Tastes & Traditions for an Irish Easter

Largely a Roman Catholic holiday in Ireland, Easter is the second largest festival- after Christmas- on the church calendar.

Easter in Ireland

Beginning Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, the ‘Easter Season’ lasts 40 days, until Easter Sunday. The period of Lent is a time for self-reflection and families traditionally spend time together.

Lent is also a time of sacrifice, with many people giving up their favorite things, like chocolate, coffee, or sweets.

Easter Sunday draws crowds to Mass which is often followed by a large family dinner. Spring lamb will likely be on the menu, as will simnel cakes and hot cross buns – both imported traditions from England.

Easter-Eggs

My Irish language teacher Eoin remembers opening chocolate Easter eggs after Mass, no search required.

Speak Irish 

Happy Easter! (to one person) Beannachtaí na Cásca ort
(pronounced Byan-okht-ee nah Kaw-skah ort)

Happy Easter! (to more than one person) Beannachtaí na Cásca oraibh
(Pronounced Byan-okht-ee nah Kaw-skah or-ee)

No Egg Hiding Bunnies

My friend Susan, a US expat, says the biggest thing she’s noticed is that the Easter Bunny really isn’t a big part of the holiday. Neither, she says, is coloring eggs.

But that is slowly changing says Felicity Hayes-McCoy, author of The House on an Irish Hillside, “The eggs, the bunny, and so on, have pre-Christian roots and, from the Early Middle Ages, the church here was in the business of eradicating those and the Pagan spring festivals they belonged to… hence they’ve only returned via commercialization from the UK and US.”

Hase mit Ostereiern (1)

Though you won’t often find it in private homes, the Easter Hunt may be found in some communities as fundraisers for local GAA leagues or historic sites.

A Time for Home and Family

Garden centers begin to do brisk business around Easter as people look at flowers to brighten their lawns as well as tools for ‘spring cleaning’. It’s also a great way to keep the kids busy, since schools in Ireland close for two weeks during Lent and through Easter.

Miriam Barry, proprietor of The Old Bank in Bruff, says families will often use the ‘spring break’ for a quick getaway with the kids – preferably someplace sunny, though many will travel across Ireland to visit grandparents and cousins.

Foods for Your Traditional Irish Easter Menu

An Irish Easter feast often includes roast lamb or large ham, new potatoes, and spring vegetables like carrots and asparagus.

Hot Cross Buns at Fortnum & Mason, Piccadilly, April 2010

Hot Cross Buns, once reserved solely for Good Friday, are filled with symbolism. It is said that a 12th century monk baked the buns and marked them with a cross in honor of Good Friday. By 1592 Queen Elizabeth 1 decreed that the buns could only be eaten on Good Friday, Christmas, or for burials.

Superstitions about the buns also grew with their popularity. It is said that a bun hung in your kitchen on Good Friday will remain fresh throughout the year. Due to the cross on top the buns are said to protect a kitchen from evil spirits and fires, or offer protection from shipwreck, if you are a sailor.

If you want to create a friendship that lasts a lifetime this little rhyme and a hot cross bun is said to do the trick – Half for you, half for me, between us two good luck shall be.

Try this Hot Cross Buns recipe

Simnel cake (25536812193)

The Simnel Cake is a fruitcake decorated with 11 marzipan ‘eggs’ to represent the Apostles (minus Judas). Traditionally eaten on the fourth Sunday in Lent, known as Simnel Sunday or Refreshment Sunday, when the fasting of Lent was relaxed.

Simnel cakes were traditionally reserved for the foutrh Sunday in Let but are now eaten through the 40 day period, and even on Easter Sunday.

Try this Simnel Cake recipe

References if You Wish to Know More

Hear the Irish for Happy Easter spoken here

Old Irish Customs that Survive in Modern Ireland podcast with author Felicity Hayes-McCoy (podcast)

Irish recipes for Easter from Food Ireland

St. Patrick’s Day – A Brief History & the Traditional Set Dance You Perform Today

As we come to the most Irish of all days, St. Patrick’s Day, I began to wonder a bit about the Traditional Set Dance of the same name. What does it have to do with St. Patrick, and where did it come from?

Foy School of Irish Dance, Des Moines, iowa

St. Patrick’s Day History

The history of St. Patrick takes us back to 450AD, when a young Roman citizen in Britain was captured and taken to Ireland as a slave. After years of isolation as a shepherd in the Ulster hills, Patrick was reunited with his family.

It is said that he ‘felt a calling to become a priest’, which isn’t terribly surprising as his grandfather was a Catholic priest.

The surprising part is that he returned to the pagan country where he had been a slave, “so that I could come to the peoples of Ireland and preach the gospel.” (Confession, writings of St. Patrick, 5th century)

As you know, St. Patrick’s life became the stuff of legend as he converted the pagans to Christianity. Today he is known for using the shamrock to teach the trinity and driving the snakes out of Ireland, and his holy feast day has become a world-wide celebration of all things Irish. And green.

Read More about the Colors of Ireland

St. Patrick’s Day Traditional Set Dance

St. Patrick’s Day has been described as the ‘signature step dance of the Irish diaspora.’

