The traditions and culture of Ireland are known across the world and whilst millions celebrate and enjoy Irish traditions, many are not aware of their origins.
This article shall serve as a helpful and brief guide to the origins of many traditions that have shaped Ireland’s cultural identity, starting with perhaps the most famous Irish day of celebration.
1. Saint Patrick’s Day
The feast day of Ireland’s Patron Saint is famous across the globe, but many do not even realise that one of the most famous Irish figures wasn’t even from Ireland!
Born in Roman-occupied Britain, at 16 the young Pātricius was kidnapped by Irish bandits into slavery as a shepherd. For years Patrick prayed to God, his faith constantly growing. After 6 years he heard God call him to port located over a hundred miles away and he left Ireland.
Patrick returned after a vision of the lost Irish children convinced him to bring Christianity to Ireland. Patrick famously compared the Holy Trinity to a Shamrock, subsequently becoming an icon forever linked with Ireland.
Patrick died on the 17th March 461 AD after a long life of preaching the word of Christ (and may or may not have chased the snakes out of Ireland in the interim). When the Irish immigrated to America in the 19th Century, the celebrations of Patrick followed and from there this quaint tribute to Ireland’s patron Saint became a worldwide celebration of Irish culture and spirit.
2. Pub Culture
Pub culture in Ireland is integral to community life, with public houses seen as places where friends and families can meet and catch-up on each other’s lives. Pubs in Ireland will most certainly feature one of the most famous icons of Ireland: Guinness.
Introduced by Arthur Guinness from his brewery at St James’s Gate, Dublin in 1859, Guinness is one of the most popular and well-known drinks in the world and in Ireland it is still the most popular alcoholic drink bringing in €2 thousand-million every year and with a 9,000-year lease on the brewery, the world’s most famous pint is truly here to stay.
3. Brigid’s Cross
Ireland’s history has a strong connection to Catholicism with one of the most famous images of this relationship being that of Saint Brigid’s Cross. Constructed from wild reeds, it is said that Saint Brigid of Kildare created the cross whilst converting a dying chieftain to Christianity on his deathbed to convey the story of Christ’s crucifixion, though it is more likely the cross originated before Christianity even came to Ireland and was a symbol for another Brigit, goddess of Spring whose cross represented the Sun.
Saint Brigid’s feast day takes place on the 1st February, the first day of Spring in ancient Ireland. It was believed the cross would protect a house from fire, a belief still held in modern Ireland.
Hallowe’en provides thrills and scares across the world, but the festival originates from the pre-Christian festival Samhain, where the boundaries between our mortal world and the Otherworld would collapse, allowing the dead to return to Ireland.
Guisers would dress up in scary costumes to ward off spirits and would visit the homes of villagers, collecting food to offer to the gods, though nowadays costumed children ask for either a trick or treat instead. Offerings would be made at the foot of the Tlachtga bonfire and the tradition of lighting great bonfires on Hallowe’en continues to this day.
The Gaels would protect themselves from the living dead by carving faces into turnips, turning them into lanterns to scare the dead away; of course, we’ve exchanged the turnips for pumpkins, but the scary faces are still to be seen shining brightly outside the homes of millions. Known as Jack-O-Lanterns, the tradition originated from the tale of Stingy Jack, a blacksmith who trapped the devil with a cross, keeping him prisoner until the Devil swore he would not take Jack’s soul after his death.
When Jack died he was refused entry to Heaven. The Devil kept to Jack’s promise that he would never take his soul and left Jack to eternally wander the Earth, with only a flame straight form the pits of Hell to light his way through the eternal darkness. Jack placed the inextinguishable flame into a turnip to create a lantern and came to be known as Jack of the Lantern aka Jack-O-Lantern.
Irish Hallowe’en feasts and parties would contain party games like apple bobbing and would stage magnificent fireworks displays. Like Saint Patrick’s Day, Hallowe’en immigrated with the Irish to America in the 19th Century, becoming immensely popular and spreading across the globe.
5. Irish Music
Music plays a great part in Irish culture and many pubs across the island will host live music. Traditional Irish music typically employs world instruments such as the fiddle, piano and acoustic guitar combined with home-grown instruments like Irish bouzoukis, Uilleann pipes and the Celtic harp aka cláirseach, the official symbol of Ireland.
Apart from the harp, most Irish traditional instruments were developed relatively recently with many, such as accordions, concertinas, the bodhrán and the Uilleann pipes emerging in the 19th Century whilst the guitar and bouzouki are products of the revival of Irish traditional music in the mid-20th Century.
Modern traditional music sessions in Ireland are popular events, notable for lasting into the little hours of the morning and for being warm, sociable events. And of course, what use is good music unless you can dance to it!
