Irish History Overview-
There are a few things you need to know about the history of Ireland–particularly when it comes to religion– before we can dive into wedding traditions then and now.
First settled around the year 8000 BC by hunter-gatheres, Ireland changed to a farming region around 4000 BC. Early society was organized into a number of kingdoms with a rich culture, an intelligent upper class and artisans who created elaborate and beautiful metalwork. For thousands of years, Ireland remained a Pagan country, but this changed in the early 5th century AD when Christian missionaries, including the legendary St. Patrick, arrived, bringing their beliefs and the Roman alphabet along with them. This allowed the Irish people to begin writing down the stories, legends and mythology that had been passed down orally from generation to generation, and introduced the ways of Christianity. During this time, many kings and entire kingdoms converted to and began practicing Christianity, and by the year 600, Christianity replaced the old Pagan religions.
However, from the 9th century through the 18th, Ireland was invaded by the Vikings and then the Normans/English, resulting in a loss of power, culture, religious freedom, land and life. During this time, military campaigns put down Irish chiefs who would not submit to the English king, people were massacred, the Gaelic language was banned in schools and a policy of plantations began. Land was confiscated from Catholic landowners and given to Protestant settlers from England and Scotland (at one point, only 5% of the land in Ireland was owned by people with Catholic beliefs), and Catholic Ireland was “conquered”, making religion a source of division and strife. Irish parliament was abolished in 1801, making Ireland a part of the “United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland”. Catholics could not hold parliamentary office until 1829, poverty was prevalent, and when the Potato Blight started in 1845, causing widespread famine across the country, the English rulers did little to help the situation. About a million people died of starvation or disease. Another million emigrated
to escape poverty and starvation, bringing the population from 8 million to about 6 million in 1852.
The 19th century saw increased efforts to gain home rule and improve conditions for the people, despite strong Protestant opposition to these demands. On Easter Day in 1916, an uprising started–and ended– in Dublin. The leaders were arrested and executed, their brutal treatment tipping public opinion in favor of independence. The Irish War of Independence (1919-1921) led to the southern 26 counties of Ireland seceding from the UK in 1922 as “The Irish Free State”, in which Gaelic was restored as the official national language, together with English. In 1948, ties were cut with Great Britain and the country became known as the “Republic of Ireland”. Unfortunately, unrest continued within the northern 6 counties, which still remain part of the UK today (known as “Northern Ireland”) until 1998, when a peace agreement was signed.
Today, Ireland is a prosperous nation and a beautiful place to live and visit. Its people are happy, well-fed and free and its culture is rich in a history that has not been easy, but has certainly been diverse. Wondering about religion in Ireland today? As you can imagine, Christianity is the largest religion in the Republic of Ireland based on baptisms. Irish Christianity is dominated by the Roman Catholic Church, which has 84.2% of the population as followers. Northern Ireland is a bit more varied, with about 40% Roman Catholic, 19% Presbyterian, 13.7% Church of Ireland (both Protestant and Catholic) and 3% Methodist.
It’s been a difficult road for the Irish people. For centuries, there was oppression, particularly in respect to the Catholic religion. Starting in the 16th century, Penal laws prevented Priests from even saying Mass, which meant that conducting the Sacrament of Marriage was unlawful and out of the question. If a Priest was caught, the punishment was severe, and some of these laws lasted all the way until the 1920’s. The native Irish people who wanted to practice their religion were forced to do so ‘underground’, so an Irish wedding has a unique identity and a number of specific traditions that have been passed down quietly through the generations. Today’s Irish weddings around the world are real celebrations, paying tribute to the culture and the pride that the people have for their Republic. Weddings that were once modest, simple and even hidden have turned into lavish, memorable affairs, often including hundreds of guests at a beautiful venue.
