Celebrating Easter in Ireland

Colorful houses near a cathedral in Cobh, Ireland

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A heavily Catholic country, Ireland takes Easter celebrations seriously. This holy day is second only to St. Patrick's Day in terms of important dates on the Irish calendar, as the Irish commence their religious rituals one whole week before Easter on Palm Sunday. The holiday is rooted in Ireland's complex history, as well. In 1916, the armed insurrection, Easter Rising, led to 2,000 deaths, as Irish nationalists fought for independence against British rule. Then, in 1927, the government announced alcohol bans on Good Friday (along with Christmas and St. Patrick's Day). More recently, the Irish, once again, regained their right to purchase alcohol on Good Friday in 2018.

History and religious observances aside, the people of Ireland celebrate Easter in much the same way as it's celebrated in the U.S., with egg hunts, candy, and visits from the Easter Bunny. If you're visiting the Emerald Isle during Easter, be prepared for some businesses and services to shut down on both Easter Sunday and the following Monday. Still, you're bound to find something to keep you entertained.

When Is Easter Celebrated?

Easter is a moveable celebration in most countries and not fixed in the Gregorian calendar. In 325 AD, the First Council of Nicaea (a council of Christian bishops convened by the Roman Emperor) ruled that all churches should follow a single rule for Easter, celebrating the holiday on the first Sunday after the full moon following the vernal equinox in the Northern Hemisphere. For this reason, Easter may fall on a date anywhere between mid-March and late April, according to Western-based Christianity. (To this day, Eastern-based Christianity does not use the Gregorian calendar to calculate Easter's date). Both in Europe and in the United States, Easter will be celebrated on the following dates:

  • Easter 2021: April 4
  • Easter 2022: April 17
  • Easter 2023: April 9
  • Easter 2024: March 31

Preparing For Easter in Ireland

Steeped deep in Irish tradition, most households try to complete their spring cleaning by Easter Sunday—not just to get it over with, but to also prepare for a visit from the local priest, who makes his rounds blessing houses. Today, this tradition of clergy visits on Easter is still alive in many rural areas of the country.

For Catholics and some Christians, Palm Sunday (exactly one week before Easter) is observed with a procession during mass where palm fronds are carried to the altar of the church commemorating Jesus's entry into Jerusalem. After that comes Holy Thursday, when another mass is held, usually in the evening, remembering the Last Supper, Jesus's final meal with his disciples. Good Friday is a quiet day of reflection and preparation. Work outside of the home is expected to cease on this day and many Catholics attend confession before getting their hair cut or going shopping for new clothes to wear on Easter Sunday. Eggs, traditionally given up during Lent, are bought and collected from Good Friday forward, but not eaten before Easter Sunday. Holy Saturday is observed with a vow of silence and, in many towns, a Catholic mass to honor the 40-hour-long vigil that the disciples held after Jesus's death and burial. At mass, a special blessing of holy water occurs and the congregation takes communion.

Easter Sunday in Ireland

Easter Sunday in most Irish homes is similar to any other Sunday in the nation. Families attend mass at their local church, however, the pews may be more crowded than usual. Many people will be dressed in new clothes (their "Easter best"), which is said to signify purity and new beginnings. After mass, families go home to commence their Easter feasts, usually comprised of the traditional Sunday roast, with both lamb and ham, alongside generous servings of potatoes, vegetables, stuffing, and bread. Irish Easter feasts turn into quite the celebration, as the supper also marks the end of Lent and alcohol is commonly included. After dinner, Easter eggs are given to the children who have successfully completed their Lenten fast.

Today, many families and community groups host Easter egg hunts early in the morning, alongside a visit from the Easter bunny bearing gifts. However, these traditions have only recently been adopted in Ireland and are not widespread throughout the country.

Other Irish Easter Traditions

International Easter symbols, like lamb, spring flowers, eggs, and chicks, are also popular in Ireland, as they signify spring and renewal. In the weeks leading up to Easter, families exchange holiday-themed greeting cards and decorate their homes in a spring-like fashion, with pastel colors and spring flowers like tulips. Chocolate bunnies are also given to the children.

While Easter eggs were once a pagan fertility symbol, they now form part of the secular holiday that has worked its way into Irish tradition, as well. In Ireland, the Saturday before Easter may be spent decorating eggs (if pre-cooked and pre-colored ones weren't already purchased). Then, the eggs are hidden for the children to find on Sunday morning.

In Northern Ireland, and especially in Belfast, Easter Sunday is a day for games. You'll find fun-but-fierce competition surrounding activities like Easter egg rolling and Easter egg races, with eggs balanced on spoons. In Leinster, Easter is celebrated at the Fairyhouse Festival, one of the most prestigious horse-racing events of the year.

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