6. Irish Dancing
Irish dancing became internationally popular in the 1990s after the success of Riverdance but Irish dance takes many forms including jigs, reels, step dancing and ceili dances. Irish dancing also has a unique fashion sense, with dresses based on designs found in the Book of Kells and the famous hard shoes that produce clicks in time to the movements of the dance were developed in the 19th Century. The clicking noises came from the wooden heels and toes of the shoes. Nowadays these are typically made with fiberglass.
7. Irish Myths and Legends
Ireland provides one of the richest lores and mythological timelines in Western Europe with individual characters becoming world famous. The terrifying wailing Banshee would warn families of tragic personal losses and accompany the recently passed to the afterlife. Some say the Banshee was originally a young woman tragically killed in so brutal a manner she now spends her days as a spirit warning the living of impending death.
Certain Irish myths play into the history of other lands, such as the tales of Fionn Mac Cumhaill and his rivalry with a Scottish giant Benandonner. To avoid getting his feet wet, he constructed the Giant’s Causeway and as a sign of intimidation he grabbed a mass of land to throw at Scotland but missed, landing in the Irish Sea to form the Isle of Man with the pebble of the projectile becoming Rockall and the hole in the land from where Fionn grabbed the land filled with water and became Lough Neagh. Similar versions of the legend appear in Scottish and Manx folktales.
But perhaps the most famous character of Irish legend and folklore is the Irish Leprechaun, one of the fairies of the Tuath Dé Danann, a supernatural tribe of gods from the Otherworld who ruled as Ireland’s deities. First referenced in the Adventure of Fergus, son of Léti, they are mischievous cobblers who possess great wealth and reward three wishes to any mortals who can capture them.
Originally Leprechauns were depicted, not dressed in green jackets, but in red with modern depictions of the “little people” stemming from 19th Century Irish Stereotypes; a stereotype now embraced by Ireland’s tourism industry.
8. Irish Sport
Sporting traditions and events represent a huge percentage of cultural and national identity in Ireland. The Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) was established in 1884 to preserve and promote Ireland’s athletic sports history. The most popular Gaelic game is Gaelic football and whilst the version that is played today was developed in the late 19th Century, Ireland’s history with football goes all the way back to the 14th Century with a somewhat recognisable version of the game appearing in the 17th Century.
Whilst there are other games of note which have Gaelic variants, such as Handball and Rounders, the other popular Gaelic game is Hurling, with a female version of the game called Camogie.
Dating back to prehistory over 3,000 years ago with the Celts in pre-Christian Ireland, the game is associated with warriors like Cú Chulainn and Fionn mac Cumhail, for the Hurley stick used in the game was an ancient warrior weapon; indeed, it is said that the young Cú Chulainn, born Sétanta, gained his warrior name after slaying a guard wolf by hitting a sliotar (the ball used in the game) with a hurley stick directly down the wolf’s throat. Like Gaelic football, the version of the game played today evolved alongside the creation of the GAA in the late 19th Century and has become popular in many nations.
Ah, the potato! Such a famous symbol of Ireland, though we must confess the food was an import that made its way here in the 17th Century but Irish hospitality welcomes all and the potato became a famous staple of the Irish diet and a huge economic focus in a predominately agricultural Ireland.
After the famine of 1845, millions were forced to either starve or immigrate. This mass immigration to America and England allowed many Irish traditions to spread and thrive in new lands.
10. Irish Literature
The history of Irish writing is one that has influenced literature the world over and is a large part of Irish cultural identity. The rich lore of Irish mythology which was preserved by medieval monks in both Latin and Early Irish. English writing in Ireland was introduced by the Normans in the 13th Century and by 19th Century Irish literature was predominately written in English.
There are far too many great Irish writers for this brief article to do justice to. There’s Jonathan Swift, author of Gulliver’s Travels and the first internationally famous Irish writer. There’s Oscar Wilde, a beautifully witty playwright and author of The Picture of Dorian Gray. If you fancy some horror then seek out Bram Stoker, author of Dracula; for fantasy, delve into C.S. Lewis, author of The Chronicles of Narnia.
Ireland has given birth to many accomplished playwrights, such as George Bernard Shaw and Samuel Beckett; our rich poetry has been crafted by the lyrical prose of W.B. Yeats, Patrick Kavanagh and Seamus Heaney and there are those whose writing skills have been expressed in both English and Gaelic, such as Brendan Behan and Flann O’Brien.
In the 1920s, Irish writing was internationally influential, with modernist writer James Joyce achieving fame with Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and infamy with his novels Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. Irish writing is still strong in the 21st Century, with writers such as Roddy Doyle and Colum McCann with an increasing movement of female writers including Jennifer Johnston, Anne Enright and Emma Donoghue. Irish literature is constantly experiencing a rebirth, always taking her place in the global literary world.