Why the Irish Mother’s Day is Called Mothering Sunday


Many people think Mother’s Day is the same all over the world. But the Irish Mother’s Day actually comes from a completely different tradition and is celebrated in March.

Let’s get one thing straight. Mother’s Day in its modern form is an American invention. It was first celebrated in 1908. A woman called Anna Jarvis held a memorial for her mother on the second Sunday in May, and tried to communicate with those around her just how special her mother was.

Jarvis’ mother, also called Anna, founded several Mothers’ Day Work Clubs with the aim of improving conditions for the less privileged in their community. Anna Snr also looked after soldiers from both sides of the American Civil War. She treated wounds, fed, and clothed them. She was a powerhouse of helpfulness and compassion.

Anna Jnr wanted her mother and indeed all mothers to be recognised for their hard work. So she started campaigning for  Mother’s Day to become an important day of recognition. By 1914 her campaign had succeeded and Mother’s Day became an official day on the American calendar. Its popularity soared, spreading like wildfire across the modern, western world.

A Sad End

But alas, by 1920 Anna Jarvis Jnr was horrified by what the day had become. She was repulsed by its already-commercial nature. She started her own company, which became the legal owner of the phrases Second Sunday in May and Mother’s Day. Anna and her sister Ellsinore spent their family inheritance campaigning against what the holiday had become. But it went totally wrong for them: they both died in poverty and not many people were convinced by their argument.

According to her New York Times obituary, Jarvis died feeling bitter at what was initially a great achievement. She despaired that Mother’s Day was now a day for the greeting card industry. She said, “A printed card means nothing except that you are too lazy to write to the woman who has done more for you than anyone in the world. And candy! You take a box to Mother—and then eat most of it yourself.”

Perhaps the saddest thing of all was that Anna Jnr – the woman who started the modern world’s version of Mother’s Day – was never a mother herself. She died alone and poor and the greeting card industry got a lot richer.

The Irish Mother’s Day

This sad story is very different to the story behind the Irish Mother’s Day. In Ireland, the day marked for this celebration, called Mothering Sunday, was actually a nod to the Mother Church. Now of course, the two days have merged, but in Ireland more of the day’s origins has remained.

Mothering Sunday, as celebrated in Ireland, falls on the 4th Sunday in Lent (a six-week Christian period of fasting and repentance prior to to Easter Sunday). It was a celebration of the Mother Church which was the main church or cathedral of a region.

In 16th Century Ireland, people were expected to go to their mother church on Mothering Sunday. A special service was held and those taking part – pretty much everyone – were said to have “gone a-mothering.”

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This is Mrs Murphy, of Kilrane house in 1884. She would have had to go without her servants on Mothering Sunday. Oh the shock of it!

A Day for Families

In later times, as large numbers of people took jobs as servants to the wealthy, Mothering Sunday became a welcome relief from the daily grind. Domestic servants were given a day off to visit their mother church, usually with their own mothers and other family members. It was often one of the few days in a year when whole families could get together, since on other days they had conflicting working hours.

The children who worked in different residences to their mothers would walk to their mother’s mother church. They would pick wild flowers along the way to place in the church or give to their mothers. Eventually, the religious tradition evolved into the tradition of people giving gifts to their ACTUAL mothers.

By the 1920s, as servant life started to fade out, the custom of Mothering Sunday had lapsed somewhat in Ireland. However, it is often still called Mothering Sunday, and the date is kept firmly inside the Lent schedule, on the fourth Sunday in Lent. Concepts from the American version have blended with the original Irish version.

Easter Cake

In Ireland, Mothering Sunday is also called Simnel Sunday. And why? Because it was a tradition to bake a Simnel cakes to celebrate the reuniting of families during the austerity of Lent. Because there is traditionally a relaxation of Lenten vows on this particular Sunday, in celebration of the fellowship of family and church, the name Refreshment Sunday is sometimes used too. And of course, the only way to spend the day with an Irish mammy is with some kind of cake!

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Sinmel cake was baked by young girls in domestic service, with ingredients provided by their employers. The girls would bring the cakes home and ‘mother’ their mothers on this day. The meaning of the word “simnel” is unclear: there is a 1226 reference to “bread made into a simnel” which is understood to mean the finest white bread, from the Latin simila (fine flour).

Simnel cake is a light fruit cake with two layers of almond paste or marzipan (one in the middle and one on top). Before being eaten, it is lightly toasted under a grill. The top of the cake is decorated with eleven marzipan balls and the idea is that they represent the twelve apostles minus Judas. This tradition developed late in the Victorian era. The cake is made from white flour, sugar, butter, eggs, fragrant spices, dried fruits, zest and candied peel. Different towns have their own recipes and shapes of the Simnel cake.

Happy Mother’s Day to Mammies everywhere – and especially to all the Irish mammies.

Do you want an old tradition revived? Email us! editor@oldmooresalmanac.com

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