Many Irish wedding traditions and rituals stem from the belief that mischievous fairies and evil spirits surround us at all times. The Irish take great strides to prevent these spirits from getting an upper hand, especially when it comes to the festivities of a wedding and the beginning of the young couple’s new life together. Most wedding traditions, therefore, have the goals of warding off the evil spirits and bringing good fortune to the couple in their life together, as well as wishing fertility, love and a happy marriage. Interested in what they believe is lucky/unlucky? Look for the shamrock in each section below and think about whether you agree!
Planning Your Irish Wedding-
Centuries ago, wedding ceremonies in Ireland took place on a Sunday, when the working week was done and people were available. As time went by, the Catholic religion found a place in Ireland and the choice of Sunday became frowned upon as it was often seen as a mark of disrespect to the church. Today in Ireland, most weddings take place on a Saturday and are planned far in advance so that guests can plan to be there and not at work. Weekday weddings happen occasionally as well, but can be inconvenient for guests, so they are not common. Sunday weddings are also rare.
In ancient times, Irish couples were cautioned against marrying between May & August- the busiest time in Irish life. As the poem goes,
“Marry when the year is new, always loving, kind and true.
When February birds do mate, may you wed, nor dread your fate.
If you wed when March winds blow, joy and sorrow both you’ll know.
Marry in April when you can, joy for maiden and for man.
Marry in the month of May, you will surely rue the day.
Marry when June roses blow, over land and sea you’ll go.
They who in July do wed, must labor always for their bread.
Whoever wed in August be, many a change are sure to see.
Marry in September’s shine, your living will be rich and fine.
If in October you do marry, love will come but riches tarry.
If you wed in bleak November, only joy will come, remember.
When December’s rain fall fast, marry and true love will last.”
The Calendar- Good Luck/Bad Luck-
April is said to be the luckiest month to marry. Saint Patrick’s Day is the luckiest day. May & August should be avoided. Getting married during a month of plenty or a harvest is said to be good luck. Interestingly, while efforts are made to get married on a day with nice weather, it is also said that a rainy day is good luck.
Before the Big Day:
Did you know that having your birthstone in your engagement ring is considered good luck in Irish culture? Some couples even choose to include both birthstones. By the way, according to Celtic belief, your Anam Cara is your soul friend or soul mate.
Choosing a Dress-
Although green is the color most commonly associated with Ireland, traditionally Irish brides wore blue dresses, symbolizing purity and bringing good luck to the wedding and the marriage. It wasn’t until the weddings of British monarchs such as Queen Victoria that white came to signify the same ideas and became more popular. Also, green is actually considered unlucky for a bride on her wedding day, as it represents envy. It’s said that if even a stitch of her gown is green, she could get carried away by fairies due to their jealousy. All this being said, there are many brides who do choose to incorporate green into their wedding day ensemble, and far more who go with the now-popular white gown for their weddings.
The Claddagh Ring-
This traditional Irish wedding ring (a heart held by two hands with a crown above) represents faith (hands), honor (crown) and love (heart). Typically, the ring is worn on a woman’s right hand with the heart facing outward when she is single and looking for love. Once in a relationship, the ring is turned so that the heart faces her own heart. When she is engaged, the ring is moved to her left hand, with the heart facing outward. During the wedding ceremony, it is turned so that the heart faces her own heart to symbolize that she is married. This ring is often passed from a girl’s mother or grandmother when she comes of age. Alternatively, it may be given by a young Irish man to his girlfriend as a gift at the start of their relationship or used as an engagement ring, being given to bride-to-be at the time of engagement.
The symbolism attached to this ring– which was first made in the 17th century in a small fishing village called Claddagh, Ireland (near present-day Galway)– makes it a popular engagement ring or an unusual wedding ring throughout the world. The claddagh has also made an appearance on many pieces of jewelry, especially in recent years. For example, this Alex & Ani bracelet released a few years ago.
Celtic Knot Wedding Bands-
These bands, often engraved or embossed with a Celtic knot design (one of 8 ancient pattern types), are meant to symbolize oneness and continuity and are used by soem with Irish or Scottish descent. The exact meaning of the Celtic knot designs is not known, but the patterns are commonly considered as representations of the way that life interconnects in an endless cycle.
