William Murphy from Dublin, Ireland - St. Patrick's Day Parade (2013) In Dublin

Ireland’s Holidays, Special Days etc.

July – November

12th July* (Northern Ireland) – aka “the Glorious Twelfth” (not to be confused with the date of the same name in August – see below) – ostensibly commemorates the 1690 victory of Protestant King William III of the Dutch House of Orange, the English Parliament’s newly-chosen monarch, over the ousted Stuart absolutist and Roman Catholic-leaning King James II at the Battle of the Boyne (which in fact took place on 1st July 1690). The date is actually the anniversary of the final decisive Williamite victory over the Jacobites at the Battle of Aughrim (12th July 1690).

Although this Bank Holiday is widely regarded as a celebration of the triumph of Protestantism over Roman Catholicism and Unionism over Irish Nationalism, and thus strongly disliked by the Nationalist / Roman Catholic community, it is defended by some as honouring the victory of Enlightenment values (Constitutional Monarchism) over medieval superstition (Divine Right of Kings).

Northern Ireland’s Marches

Northern Ireland’s “marching season” stretches from April to August and includes marches by groups such as the Ancient Order of Hibernians, the Apprentice Boys of Derry, and the Royal Black Institution as well as the Orange Order – who are, however, by far the most prolific marching group. Typically each Orange Lodge will hold its own march at some point before the 12th of July, accompanied by at least one marching band. On the 12th of July each district will hold a larger parade consisting of all the lodges in that district, sometimes with the addition of lodges from abroad, e.g. Scotland or Canada. In most districts the location of the parade will vary from year to year, rotating around suitable towns. Belfast is an exception, keeping more or less the same route for many decades.
A number of marches on and around the 1st of July originally commemorated the participation of the 36th (Ulster) Division in the WWI Battle of the Somme. However since the beginning of the Troubles most of these parades have evolved into the ‘mini Twelfth’, and have little obvious connection with the Great War.

All Orange walks include at least one lodge, with officers, and may include dozens of lodges for major events such as the Twelfth. Each lodge is almost always accompanied by a marching flute band, and optionally fife and drum, silver, brass and accordion bands. Elderly or infirm lodge members often travel the parade route in a vehicle such as a black taxi. It has become much more common in recent decades for members of Ladies’ lodges to walk, although women are still massively outnumbered by men in most parades. Larger walks, especially on the Twelfth, may be headed by a figure on a white horse dressed as William of Orange. A few parades also include others in historical fancy dress or, more rarely, a float representing a historic event such as  the Siege of Derry.
Parading Orangemen usually wear dark suits, although in particularly warm weather they may dispense with the jacket. Some Orangemen wear Bowler hats and walk with umbrellas. Although this does add a bit of class and good fun, it is not mandatory for Orangemen to do so. Walkers will wear V-shaped orange collarettes (often inaccurately known as sashes) bearing the number of their lodge and often badges showing degrees awarded within the institution, and positions held in the lodge. Some lodge officers also wear elaborate cuffs, and many walkers wear white gloves, although this is less common than it used to be. Most lodges carry at least one flag, of which the most common is the Union Jack, the Ulster Banner, the Flag of Scotland and the Orange Order flag. Lodges will generally also carry a banner, which will include the name and number of the lodge, and usually depicts William of Orange on at least one side. Other popular banner subjects include deceased lodge members, local landmarks, and the Bible with a Crown.

Orange walks were once common throughout the island of Ireland, especially on the 12th of July. However, since partition those in the Republic of Ireland have dwindled in number, partly because of local antagonism and partly because of the decline in the Protestant population of the Republic. The last walk in Dublin was in 1937 and the only remaining walk in the Republic takes place at Rossnowlagh, County Donegal, near the border with Northern Ireland.


Highly respectable authors have defended these events as peaceful reaffirmations of basic democratic principles and communal identity, but many Roman Catholics have good reason to be cynical of such claims. (It is advisable to avoid tribal events such as these unless researching for a Ph.D in anthropology!)

First Monday in August – (Republic only) – commonly known as the “August Bank Holiday”. Many festivals, fairs, agricultural shows, rock concerts etc. are held around the country on this “long weekend”.

(The Glorious Twelfth refers in hunting circles to 12th August, the start of the shooting season for Red Grouse (aka Moorfowl) in the UK. This is one of the busiest days in the shooting season, with large amounts of game being shot. The date itself is traditional, the current legislation enshrining it is the Game Act 1831 (and in Northern Ireland, the Wildlife (Northern Ireland) Order 1985). Since UK law says that the start of the season cannot fall on a Sunday, it is sometimes postponed to 13th August).

(15th August – Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary – a Holy Day of Obligation for Roman Catholics, who must attend Mass. Many of the older fairs, agricultural shows, etc. held around the country coincide with this religious feast day, which also sees traditional “patterns” carried out at Holy Wells etc.).

Last Monday in August (Northern Ireland only) – known as the Late Summer Bank Holiday, a statutory bank holiday since 1971, replacing the first Monday in August. The legislation does not specify a name for the holiday, merely when it occurs.

(Last Sunday in October – Reformation Day – commemorating Martin Luther’s nailing of his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg, thus starting the Reformation which brought about the Protestant churches, is celebrated  in Northern Ireland by many Orange Lodges parading to church)

Last Monday in October (Republic only) – commonly known as the “Halloween Bank Holiday”.

(31st October – Hallowe’en / All Hallows’ Eve (the vigil / eve preceding the Christian Feast of All Hallows / All Saints Day) is the first of three days in the Western Liturgical calendar called the Triduum of All Hallows / All Saints, aka Hallowmas, established in the C8th AD).

