Celebrating Easter in Ireland

Colorful houses near a cathedral in Cobh, Ireland

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Being a heavily Catholic country, Ireland takes its Easter celebrations seriously. The holy day is second only to St. Patrick's Day in terms of important dates on the Irish calendar, and residents will commence their religious rituals the weekend before Easter on Palm Sunday.

The holiday is rooted in Christianity, yes, but also in Ireland's complex history. In 1916, the Easter Rising led to 2,000 deaths as Irish nationalists fought for independence against British rule. In 1927, the government announced alcohol bans on St. Patrick's Day, Good Friday, and Christmas. The Irish regained their right to purchase alcohol on Good Friday in 2018. History and religion aside, though, the people of Ireland celebrate this day in much the same way as it's celebrated in the U.S., with visits from the Easter Bunny, egg hunts, and candy. If you'll be on the Emerald Isle during Easter, be prepared for most businesses and services to shut down on Easter Sunday and Monday. Regardless, you're bound to find something to keep you entertained.

When Is Easter Celebrated?

Easter is a moveable feast, not fixed in the Gregorian calendar. As a technical explanation of how the date for Easter is decided: 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 19, 2020) in the Northern Hemisphere. Thus, Easter may fall anywhere between mid-March and late April in Western Christianity (Eastern Christianity still does not use the Gregorian calendar to calculate the date). In 2020, Easter will be celebrated on April 12.

Preparing for Easter in Ireland

Most Irish households try to complete their spring cleaning by Easter Sunday—not only to get it over with, but also to prepare for a visit from the local priest, who makes his rounds to bless houses. The tradition of clergy visiting private homes on Easter is still alive in many rural areas of the country.

For Catholics and other Christians, Good Friday is a quiet day. It's a day for reflection and preparation. No outdoor work should take place. Many believers will attend confession before getting their hair cut and perhaps going shopping for new clothes to wear on Easter. Eggs, which are traditionally not eaten during Lent, will be collected again from Good Friday onward (but not eaten before Easter Sunday). Holy Saturday may be observed through a vow of silence by many Catholic Irish. There will also be special ceremonies in churches for the blessing of holy water.

A Typical Easter Sunday

Easter Sunday in most homes is similar to any other Sunday. Families attend mass together at their local church, but the pews will be a little more packed than usual. And many will be dressed in new clothes, which are said to signify purity and a new start to life.

After attending mass, families will go back home to commence their Easter feasts. This is very much like the traditional Sunday roast, but with both lamb and ham, along with generous servings of potatoes, vegetables, stuffing, and bread. The feast can turn into quite a celebration at home because it also marks the end of Lent, so alcohol is a common feature.

Traditionally, Easter eggs are given to children after dinner, and only to the ones who have successfully completed the Lenten fast. These days, many families and groups will host Easter egg hunts early in the morning.

Other Irish Easter Traditions

International Easter symbols such as lambs, spring flowers, eggs, and chicks are also popular in Ireland, with the Easter Bunny having earned a place as well. The weeks leading up to Easter tend to be filled with holiday-themed greeting cards, decorations, and chocolate bunnies.

Whereas Easter eggs were once a pagan fertility symbol, they now form part of the secular holiday fun for kids in the form of scavenger hunts. Saturday may be spent decorating eggs (if you didn't buy the pre-cooked and pre-colored ones, that is). Then, the eggs will be hidden from the children on Sunday morning.

In Northern Ireland, Easter is a day for games. You'll find fun-but-fierce competition surrounding activities like rolling Easter eggs downhill or racing with eggs balanced on spoons. In Leinster, Easter is synonymous with the Fairyhouse Festival, one of the most prestigious horse-racing events of the year.

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