January – June
1st January* – New Year’s Day – declared an official holiday in 1974 in both the Republic (by legislation) and Northern Ireland (by Royal Decree, extending also to England & Wales, while Scotland was granted an extra day of Hogmanay festivities on 2nd January). Traditionally a day for nursing hangovers, making lifestyle resolutions and going for brisk walks, New Year’s Day also sees Race Meetings and Charity Swims.
(James Joyce‘s famous short story The Dead, centring on the fictional elderly Morkan sisters’ annual Yuletide dinner party in their house at 15 Ussher’s Island on Dublin‘s Liffey Quays in early January 1904, possibly the Feast of the Epiphany, is a seasonal stream of conciousness meditation on how little we know of life and death. This time of year sees public readings and showings of John Huston‘s 1987 film adaptation of the story, first published in 1914 as the last part of Dubliners).
(6th January – the Feast of the Epiphany, is a Holy Day of Obligation in Ireland for Roman Catholics, who must attend Mass. Within living memory it was not unusual for offices to remain closed, but this is no longer normal
Little / Women’s Christmas
6th January is traditionally known as Little Christmas (Nollaig Bheag) in rural Ireland (and some parts of England, e.g. Lancashire). This is because Christmas Day fell on that day under the old Julian calendar, whereas under the Gregorian calendar it falls on the modern 25th December.
(For this reason 6th January is sometimes referred to as Old Christmas or Old Christmas Day in some parts of the world, e.g. the Isle of Man. Some other languages also have the name Little Christmas, referring to various festive dates in different places; e.g. in the Scottish Highlands the term Little Christmas (Scottish Gaelic: Nollaig Bheag) is applied to New Year’s Day, also known as Là Challuinn, or Là na Bliadhna Ùire, while Epiphany is known as Là Féill nan Rìgh – the feast-day of the Kings – like in Spain, where the feast of LosReyes Magos– Three Kings / Wise Men – is more important than Christmas itself).
In Cork and Kerry, Little Christmas is aka Women’s Christmas (Nollaig na mBan), and sometimes Women’s Little Christmas, when men take on all the household duties for the day, while women hold parties or go out to celebrate with their friends, sisters, mothers, and aunts. Bars and restaurants serve mostly women and girls on this night. Children often buy presents for their mothers and grandmothers.
A traditional County Donegal custom on the 12th day of Christmas is to place a round cake on the table with a number of lighted candles (or stalks of rush) representing each member of the family. The order the candles burn out will be the order the family will die.
6th January is the traditional 12th and last day of Christmastide / Yuletide, when decorations are taken down and life returns to normal).
(1st February – St Brigid’s Day – traditionally the first day of spring in Ireland since pre-Christian times, and still celebrated in some rural households by baking oatcakes; superstitious / religiously inclined farmers ask for Saint Brigid‘s blessing on her feast day).
(14th February – St Valentine’s Day – taken very seriously by greeting card companies and their victims, mostly young people who think they are in love. The Spanish language contains an excellent word that describes the reality of the emotions felt by many palely loitering mooncalf lovers; they are “encoñados“. Sadly, this is virtualy untranslatable into polite English)
(Pancake Tuesday / Day, aka Shrove Tuesday / Máirt Inide (“Shrovetide Tuesday”) – observed by eating pancakes made out of sugar, fat, flour and eggs, the consumption of which was traditionally restricted during the ritual fasting associated with Lent. “Shrove” is the past tense of the antique English verb “shrive”, which meant to go to Confession and do penance to obtain absolution and become “shriven of one’s sins” before Lent began. Shrove Tuesday was the last day of “shrovetide”, somewhat analogous to the more flamboyant Latin Carnival / Carneval celebration of fleshly appetites, traditionally culminating with a feast of rich food and partying on Mardi Gras / “Fat Tuesday”, except in Catalonia, where the festivities open on Dijous Gras / “Fat Thursday”).
(Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent, when many devout Roman Catholics go to church to have their foreheads marked with ash as a sign of penance, displayed for the rest of the day).