Halloween fantasy & reality

Hallowe’en was apparently first celebrated as such in Ireland in the C8th AD, but is believed to have its origins in the ancient Celtic autumn festival held on the night before the first day of the month known as Samhain (“the end of Samradh / Summer”), and is still called Oíche Shamhna (“Samhain’s eve / night”) in Irish Gaelic. Nowadays the festivity is very Americanised

According to some bonkers American websites run by deranged “Christian” Evangelical fundamentalists, “Sam Hain was the Celtic God of the Dead, worshipped … with dreadful bloody sacrifices at Halloween.” Evil hooded Druids, often draped in the skins of freshly-killed animals, would go from castle-to-castle seeking virgin princesses to rape and sacrifice, leaving candles made from human fat to burn in the windows of those who submitted and painting hex symbols on the doors of folk who refused to coöperate to mark them for murder by demonic ghouls, who would leave their own kind in peace.

This and similar versions of the origin of spooky costumes, “trick-‘r-treating” and “jack-o’-lantern” pumpkins appears on a number of websites claiming e.g. that Roman Catholics secretly adore ancient Babylonian deities, that all non-Christians are devil-worshippers, or that the entire Rock & Roll industry is run by  Satanists who cast a curse on every recording as it is released!

In fact, “trick-‘r-treating” used to mean that children would actually perform “tricks” (e.g. sing songs, turn somersaults, play card tricks etc.) in order to get treats (fruit / nuts / sweets / cake etc.), while “jack-o’-lantern” illuminations date from the C17th, when they were carved from root vegetables known in Ireland as turnips and elsewhere as swedes (from Swedish turnip), rutabagas or yellow turnips (Brassica napobrassica).

These festive traditions, doubtless accompanied by drunken revelry, were taken by Irish emigrants to America, where they were widely adopted but also met with the anti-Catholic bigotry of the  descendants of the early Puritans who banned Christmas and the late C20th Taliban-like stupidity and ignorance of those who read hate-mongering tracts by Jack Chick and his ilk.

Another custom peculiar to Ireland has survived better, viz. the consumption of Barmbrack (bairín breac – “speckled loaf”), often shortened to brack, a yeasted bread with added sultanas and raisins, often served toasted with butter along with a cup of tea in the afternoon. The dough is sweeter than sandwich bread, but not as rich as cake, and the sultanas and raisins add flavour and texture to the final product. The Halloween Brack traditionally contained various objects baked into the bread and was used as a sort of fortune-telling game.[2] In the barnbrack were: a pea, a stick, a piece of cloth, a small coin (originally a silver sixpence) and a ring. Each item, when received in the slice, was supposed to carry a meaning to the person concerned: the pea, the person would not marry that year; the stick, would have an unhappy marriage or continually be in disputes; the cloth or rag, would have bad luck or be poor; the coin, would enjoy good fortune or be rich; and the ring, would be wed within the year. Other articles added to the brack include a medallion, usually of the Virgin Mary to symbolise going into the priesthood or to the Nuns, although this tradition is not widely continued in the present day.

(1st November – All Hallows / All Saints Day – a Holy Day of Obligation for Roman Catholics, who are expected to attend Mass).

(2nd November – All Souls Day, aka Commemoration of All Faithful Departed, the third day of Hallowmas, observed principally in the Roman Catholic Church, is associated with the doctrine that the souls of the faithful who at death had not yet attained full sanctification and moral perfection may be helped to do so by prayer and by the sacrifice of the Mass in order to meet the requirements for transfer from Purgatory into Heaven. In Ireland, this Feast bears some similarity to the pre-Christian Lá na Marbh – “Day of the Dead”).

5th November – Guy Fawkes / Bonfire Night (UK)

Guy Fawkes commemorates the foiling of the Gunpowder Plot, a Roman Catholic conspiracy to blow up King James I and the entire Palace of Westminster on the occasion of the Royal Opening of Parliament in 1605.

Originally Guy Fawkes night was more a celebration of the final victory of Protestants over Catholics, (because after 1605 Catholics never got close to power again, and Great Britain never again came close to going back to Catholicism, as it had nearly done on a number of occasions since King Henry VIII). Hence Guy Fawkes night became very popular among British Protestants. Up to about 120 years ago Guy Fawkes nights would sometimes feature attacks by drunken mobs on Roman Catholic homes and businesses in Ireland, Scotland and even England.

Nowadays bonfire celebrations in Northern Ireland are confined to some Protestant areas, in a few of which, instead of a straw / ragdoll “guy”, an effigy of the Pope is burnt (this charming tradition is also still observed in Lewes, Sussex).

* When the usual date falls on a Saturday /  Sunday, the ‘substitute day’ is normally the following Monday.

School Holidays

In the Republic the academic year lasts from 1st September to 30th June in primary schools (183 school days) an  to 31st May in secondary schools (167 school days).

The first mid-term break for primary schools is always the last week of October (aka the Halloween break). The first mid-term break for secondary schools begins on the last weekend before 31st October and lasts for one week.

Many (though not all) Roman Catholic schools close on 8th December for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.

The Christmas break lasts from the last schoolday before 23 December to the first weekday after 6 January (17–21 days).

The second mid-term break for primary schools is a minimum of two days to a maximum of five days duration taken in the third week of February (aka the Shrove break). The second mid-term break for secondary schools begins on the last schoolday in the second week of February and lasts for one week.

The Easter break consists of a week before Easter to the 2nd Monday after Easter (10 school days or 16 days inclusive).

In the last term primary school holidays are flexible and are generally arranged around the public holidays in May and June.

The secondary school year ends on the first Friday of June.

The state Junior Certificate and Leaving Certificate examinations begin the Wednesday after the June Holiday.

Schools are not open in July or August (though for flexibility school may open for the last two / three days of August).

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