What is a Traditional Set Dance?

A traditional set dance is a set dance composed or arranged by the 18th century dance masters to showcase their own footwork.

Where did the song originate?

The music for St. Patrick’s Day is also known as St. Patrick’s Day in the Morning and has been played for centuries.

Historian W. H. Gratten Flood wrote that the song was played by Irish pipers at the Battle of Fontenoy on May 11, 1745, after the Irish had won the day’s battle for France.

Following that battle, the song appeared in the score of a London ballad opera in 1763, and was used as the regimental air of the Irish Legion within Napoleon’s army, as well as by Irish fighters on both sides of the American Civil War.

Where did the St. Patrick’s Day Set Dance originate?

The settings of St. Patrick’s Day are credited to Jeremiah Molyneaux of County Kerry in the early 20th century. (He also choreographed The Blackbird, another traditional set dance.)

Though the Molyneaux version of St. Patrick’s Day has been a designated Trad set for many years, the version most commonly danced today was composed by Stephen Comerford and is a shortened version of the older settings.

Recently the Molyneaux version has made a ‘reappearance’ on stages and at feiseanna. Faster steps and a more complex setting make this a challenging dance for even the most proficient dancer.

Siobhan Butler dances Jeremiah Molyneaux's St. Patrick's Day from Siobhan Butler on Vimeo.

Traditional set dance steps are not altered by individual schools, and both the Molyneaux and Comerford steps are acceptable in competition.

References if you wish to know more

Read St. Patrick’s Confessio
Terminology of Irish Dance (Amazon link)
The Complete Guide to Irish Dance (Amazon link)
Jigs to Jacobites– 4000 Years of Irish History Told Through 40 Traditional Set Dances

Spring and the Tradition of St. Brigid’s Cross

Spring and the Tradition of St. Brigid's Cross

Spring comes early to Ireland. As I walked through the parklands in mid-January daffodils had pushed through the soil, their bright blooms still hidden but preparing for debut.

The Gaelic festival of Imbolc (i-MOLG) marks the beginning of spring. Set half way between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, celebrations are usually held February 1.

Speak Irish The word for spring in Irish is earrach (arrock)

Originally a Celtic festival, it became Christianized as the festival of St. Brigid, a patron saint of Ireland who is thought to be based on the Brigid the Celtic goddess.

Though Bidgid has quite a few miracles attributed to her, not the least of which was the expansion of her cloak to cover the land to build her convent, her name is most associated with the St. Brigid’s Cross.

Saint Brigid's cross

The Story of St. Brigid’s Cross

There was an old pagan Chieftain who lay delirious on his deathbed in Kildare (some tales say this was her father) and his servants summoned Brigid to his beside in the hope that the saintly woman might calm his restless spirit.

Brigid is said to have sat by his bed, consoling and soothing him and it is here that she picked up rushes from the floor and began weaving them into the distinctive cross pattern.

Whilst she weaved, she explained the meaning of the cross to the sick Chieftain and it is thought her calming words brought peace to his soul. He was so captivated by her words that the old Chieftain requested he be baptized as a Christian just before his passing.

Since that day, and for the centuries that followed, it has been customary on the eve of her Feast Day for the Irish people to weave a St. Brigid’s Cross of rushes and place it inside the house over the door.

Traditions of St. Brigid’s Cross

Woven on the eve of the festival, January 31, St. Brigid’s crosses are traditionally hung by the door and in the rafters to protect a home from fire and evil.

Some traditions state that a new cross is to be woven each year, with the old one burned to keep fire from the house, but many homes will have several crosses preserved in the ceiling or roof.

How to Weave a St. Brigid’s Cross

While fresh rushes, pulled, not cut, are used to create a traditional St. Brigid’s Cross, plastic straws can be used.

I’ve taken these directions from Scoil Bhride (St. Brigid’s School) in Portlaois, Ireland.

You Will Need

  • 16 Reeds (or Straws)
  • 4 small rubber bands
  • Scissors

What to Do

  1. Hold one of the reeds vertically. Fold a second reed in half as in the diagram.
  2. Place the first vertical reed in the centre of the folded second reed.
  3. Hold the centre overlap tightly between thumb and forefinger.
  4. Turn the two rushes held together 90 degrees anti-clockwise so that the open ends of the second reed are pointing vertically upwards.
  5. Fold a third reed in half and over both parts of the second reed to lie horizontally from left to right against the first straw. Hold tight.
  6. Holding the centre tightly, turn the three reeds 90 degrees anti-clockwise so that the open ends of the third reed are pointing upwards.
  7. Fold a new reed in half over and across all the rushes pointing upwards.
  8. Repeat the process of rotating all the rushes 90 degrees anti-clockwise, adding a new folded reed each time until all rushes have been used up to make the cross.
  9. Secure the arms of the cross with elastic bands. Trim the ends to make them all the same length. The St Bridget’s Cross is now ready to hang.

References if you wish to know more

Learn the story of St. Brigid

Celtic Festivals– and introduction

Old Irish Customs that Survive in Modern Ireland podcast with author Felicity Hayes-McCoy (podcast)