17th March* – St Patrick’s Day
St Patrick’s Day
Saint Patrick‘s feast day was already being celebrated by the Irish in Europe as a kind of national day in the C9th and C10th. In later times the Saint became more widely known as the patron of Ireland. Saint Patrick’s feast day was finally placed on the universal liturgical calendar in the Roman Catholic Church due to the influence of Waterford-born Franciscan scholar Luke Wadding in the early C17th. St Patrick’s Day thus became a holy day of obligation for Roman Catholics in Ireland.
The church calendar avoids the observance of saints’ feasts during certain solemnities, moving the saint’s day to a time outside those periods. Saint Patrick’s Day is occasionally affected by this requirement, when 17th March falls during Holy Week. This happened in 1940, when Saint Patrick’s Day was observed on 3rd April in order to avoid it coinciding with Palm Sunday, and again in 2008, where it was officially observed on 14th March (15th March being used for Saint Joseph, which had to be moved from 19th March), although the secular celebration still took place on 17th March.
The day is generally characterised by the wearing of green clothes and / or shamrocks, attendance of church services and the lifting of Lenten restrictions on drinking alcohol, which is often proscribed during the rest of the pre-Easter period of abstinence.
St Patrick’s Day was first introduced as an official holiday in Ireland in 1903 under the Bank (Holiday) Act 1903, initiated in the UK Parliament by Irish MP James O’Hara, who later introduced a legal requirement that pubs and bars had to close on 17th March, not repealed until the 1970s.
Within living memory the only bars to be found open in Ireland’s capital were at the RDS, widely regarded as a Protestant body, which hosted the annual Dublin Cat & Dog Show, attended by thousands of Dubliners suddenly intensely interested in feline and canine studies!
St Patrick-s Day in Chicago, where the river is dyed green for the occasion.
The first St Patrick’s Day parade in the Irish Free State was held in Dublin in 1931. In Northern Ireland, the Bank Holiday was celebrated by the Nationalist / Roman Catholic community but widely ignored in Loyalist / Protestant areas until the Peace Process began to take effect a few years ago.
St Patrick’s Day parades held both North and South were often rather dreary, mainly due to the almost inevitable rain, but also because uninspiring processions of thinly disguised lorries carrying advertisements were insufficiently offset by military marching bands, children in dance costumes and pretty but bewildered drum majorettes and cheerleaders visiting from the USA.
In the late C20th the government of the Republic began to use St Patrick’s Day to showcase Ireland and its culture. The first St Patrick’s Festival was held in Dublin on 17th March 1996. Ten years later the festival was five days long. The 2009 parade had close to 1 million visitors, who took part in festivities that in addition to a vastly revamped parade included concerts, outdoor theatre performances, and spectacular fireworks displays.
As well as Dublin, many other cities, towns, and villages in Ireland hold their own annual parades and festivals, including Cork, Galway, Kilkenny, Limerick, and Waterford, plus Belfast and Derry in Northern Ireland. The biggest celebrations outside the island’s capital are in Downpatrick, County Down, where Saint Patrick is said to be buried. The shortest St Patrick’s Day parade in the world, held in Dripsey, County Cork, travels just 100 yards between the village’s two pubs.
The silly hats and costumes commonly seen on St Patrick’s Day are a relatively recent phenomenon. Although secular celebrations now prevail, the holiday remains a Holy Day of Obligation for Irish Roman Catholics and an occasion of religious observance for members of the Church of Ireland.
In addition to the Republic and Northern Ireland, St Patrick’s Day is a public holiday in Newfoundland and Labrador in Canada and Montserrat in the Caribbean, while members of the Irish diaspora notoriously celebrate the occasion in Great Britain, the USA (where New York’s annual Parades are particularly renowned), other Canadian cities, Argentina, Australia and New Zealand. plus Oirish pubs all over the world.
(Mothers’ Day, a relatively recent American invention, celebrated in the USA on the second Sunday in May, is observed in Ireland on the fourth Sunday of Lent).
Easter, the time of year when Christians commemorate the Passion (suffering during persecution, crucifixion, death) and resurrection of Jesus Christ, is believed to have more ancient roots in pre-historic rites of spring.
In modern Ireland, the relevant dates are calculated in the manner of the Western Church tradition (to which the early Irish Church, similar in many ways to the Egyptian Copts, only reluctantly conformed after centuries of heated debate).
