Leap Day proposals: The story behind the Leap Year tradition in Ireland

The 366-day-year is marked by many cultures in a diverse range of ways, and one Leap Year tradition in Ireland has become very well-known the world over.

Leap Day proposals: The story behind the Leap Year tradition in Ireland

It’s no secret that this year, 2020, is a Leap Year, or, to use the Irish term, “bliain bhisigh” (say: “blee-in vis-ig”). And in that spirit, we’d like to take a look at one famous Irish Leap Day tradition (made especially famous by the 2010 film Leap Year) that is still in practice to this day.

According to the custom, on February 29th (Leap Day), for one day, women of yesteryear were offered an opportunity to propose to men, in defiance of orthodox gender norms.

And if the man refused? Well, then things could get a little expensive. Traditionally, the rejected suitor-ess is owed compensation by her would-be fiancé, usually in the form of items of expensive clothing, such as silk or fur.

But what are the origins of this Leap Year tradition? Here we take a look.

February weddings

Skellig Lists take their name from Skellig Michael
Skellig Michael

Let’s start with a little background. February was traditionally not the best time to be unattached in Ireland, particularly not in the southwest.

No marriages were permitted during Lent, and those who remained unmarried by the beginning of the Lenten period, spinsters and bachelors alike, might find themselves subject to having their singledom immortalized in the form of printed ballads known as “Skellig Lists.”

These songs take their name from the Kerry island of Skellig Michael (yes, that of Star Wars fame)! Due to a commonly held belief that Lent arrived a little later on Skellig Michael than in the rest of Ireland, the island provided a last resort for couples desperate to wed.

An argument between saints

Saint Patrick is the patron saint of Ireland
Saint Patrick

Many hold that the Leap Year tradition in Ireland dates back to a 5th-century argument between Ireland’s two favourite saints, Saint Patrick and Saint Brigid.

While today, Saint Patrick’s claim to patron sainthood extends to the entirety of the Irish Nation and Saint Brigid’s only to the county of Kildare, she has traditionally been Ireland’s favourite saint.

According to the legend, Saint Brigid begged Saint Patrick to allow women more power to instigate marriage with men. Saint Patrick originally offered one day every seven years, but Saint Brigid managed to haggle him down to one day per every four.

It is said that Saint Brigid started the Leap Day tradition in Ireland
Saint Brigid (Credit: Eden, Janine and Jim / Flickr)

In some versions of the story, it is held that Brigid herself got down on one knee for Patrick at that moment!

It is unclear whether or not this event ever actually occurred or if it is an example of the hallowed Irish tradition of saints making cameo appearances in each other’s stories.

Into the archives

Research in the Schools' collection archive in Dublin reveals historical information about the Leap Year tradition in Ireland

Whatever its origins, the Leap Year tradition in Ireland seems to have been established by the 1800s.

Between 1937 and 1939, the Irish Folklore Commission carried out a program wherein, as part of the educational curriculum, schoolchildren collected folklore from their local areas. The result of this project was the Schools’ Collection, providing a widespread survey of popular tradition nationwide.

Some examples from this collection can help shed further light on Ireland’s marital Leap Day traditions. An account from County Clare, collected from one Mr John Walsh, tells us that “every girl looks for a man in a leap year, and he looks for her for the three years to come.”

The last Sunday before Ash Wednesday was known in many parts of the country as Puss Sunday—‘puss’ being slang for a scowl.

An account from Drumshambo, County Leitrim, tells us that, on this day, “all girls who did not get married are supposed to have a puss, but in a Leap Year, the Sunday becomes puss Sunday for the men.”

Leap Day’s international cousins

The Leap Year tradition in Ireland is also seen in other forms around the world

Other names you might find for this Leap Year tradition include Bachelor’s Day or the Ladies’ Privilege.

Similar beliefs about February 29th can be found all around the world.

In Scotland, for example, the custom is observed but has been provided with its own historical origin story, replacing the fifth-century Saint Brigid with the 13th-century Queen Margaret.

Likewise, it is found in Finland and many parts of the UK, each with its own traditional set of gifts owed to the woman who has proposed if she is rejected.

The tradition reached the US by at least the turn of the last century, where it took on a distinctly misogynistic flavour. The concept of women’s Leap Day proposals was openly ridiculed in early 20th-century postcards and newspaper cartoons.

Lucky for some

The Leap Year tradition in Ireland allows women to propose to men

As more of a balance develops in opposite-gender couples regarding who’s doing the proposing, the place for the Leap Day proposals is open for debate. Some see the Leap Day tradition in Ireland as an outdated patriarchal custom while others view it as being historically empowering. 

If you are planning on getting down on one knee this February 29th, you might also want to consider whether or not the Leap Year itself is a prosperous time to wed.

While one Donegal account, once again found in the Schools’ Collection, warns against February marriages “unless in a leap year,” a County Roscommon account tells us that “the Leap-year was an unlucky time to get married.” This sentiment is echoed again in a finding from Kerry.

The Leap Year tradition in Ireland allows women to propose to men

As we mentioned, similar traditions can be found in a couple of pockets the world over, and Greek folklore is very staunchly in agreement with the Roscommon and Kerry side.

If you have an interest in further exploring Ireland’s rich and fascinating folklore, a great place to start is the National Folklore Collection, based in University College Dublin.

The archive is free to visit, though you are advised to book an appointment in advance. Opening hours are from 10 am to 1 pm and 2 pm to 5 pm, Monday to Friday.

In addition, a large amount of the collection has now been digitized and can be accessed at duchas.ie!

By Tadhg Carey

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