The Gimmel Ring-
In the Middle Ages and at least through the 1600’s, Gimmel rings offered a popular version of the Claddagh. A Gimmel ring is made up of 3 interlocking rings, which together make one ring. Oftentimes, the ring would be separated at the time of engagement and one piece would be worn by each the bride, the groom and a witness. On the wedding day, the ring would be put back together, be used in the ceremony and become the bride’s wedding ring. I love this!
When creating your registry, be sure to register for at least these three things:
Salt & Pepper Shakers- so your home will never be without food
Wine Glasses or Champagne Flutes- so your home will never be without plenty to drink
Candlestick Holder- so your home will always have light
By the way, if you want to learn a little about Salt & Pepper etiquette, click here when you’re done!
“Aitin’ the Gander”-
The expression “His goose is cooked” is still in use in Ireland today, especially in Dublin. The origin? Traditionally, the cooking of a goose for the groom in the bride’s home the night before the wedding signified that there was simply no going back!
Before the Big Day- Good Luck/Bad Luck- The bride’s family and relatives put the Child of Prague statue under a bush or in a garden to prevent it from raining on the wedding day, as a sunny day is considered good luck.
On the Big Day:
Many Irish brides incorporate beautiful Irish lace into their wedding day look, whether it’s in the dress, the veil or a handkerchief…
The bride wears or carries a handkerchief symbolizing fertility on her wedding day, which is often later turned in to a bonnet for her first-born child’s christening. The stitches may then be removed so that she can use it one day as a handkerchief again for her own wedding.
Well known throughout the world, this tradition was popular throughout Ireland and England and came from the Greeks, who believed that the horseshoe is associated with the crescent moon and symbolizes fertility. Irish brides used to carry a horseshoe for good luck, turned up (like a U) so that their luck wouldn’t “run out”. Today, this has evolved to a bride carrying a small porcelain or silver horseshoe instead, sometimes incorporating it into her bridal bouquet, sewing it into her gown or wearing a piece of jewelry for luck. She may even wear a fabric horseshoe around her wrist. Flower girls and ring bearers may even carry lucky horseshoes down the aisle instead of/in addition to flowers and rings. After the wedding, the bride and groom are supposed to hang the horseshoe above their front door to keep the luck of the house intact.
This beautiful design was created during the Bronze age and legend has it that the high kings of Ireland wore it. It can easily be incorporated for your wedding, and sort of reminds me of the Mockingjay pin in The Hunger Games, with even more history.
A Silver Sixpence-
You know the saying, “Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue…”, but what many of us forget here in the US is that the original Victorian rhyme ended with, “…and a sixpence for her shoe”. Placing a silver sixpence in the bride’s left shoe is a symbol of wealth, happiness and joy throughout married life and Irish brides often participate in this tradition, although it did not originate right in Ireland. If a sixpence is not available, a five pence can be supplemented (bottom right).
A Shamrock- Derived from the word seamrog (“little clover”), shamrocks structurally have a compound leaf with 3 leaflets united by a common stalk. The number 3 is significant here; the missionary St. Patrick demonstrated the principle of the Trinity in sharing the Christian religion many centuries ago using a shamrock. Interestingly, a shamrock can only represent the Trinity if it has 3 leaves.
Over time, the Celtic priests elevated four-leaf clovers to the status of good luck charms, allegedly potent against evil spirits. The four-leaf clover is said to signify hope, faith, love and luck (one for each leaf). In the Middle Ages, it was believed that if you found a four-leaf clover, it would bring you luck and the ability to see fairies and sprites! Many people think of four-leaf clovers as lucky symbols today, and since green has traditionally been associated with Ireland, Spring and new growth–despite the belief that blue is the lucky color for weddings, and green is the opposite– there are many Irish weddings around the world that incorporate green in some way. There are even more that incorporate shamrocks, and it’s often done for luck.
Braided hair is an ancient Irish symbol of feminine power and luck, therefore many brides choose braided wedding day hairstyles incorporating ribbons or lace.