The First Council of Nicaea (325 AD) established the date of Easter Sunday (aka Easter Day, Resurrection Day and Resurrection Sunday) as the first Sunday after the Paschal Full Moon, i.e. the full moon following the northern hemisphere’s vernal equinox. Ecclesiastically, the equinox is reckoned to be on 21st March (even though the equinox occurs, astronomically speaking, on 20th March most years), and the “Full Moon” is not necessarily the astronomically correct date. The date of Easter Sunday therefore varies between 22nd March and 25th April.
Passiontide is a name for the last two weeks of Lent, beginning on the Fifth Sunday of Lent, long celebrated as Passion Sunday, and ending on Holy Saturday.
Holy Week, the period of seven days preceding Easter Sunday, is solemnised with elaborate processions and songs in many countries, but receives comparatively little attention in the British Isles.
Traditionally, Roman Catholic households strove to finish their spring cleaning to prepare for the annual Holy Week visit by the local priest to bless the house – a custom still observed in some rural areas. Many believers attend confession, but also have their hair cut and buy new clothes.
Palm Sunday, commemorating Jesus Christ’s arrival in Jerusalem, is celebrated with processions involving donkeys and palm fronds; the latter add an exotic touch to the Irish day as they are carried home from church.
The fourth day of Holy Week is known in English as Holy Wednesday / Spy Wednesday, recalling Judas Iscariot’s deal to betray Christ. (Some fundamentalist Christians argue on the basis of Biblical clues that Jesus was actually crucified on the Wednesday)
The fifth day, commemorating Jesus’ legendary Last Supper with his Apostles, has various names such as Holy Thursday, Covenant Thursday, Sheer Thursday and Thursday of Mysteries. In the UK, for reasons lost to history, it is known as Maundy Thursday, and the monarch traditionally distributes Maundy Coins; Queen Elizabeth II performed this ritual in Armagh‘s St Patrick’s Cathedral (CoI) in 2008.
The old custom, originating in Rome, of visiting seven churches on Holy Thursday or Good Friday has been transformed in the age of car travel into a tour of 14 churches, one for each Station of the Cross.
Good Friday, commemorating Christ’s persecution, crucifixion and death, is officially a Bank Holiday in Northern Ireland; while not technically a public holiday in the Republic, most businesses close, including pubs etc, making for more dreary streetscapes. If the weather is fine, this is a good day for a walk in the spring countryside.
Traditionally a day for reflection, almost no outdoor work could take place on Good Friday. Eggs, not eaten during Lent, could be be collected again from Good Friday for consumption on Easter Sunday.
Many Irish people subscribe to the English tradition of eating toasted hot cross buns, spiced sweet buns made with currants or raisins and marked with a cross on the top, supposedly as a symbol of the Crucifixion. Although the first recorded use of the term “hot cross bun” was not until 1733, they are believed by some to pre-date Christianity, as the ancient Greeks are said to have marked cakes with a cross, and the Saxons, for whom the cross mat have symbolised the four quarters of the moon, supposedly ate them in honour of the goddess Eostre – probably the origin of the name “Easter” (formerly “Paschia”).
The Bible refers several times to a period of three days between Christ’s death and resurrection. The absence of a third day between Good Friday and Easter Sunday is apparently explained by ancient ignorance of the concept of zero.
Liturgically speaking, Holy Saturday (when church altars are left bare and the tabernacle gapes open and empty) lasts until dusk or even an hour before midnight, after which the Easter Vigil is celebrated, marking the official start of the Easter season. The service may start with all the lights in the church being extinguished before the lighting of the new Paschal candle (and sometimes a small fire). In Roman Catholic and some Anglican observance, during the Gloria – absent throughout Lent until this, the first Mass since Maundy Thursday – the church statues and icons, covered with purple drapes during Passiontide, are dramatically unveiled. Some churches prefer to light the new Paschal candle at dawn on Easter Day.
Easter Sunday, the highest Christian holy day, celebrating the resurrection of Jesus Christ after his death by crucifixion, regularly sees highchurch attendance, and is commonly celebrated with big family meals featuring spring lamb.
The old European custom of hunting for painted eggs (fertility symbols) distributed by the Easter Bunny (originally a hermaphrodite hare capable of virginal reproduction) has given way to the modern habit of eating chocolate eggs, hens and rabbits filled with chocolate sweets.
