There are many old Irish traditions that are very interesting and could still serve us well. We suggest a few that we need to salvage with immediate effect!
Many Irish traditions dripping in charm have fallen by the wayside, mainly because society has changed and left them behind as a quaint memory of how things used to be. Now is the time to resuscitate old traditions by modernising them. Let’s preserve them for future generations.
Women’s Little Christmas
This festival has been around for generations in Kerry and especially in Cork. Known in Irish as Nollaig na mBan, it harks from the days when women had very large families and spent all of their days looking after everyone on the domestic front, with not a day off in sight. After the hard (but pleasurable!) graft of Christmas, Nollaig na mBan would be ladies day, to be spent with complete abandon drinking tea and eating tiny dainty cakes and maybe a lovely forsaken roast chicken. Then some sipping sherry would be lashed out and that’s when it got good.
In previous times, even women with decent reputations could hang out at the pub, get rather drunk and sing songs with other women. This would happen on January 6th, when the men would take over the household chores and mind a massive bunch of children that were probably mostly their own. And it is not just an Irish festival: it has pockets of followers in Europe – in Slovenian, Galician, and Ukrainian cultures.
Of course nowadays men help with the housework all the time and know how to fire up a vacuum cleaner and burn a risotto like any Irish woman. So the tradition has petered out somewhat but the time to revive it is now: it just needs to be morphed to fit a more modern world.
Traditionally, Nollaig na mBan would be held on the feast of the epiphany, the day baby Jesus got his slightly rubbish presents of gold and frankincense and myrrh. In modern times, January 6 is when the Christmas tree gets mowed down and recycled, and the kids get ready to be turfed back into school.
In Cork the festival remains alive: many restaurants take bookings for tableloads of ladies and their friends and relatives for a lovely lunch with plenty of tea and wine. Most women hold parties or go out to celebrate the day with their friends, sisters, mothers, and aunts. Children often buy presents for their mothers and grandmothers. Long gone are the days that men are left at home with 11 kids, trying to make the best of 3 loaves of bread and some porter cheese. But the day still should be celebrated just for the hell of it. Dad is fine at home with the kids (he will probably take them to a play centre and fill them with doughnuts) so it’s all good.
The thing to remember about Nollaig na mBan is that is has always been a religious cerebration, so many women, especially in Cork, still say a prayer mid-celebration to St Brigid, the women’s saint of Ireland. They ask her to take their troubles of the past year away, and don’t give them back please. This is sometimes followed by a minute of silence, after which the women can go back to raucous partying.
Many would love to see this tradition spread across Ireland and be revived. And the men should be given a day too, of their own making. Maybe they can all hang out and mow the lawn together, while sipping a nice cider. Men? It’s up to you to catch up! Ladies, let’s do it!
The tiny Bilberry is responsible for quite the shenanigan in Irish history. The fruit is smaller than a blueberry but with a fuller taste. They are blackish purple; the pulp is red or purple, which can heavily stain the fingers and lips of consumers scoffing the raw fruit.
Ireland, the fruit is known as fraughan, from the Irish fraochán, and is traditionally gathered on the last Sunday in July. Like anything Irish people are in charge of, the hard graft of the harvest has been, over time, turned into a party.
Upon initial inspection, Bilberry Sunday seems to be a day that people go out to pick perfectly ripe bilberries. However, the tradition is old and now has many layers of Celtic, Druid and Catholic curveballs all thrown in. So, it is not just about picking berries anymore. The younger generations of Irish kids may know about Bilberry Sunday, but they probably don’t know that it was tied with a courtship tradition that harks back to the days where people actually needed to pick berries because Tesco didn’t provide them all year round in hygienic cartons.
In the days of Olde, Bilberry Sunday was a festival where you could hope to find your husband or wife. Young hot singles used to go into the hills on the premise of finding a purple superfood. (This wasn’t easy as the fruit lies hidden deep in heather bushes, so trying to look hot while half in a bush would have really separated the wheat from the chaff.)
The younglings would spend the day together collecting loads of fruit, which gave them a lot of time to get to know each other away from the meddling eyes of smug marrieds. If a lovely Irish lass liked the lad that she had done some picking with, she baked him a cake or pie or maybe some jam and presented it to him at the festival and dance at the end of the day.
This beautiful tradition has died off, sadly, now that young people can meet other singles on Tinder or at a nightclub, and the only foraging they do really is for a chipper at 3am. However with a resurgence of interest in local wild food and the discovery of the health power of purple berries, this festival is slowly trying to regain its former glory.
The good thing about this festival is that it does provide a unique experience. Bilberries aren’t something you can go to Superquinn and pick up. They resist thriving in a farming environment, due to preferring to grow in acidic soils and difficult conditions. They are also a pain to harvest because they are so delicate and soft they are hard to transport. And they only last a few hours off the bush before they start to wither. But anything involving fruit and Irish people should be revived, seeing as Irish people are well known fruit dodgers. Everyone grab your bucket, let’s head for the hills and bilberry our way into finding a spouse, even if we already have one!
Lá Bealtaine (or May Day to the rest of the world) is a Celtic tradition that has largely died out, although some are trying to resuscitate it whilst beating off the wrath of modern health and safety laws.
This is the first day of Summer according to Irishers, and a time of optimism and joy when the warmer weather takes hold.
This date coincided with livestock being set loose to graze in summer pastures and on lush mountains. To protect the livestock in their quest for the perfect green blades of grass, Irish people would bless the animals. They did this by lighting two massively giant bonfires, and driving the animals between them. This cleansing ritual was also then completed by humans, as it was thought that passing between the two fires purified them until Samhain, the opposite date in the agricultural calendar (high winter).
This festival widely persisted up until about the 1950s, when it started to die out and never quite regained its popularity. The fires were usually lit on May Eve, fed by whatever combustible material a village could spare. The fire was then kept going until sunset on the first of May. Most people extinguish their home fires on May Eve, and then no other fire would be lit, not even a candle or a cigarette, until the homefire was re-lit using the flames from the communal bonfire. The “new fire” would cleanse the house for the coming year.
It is time to bring back a giant crazy and potentially house-harming bonfire on our village greens. Humans have always loved a massive hell-for-leather fire, so let’s revive this tradition with immediate effect!
Lios Dúin Bhearna is a tiny town of around 800 people in County Clare. In September every year, a large matchmaking event takes place, attracting singles from all over Europe.
In fact around 40,000 attend, hoping to catch themselves a fine Irish spouse, a valuable prize, surely. While there is still a fourth-generation matchmaker on hand at the event, the festival has now evolved into a party where singles can find someone without necessarily seeking the approval of a matchmaker.
September is the peak month of the matching session, and this traditionally was down to farming realties: with the harvest safely in, bachelor farmers could have some free time to search for a pretty lass, without having to juggle ploughing with dating. With internet dating on the rise, it is easy to see why this kind of festival would fall by the wayside. However the great thing about a singles festival is you can try before you buy. You don’t have to worry about any photoshopped profile pics or lies about height if you are meeting someone in person. And getting to know someone by just striking up a conversation is a lost art. Let’s bring back the matchmaking festivals and may many weddings be the result!
Let’s salvage these traditions and polish them up ready for use in our future!