Lost Irish Wedding Rituals

Lost Irish Wedding Rituals


There are many old Irish wedding traditions that have been lost over the centuries, as other cultures have barged in on us. Here are some traditions that Nicole Buckler thinks we need to revive.

There are many gorgeous Irish wedding traditions that have fallen by the wayside. Some of them are so sweet and so layered with historical meaning that it would be a shame for them to fade into the mists of distant history. So I’m here to remind ye’all about them and to shake them back into life.

Wild flowers were often used to decorate hair for a wedding.

The Home Wedding

Around the 1560s, the Catholic Church in Ireland sought to make marriages in Ireland more formal. Up until then, many couples chose to wed at home. And then when they had children, they were christened at home too. This was when brehon law was still largely in effect, and the marriage would be arranged through the local brehon or other qualified person. But this wasn’t the case once the church started to meddle.

The Tametsi decree of the Council of Trent was introduced, as the church fought to push their ideas onto Gaelic people. This decree stipulated that any marriage that took place outside the presence of a parish priest or his representative and two witnesses would be null and void. So more or less: marry in a house of God, by a priest, or it’s not legal. Of course, Irish Gaels largely continued to ignore this for several more centuries. This is because by 1653, a statute had been passed to authorise civil marriage. This was popular with Irish people, as it safeguarded property rights and separated the church from the more practical aspects of a legal union. So people didn’t need the “protection” of a church wedding: they were already legally protected by secular laws. So Irish people carried on doing what they were doing. Even up until the 1900s, a wedding at home was more common than a church wedding.

Home weddings were seen as ultra-stylish. According to etiquette books of the day, an arch of flowers was to be placed in the drawing room. And the sweethearts getting married were to stand under it. The bridal party then entered and joined the bride and groom. After the marriage took place, the bride and groom then turned and faced the room to greet their guests and receive congratulations. These days, getting the church you want, on the date you want, is becoming mission impossible. And if you aren’t sucking up to your church on at least a bi-monthly basis you won’t get priority when seeking to book the church. And we aren’t even all going to church anymore, so why are we insisting on having our weddings there? And the wedding mass is kind of boring. It drags on. And you can’t drink loads of wine in a church. So let’s bring back the tradition of having weddings in our houses. It’s cheaper, less formal, we don’t spend any time on our knees, and we can drink wine. We don’t have to hire poxy limousines, and get everyone to church and back again. And don’t forget to invite me!


Let’s bring back the fashion of having a wedding at home. If you have a nice garden, use it!


This is going to floor you. Irish women didn’t marry in white fluffy meringue-like dresses until Queen Victoria made it fashionable in 1840. And even then the idea didn’t take off right away in Ireland with everyone. The fashion of a white dress did get a good foothold around 1900, however this was muted somewhat while the two world wars came and went. But now just about every bride is in white. It is amazing to think though, that the “traditional” white dress isn’t all that traditional. In fact it is a very recent English fashion, adopted by the modern Irish bride.

Up until even 100 years ago, Irish women had a special gown made for their wedding day, but it was of any colour you could dream of. For example, in 1877, Margretta Adams married the dashing Robert Dunlop in the drawing room of the quite fancy Ashville House. She wore a glamorous tan gown made from poplin (a type of corduroy, would you believe).

Traditionally in Ireland, the bride’s wedding attire was much more sensible, in a good way. The wedding dress was typically a fancier version of everyday dress. In fact, women wore outfits that they could wear again as their Sunday best, or to other weddings. Some made dresses that could easily be altered (for example, by taking off extra frills) to be appropriate for other life events, like christenings.

While white dresses did make their appearance known, they held no greater importance than dresses of any other colour. In fact, white dresses were thought to be appropriate for brides who were in mourning, as an alternative to wearing black on your wedding day. So what colours did women choose? A bride from Kildare was reported to have worn a red dress that looked like a fancy petticoat, and it was trimmed in green ribbon. A stunning purple dress with black trim (all silk) was worn by a lighthouse keeper’s daughter, so we can safely say that this adhered to middle-class fashion at the time. Another bride in 1874 from Drogheda wore a tan silk dress that went all the way to the floor, and was trimmed in white frills. A farmer’s daughter around the same time wore a dress of blue and grey checks, and it was made of silk. All of these dresses were intended for future wear. Silk was very much in fashion at this time, but in 1912 a bride was reported to have worn the daring choice of rayon!

The Blue Wedding Dress
There is some evidence that for a period in time, Irish women preferred blue wedding dresses, and left white dresses to the upper-class brides. According to Críostóir Mac Cárthaigh, Archivist at the National Folklore Collection, UCD, there is a very old rhyme that backs this idea up:

Married in white, you’re sure to be right
Married in black, you’re sure to come back
Married in red you’ll wish yourself dead
Married in yellow, ashamed of your fellow
Married in green, ashamed to be seen
Married in brown, you’ll live in a town
Married in blue, you’re sure to be true
Married in pink, your spirits will sink.

And of course, most people observed the tradition of “something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue.” Art and fashion historian Sinéad Furlong-Clancy thinks it could be possible that blue wedding dresses were in fashion at one time. “Blue was long associated with purity and the figure of Mary.”

