easter Sunday would have been April 5th, AD 33 - judging from an eclipse on Good Friday mentioned in the writings of the apostle Peter. Easter is also the (mostly welcome) end of Lent, forty days of fasting and prayer.

Easter is, overall, somehow similar to the historically much earlier Jewish Passover feast (also celebrated in Ireland) - in symbolism and in the calendar date. It is also connected with pre-Christian religious rites to celebrate the return of the fertile season. These would usually be celebrated on the vernal equinox or May Day (Bealtaine in Ireland) ... and use fertility symbols like the egg or the hare.

When is Easter Celebrated?

Easter is a moveable feast - not fixed in our normal ("civil") calendar. The First Council of Nicaea in 325 established the actual date of Easter as the first Sunday after the full moon following the vernal equinox (March 21st) in the northern hemisphere. Thus Easter may fall anywhere between March 22nd and April 25th in Western Christianity (Eastern Christianity still does not use the Gregorian Calendar to calculate the date, just to confuse matters a bit).

Preparing for Easter in Ireland

Most households will strive to have their spring cleaning finished by Easter Sunday. Not only to get it over with, but also to prepare for a visit by the local priest to bless the house. A tradition that is still alive in many rural areas.

Good Friday then is a quiet day (no alcohol is sold, which certainly helps) and no outdoor work should take place. This is a day for reflection and the preparation for Easter. Many believers will attend confession, but also have their hair cut and do a spot of shopping for new clothes. Eggs, which are not eaten during Lent, will be collected again from Good Friday on (but not eaten before Easter Sunday.

Holy Saturday may be observed through a vow of silence by many Irish. There are also special ceremonies in many churches for the blessing of holy water. The Easter Vigil starts at 10 pm in the local church - and all lights in the church are traditionally extinguished at 11 pm. Then a new flame is being presented to the altar, the Paschal candle as a symbol of the resurrection. Remember that Saint Patrick also squared off against the pagan High King by lighting a Paschal fire on the Hill of Slane.

A Typical Easter Sunday in Ireland

Easter Sunday in most homes is similar to "normal" Sundays. Families get together and the religious ones would attend mass together in their local church. But for Easter you'd be dressing up as - it is the tradition to wear new clothes on Easter Sunday. Girls may also wear green hair ribbons, a yellow dress, and white shoes. These colors (and new clothes in general) are said to signify purity and a new start to life.

After attending mass, the family will head back home snappily to start the Easter feast. This is very much like the traditional Sunday roast, but often lamb and ham, accompanied by generous servings of potatoes, vegetables, stuffing, bread, butter and... it's also time to forget those vows made for lent, so drinks tend to accompany the meal in generous quantities.

Easter Eggs were traditionally given to children after dinner and only if the lent fast was not broken. This has changed somewhat, peace in the household is often ensured by an Easter egg hunt early in the morning (see below).

Other Irish Easter Traditions

Easter Symbols - lambs, spring flowers, eggs and birds (often chicks) are popular Irish Easter symbols, with the Easter bunny having earned a place as well. Cue greeting cards, decorations, and chocolate facsimiles until you can't enjoy them anymore.

Easter Egg Hunts - once a pagan fertility symbol, today fun for kids. Saturday may be spent decorating Easter eggs (if you didn't buy the pre-cooked and pre-colored ones). Then the children will "hunt" for them on Sunday morning, they are hidden all over the house and garden.

Sporting Events - mainly in Northern Ireland you will find fierce competitions amongst those rolling Easter eggs downhill, there are also egg-and-spoon races. In Leinster, a major event is the Fairyhouse Festival, one of the most prestigious horse-racing events of the year.