Easter Sunday was also the occasion used to commemorate the 1916 Easter Rising , and was officially considered the “National Day of Commemoration” in the Republic, with major parades etc. until 1971, when the Troubles in Northern Ireland made the earlier Irish Republican rebels more problematic in terms of national symbolism. The commemoration is still widely observed by wearing an Easter Lily (see below)
Easter Monday, the second day of Easter Week and the 50-day Easter Season, is a public / bank holiday all over Ireland, extending the weekend.
First Monday in May – Early May Bank Holiday (Northern Ireland) / Lá na Bealtaine (Republic – first observed in 1994). Commonly known as May Day / Workers’ Day / Labour Day, the holiday in the Republic officially recalls the traditional Celtic first day of summer (a loose concept in Ireland).
International Workers Day, 1st May, began as the commemoration of the 1886 Haymarket Massacre in Chicago, which occurred after an unknown person threw a dynamite bomb at police as they dispersed a public assembly during a general strike for the eight-hour workday. In response, the Chicago police fired on the workers, killing dozens of demonstrators and several of their own officers.
In 1889, the first congress of the Second International, meeting in Paris for the centennial of the French Revolution and the Exposition Universelle, called for international demonstrations on the 1890 anniversary of the Chicago protests.
May Day was formally recognized as an annual event at the International’s second congress in 1891. Subsequently, the May Day Riots of 1894 occurred.
In 1904, the International Socialist Conference meeting in Amsterdam called on “all Social Democratic Party organizations and trade unions of all countries to demonstrate energetically on May First for the legal establishment of the 8-hour day, for the class demands of the proletariat, and for universal peace.”
(Ascension Thursday, celebrating Jesus’s ascent to heaven on the 40th Day of Easter, was abolished as a Holy Day of Obligation for Irish Roman Catholics in 1996)
Spring Bank Holiday (Northern Ireland) – Last Monday in May. A statutory bank holiday from 1971, it replaced Whit Monday, the date of which varied according to the date of Easter. The legislation does not specify a name for the holiday, merely when it occurs.
(Pentecost (from the Ancient Greek for “the Fiftieth [day]”), aka Whit Sunday / Whitsun / Whit, is a prominent feast in the Christian liturgical year commemorating the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles, celebrated seven weeks (50 days) after Easter Sunday. The origin of the English name Whit Sunday is generally attributed to the white garments formerly worn by those newly baptised on this feast. The following Whit Monday / Pentecost Monday was traditionally a public holiday in England and Ireland).
First Monday in June (Republic) – observed as Whit Monday until 1973.
(The Feast of Corpus Christi, a moveable Roman Catholic feast celebrated on a Thursday / Sunday between 21st May and 24th June, traditionally featured colourful street processions in many urban and provincial parishes, and still does in some (the oldest, dating from 1898, is that of Youghal, County Cork; disgracefully, it is still escorted by the Army, as in Francoist Spain). Dublin’s procession was famously halted c.1978 by a member of the Hare Krishna sect attempting a citizen’s arrest of the clergy for breaching public order by wearing outlandish costumes and singing weird songs, much as he and his friends had been fined for doing the week previously! Corpus Christi was abolished as a Holy Day of Obligation in Ireland in 1996).
(16th June – Bloomsday – the day on which the fictitious Leopold Bloom‘s odyssey through the Dublin of 1904 in James Joyce‘s Ulysses and the birthday of the novelist’s partner Nora Barnacle. Celebrated mainly in Dublin, where ladies and gentlemen in Edwardian garb retrace the route and attend literary events, but also commemorated in other cities around Ireland and the entire world).
(Fathers’ Day is celebrated in Ireland on the third Sunday of June).
(St John’s Eve / Midsummer’s Night – 23rd / 24th June – “Midsummer Carnivals” with fairs, concerts and fireworks take place in many towns and cities, either on the night itself or on the nearest weekend. In rural communities, particularly in the west, bonfires are lit on hilltops – a tradition long associated with “St John’s Night”, but believed to hark back to pagan times).
* When the usual date falls on a Saturday / Sunday, the ‘substitute day’ is normally the following Monday.