From 1850 to around 1880, the fashion for mauve wedding dresses hit the big time. A Belfast bride was reported to have worn a dress of dark purple silk and velvet in 1875. Lilac was also a big hit. For the brides who were more modest, other colours were chosen. They included browns, greens and blues for their gown themes. But there were other choices too: In Coleraine, in 1904, the upper-class bride’s dress was made of silver-grey cotton! A bride from Tyrone chose a brown gown, with beige accessories and a beige hat with show-stopping purple pansies on it.

After the 1920s, coffee-coloured fabrics were intensely popular. One bride from Skibbereen dressed her bridesmaids in very light colours, and wanting to stand out from them, wore a deep brown elaborate dress with bouffant sleeves which were noted as being “very much in vogue!” Even when the war years came, the white wedding dress was still not necessarily the done thing. One bride, in 1914 wore a brown wool dress, trimmed with fur! Another from the Aran Islands wore a blue gown, with white stockings and a big necklace. She had returned from America, were she had earned and saved some money, so this outfit was quite the big deal and seen as expressing the bride’s excellent taste.

I think it is time to revive this lovely Irish tradition of the bride wearing whatever colour she wants, in whatever style she wants! And to wear a dress than can be used for other events too…who needs a wedding dress sitting in a wardrobe for the next 50 years of your marriage (or uploaded to e-Bay in the event of a horrible divorce). I say, let’s go with a practical dress of any colour!

These days, when you get a wedding invitation through the door, the first thought is, “I will have to buy new clothes and shoes!” But not so back in the day. The bride and the wedding party were expected to don new threads, but not the guests: in fact, they would turn up in their normal everyday attire. Even as late as the 1930s, a couple getting married were photographed in their wedding clothes, but guests looked like they were off to the market! By the 1950s however this had very much changed, and guests were expected to scrub up well. Etiquette books hit the market telling people exactly what dress requirements were expected of them at weddings. I like the idea of the wedding guest dressing up and the guests going smart casual. In fact I’d be happy to wear yoga pants, considering how much dancing goes on at the reception afterwards. Yoga pants for guests! Hooray!

From 1830 through until 1910, bicycles were an extremely fashionable way to get around. It was so fashionable in this period that it was used as wedding transport to get guests where they needed to go. The bride, the groom, the best man and the bridesmaid would all travel to the wedding on their bicycles! The bikes would be decorated beautifully with flowers for the day. Bicycling veils were used to cover the face, and they then doubled as a fashionable veil once inside church. Parking in a church for a wedding is a modern-day nightmare. And if you want to sneak off early, you can’t, because 75 of your relatives have parked you in. Who needs it? NOT ME. I reckon bring back the Irish tradition of a bicycle wedding! It’s eco-friendly, cheap and very cute.

These days, if your wedding is in a hotel, there are no food surprises. Guests pretty much have a choice of the beef or the chicken. And while it is usually nice…it’s getting to be a bit of a snore. But back in the day, when people had their weddings at home, they also had their feasts at home. Friends, neighbours and family would bring dishes over, plus if you were wealthy enough, you could hire servants to help you cook the food. In 1817, Thomas Wakefield married Mary Wilcocks, and their menu still survives. It consisted of turbot, calf’s head, beef, French beans, stewed sole, ham, duck, rabbit, giblet pie, potato loaves, pigeon pie, scotch collops, roast tongue, trout, and oyster pie. What even the hell is giblet pie.

The wedding cake as we know it today is quite the modern invention: usually a currant loaf was served instead, with the bride getting the first slice. Tipsy cake was common: it was a sponge cake, soaked in sherry or whatever booze was to hand! This is a lovely tradition to revive. Ditch the boring hotel meal, and let everyone bring along their specialty dish! This will add variety and interest to your menu. As long as you trust your inner circle not to sneeze on their contribution while making it.

It was customary for young unmarried maidens to nab a tiny sliver of the wedding cake to put under their pillows. They would them sleep on them that night, and it was said that the cake would induce intense dreams about their future husband. If they didn’t know him already, then they would be introduced to the future husband in the dream. It was then claimed that when the young maiden met ‘the one’ in waking hours, they would know him right away. Maidens made sure that they didn’t miss out of that all-important piece of cake!

This tradition is actually very old in Ireland, and before wedding cake of an elaborate nature became common, a wheaten bannock (a buttermilk bread) was used as a “bride’s cake.” I think this is a lovely gift for ALL singles at a wedding—a slice of wheaten bannock to sleep on that night in a pretty, greaseproof bag. And, if you get hungry around 3am…it can serve as a nice snack, saving you the job of going to get chips in the freezing cold.

It’s quite well known that the Irish had a tradition whereby young ladies could propose to a man, but only during a leap year, on the 29th of February. In fact this was once enshrined in law. But what you may not know is that if a girl proposed to a young man, and he rejected her proposal, she had the right to compensation. At first, this was a lovely silk dress, presented to her with a decent apology. But through the ages, this became a luxurious fur coat. Well-to-do young men started fear the 29th of February on account of several young women on the hustle. They learned to get out of dodge on that date! Maybe we skip the revival of this tradition, especially as these days fur coats come with their very own protesters! ■


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