Many Irish brides have worn a wreath of wildflowers in their hair, and carried simple bouquets of wildflowers and herbs. Their bridesmaids often carry flowers as well.
Heather- It is said that heather was used in ancient Celtic ceremonies to symbolize love and devotion.
Ivy and Herbs- These symbolize the bride’s fidelity to her new husband.
English lavender- love, loyalty, devotion and even luck, this beautiful purple plant is often mixed with the bride’s bouquet to ensure a happy and long-lasting union.
Rosemary- The addition of a sprig of rosemary to the bridal bouquet or flower arrangements is said to help honor and remember a deceased loved one.
Myrtle- Sometimes the bridesmaids’ bouquets include myrtle, which they plant after the wedding. If it thrives, they are predicted to marry within the year.
A sprig of Shamrock– for good luck, of course!
Daisy- Innocence and beauty of the bride
Forget-Me-Not- True love
Gardenia- Secret love
Laurel- Success in the couple’s new life together
Primrose- Eternal love
Rose- Passion and joy
Greek brides put a sugar cube into their gloves to ‘sweeten the union’. This was passed along through time and some Irish brides partake in this tradition as well.
Men- Many Irish grooms opt to wear traditional tartan (plaid) or solid kilts, and their groomsmen and fathers may do the same. Not all men wear kilts for their Irish weddings: some men may simply wear a suit with nice dress pants or a tuxedo, although the kilt has grown in popularity for events and occasions since the people of Ireland became independent and free to wear what they wish.
Wedding Party & Kids-
As in many parts of the world today, it is common for a bride and groom to have bridesmaids, groomsmen and children involved in the wedding celebration in some way. The size and style of the wedding party are up to the bride and groom, and they vary as much as weddings here in the US. Seriously though, how adorable are these children?!
Good Luck/Bad Luck- On the Big Day
Being awakened by birds singing in the morning is lucky, and so is having a woman who is happily married put the veil on the bride. If the bride does it herself, it’s considered unlucky. If the sun shines on the bride, it brings good luck to the couple. If the bride & groom eat some salt with oatmeal the day of the wedding, it is good luck (try oatmeal cookies for a variation on this tradition!). Waiting to place the last stitch in the wedding gown until the wedding day is good luck. Crossing a funeral procession on the way to the wedding has long been considered bad luck in Ireland, and if a funeral was planned for that day, the wedding party always took a different road. Hearing a cuckoo bird or seeing 3 magpies together is good luck. The earrings you wear on your wedding day will bring luck and happiness ever after. Avoid wearing new shoes, for the fairies could take both of you to the land of eternal youth.
Now that you’ve read about the history and the preparation for an Irish wedding celebration, it’s time for the ceremony and the reception! Click here for Part 2. Also, you can watch the Wediquette Irish Wedding Traditions Pinterest board for more pinspiration!
Know something I don’t know about Irish weddings? Did I mix something up? Please share it in a comment! All of my Across the Board series information comes from the web and Pinterest and I’d greatly appreciate any corrections/additions. Thanks!
By the Way…
Want to learn more about other awesome cultural traditions and customs around the world? Check out these other Across the Board posts and let me know if you have a request for the next one:
Jewish Wedding Traditions
African Wedding Traditions
Italian Wedding Traditions
Indian Wedding Traditions
Polish Wedding Traditions
Greek Wedding Traditions Part 1 and Part 2
Are you putting together bathroom baskets for an upcoming wedding or party? Click here for information and inspiration!
Are you in a wedding party and not sure what to do next? Check out this post for info on what to do next!
Looking for the best wedding tunes? Click no further!
Planning an Engagement Shoot? Check out the 5 W’s and pics of some of my favorite people at theirs!
This post about wedding cakes is my sweetest one yet!
Note: All photos in the Across the Board series have been spotted through Pinterest and/or Google. Most have been pinned with a direct link to their original website on the Wediquette pinterest page. I love learning about and sharing cultural traditions, so I thank the sources for sharing and hope there aren’t any hard feelings for reposting!