Christmas Customs in Ireland
One hundred years ago, in December 1920 in the Freeman’s Journal, Mary Mackay felt it was essential to share her views about a true Irish Christmas. She looked to the west and south of Ireland where they are “jealous and tenacious of their own national customs and celebrations”. “There we have words and phrases lingering through centuries to tell us”.
26 December is nowadays called “St Stephen’s Day” in Ireland. In the past – and in some places to this day – it was called “Wren’s Day” or in its Irish form “Lá an Dreoilín”. The tradition consists of “hunting” a fake wren and putting it on top of a decorated pole. “The Wren Boys appear, masked, beribboned, and covered with green and coloured wreaths and garlands, chanting the story of the captured wren, which their leader is supposed to carry attached to the top of an ivied pole”.
In her article, Mary Mackay explains that Christmas Day is scarcely noticed in favour of “Little Christmas” or “Twelfth Day” which was the day the festival was observed before the change of calendar. Little Christmas is marked on 6 January and is more widely known as the Feast of the Epiphany, celebrated after the conclusion of the twelve days of Christmastide. In traditional custom, this was the day of a festival in Ireland. In some parts of Ireland, it was and still called “Nollaig na mBan”, literally “Women’s Christmas” and it is the day the menfolk take down the decorations while women relax or meet their friends socially returning home to a meal cooked for them. It is also the traditional end of the Christmas season and usually the last day of holidays for school children.
The article tells us of the old and purely Irish tradition of candles. On Christmas Eve, “custom says that it must be a man, preferably dark-haired, who will light the first [candle]; and all the other will be lit from that flame. They are supposed to be kept burning all night, though that is seldom found practicable; but it is extremely unlucky if one goes out or is quenched accidentally before its time. Then for Christmas wishes …”.
In more recent times, and I think appropriate now, is to light a candle in your window for the Irish diaspora in the world. This year, we will light our candle and think of all the family histories we have uncovered and the stories we have shared. From all of us in Genealogy.ie we will light our candle to send a warm glow and message of love to all the Irish and friends of Ireland around the world.
We wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.
If you want to read the original article, click on it below to download it.
Luke Gardiner was a property developer in Dublin in the 18th Century. He developed large parts of Dublin City north of the river Liffey and became very wealthy in the process.
Probably his most upmarket development was Henrietta Street, laid out during the 1720s. This is a very short street, now known for The Honorable Society of King’s Inns building at the top. This is however of a later date, its foundation stone was laid “only” in 1800.
Henrietta Street was aimed at the very top of Irish society: nobility, senior clergy, top judges, and Luke Gardiner himself. Many of them would have seats in the Irish Parliament, either elected or through hereditary rights. For several of them this was their city house, as they also owned substantial mansions down the country.
The houses on Henrietta are very large Georgian buildings. Number 14, of which more below, measures 9,000 square feet over 4 floors and a basement. The basement would contain the kitchens and storage space, it is where the staff would toil. The ground floor would be the main living space for the family. The Piano Mobile or first floor would have several reception spaces for entertaining guests. The top two floors were bedrooms and nurseries.
The first family to live in the house was the family of Robert Molesworth, who was a powerful politician who was created a Viscount in 1715. He was followed by several other rich and powerful occupants, such as The Right Honorable John Bowes, Lord Chancellor of Ireland, Sir Lucius O’Brien, John Hotham Bishop of Clogher, and Charles 12th Viscount Dillon.
That all changed in 1801. In that year, England’s leaders decided to centralise power. They had become worried because of the French Revolution, which has led to unrest in Ireland as well. By convincing and bribing members of Parliament, they succeeded in getting the parliament to vote for its own abolition. Powers were transferred to the parliament in London.
Soon the rich and powerful left Henrietta Street. They were at first replaced by legal people, lawyers, solicitors, barristers, etc. This included Number 14. In 1850, it became a temporary courthouse at the end of the Great Famine, dealing with the affairs of the many bankrupt country estates: the Encumbered Estates’ Court.
When this was no longer needed it was for a while used by the English army as a barracks until 1876. Thomas Vance bought the property and turned it into a tenement, by stripping out all valuable decoration – such as marble fireplaces – and subdividing many of the rooms. Since the famine, many Irish had descended on Dublin and there was a desperate shortage of housing. Just after the turn of the nineteenth century, there were over 100 people living in 14 Henrietta Street. It was an “open door” building, which means the front door was never locked. During the night vagrants would come in and sleep in the corridors.
It had no running water; and only two toilets. It was heated by open fires, which were also used for cooking. Lighting was by means of candles and oil lamps. It was not until the middle of the nineteenth century that gas and electricity was introduced.
Bugs and vermin would also be a continuous problem. It was said that residents arriving in the dark, would kick the stairs to scare away the rats. Floorboards were in a bad state; in many places you could see through them to the floor above or below. In many rooms there were holes in the floor.
Still, 14 Henriette Street was an “A” class tenement. “B” class were worse and “C” class were often sheds or stables.
The famous strike known as the “Lock Out” early in the century was a failure. But it did bring the appalling living conditions of many Dubliners out in the open. Action was delayed because of World War I, the War of Independence, the Civil War, and the creation of the Irish State. Plans were finally made in the 1920s and construction of suburbs started in the thirties. These provided much improved and healthier living conditions, although not the same sense of community. When several tenements collapsed in the sixties, it gave a renewed impetus to the building of modern housing. Apart from more suburban developments, this was also the time that Ballymun was developed. As per above, it was not until the seventies though that the last tenements were closed.
Number 14 was allowed to decay. As part of the Henrietta Street Conservation Plan, the local council bought the house after 2000. It started a long renovation process and it opened to the public in 2018, telling the story we have related above. For more information click here.
Tenement living around 1900:
The below pictures give an impression of tenement living in the fifties:
The Irish government is advising against any non-essential travel to prevent the spread of Covid-19. Therefore, you should not visit Ireland for the time being. This also means that many small Irish businesses that are dependent on tourism are struggling. Why not make Ireland come to you and at the same time help some of these entrepreneurs?
Genealogy.ie is supporting the “Champion Green Campaign”. This is aiming to get people and businesses to pledge to commit to supporting local to help our communities recover. You can find more information by clicking on their logo below, the green butterfly.
With that in mind, below you will find short descriptions of and links to a number of Irish marketplace websites where you can order Irish made gifts, jewellery, crafts, foods, and lots more for delivery to your home.
MICHAEL VAN TURNHOUT is the husband of the founder and MD of Genealogy.ie, Jillian van Turnhout. He has written a number of articles about Genealogy and Local History, which were published in both Irish and North American magazines. You can download these on our website. Recently he also tried his hand at a fictional novella, but with a base in real Irish history and set in a real Irish village.
This fictional novella offers crime, Irish history, romance, and Irish folklore. Set in Ireland in 1935, it tells the story of a young woman, Sally, who falls in love and gets married. The newlyweds are ready to start their new lives on a farm called “The Cliffs”, as it is situated on a cliff edge on the Irish river Funshion.
The farm and river are surrounded by history: there are the remains of a castle, a ruined church, an obelisk and it is near an old mill-town. All feature in the book as a background to its story. And all – from farm to town – exist in reality.
But not all is good. Warned of a curse, stories of the past come to haunt Sally. She learns about the gruesome history of the farm, throughout Irish history. But even in the present, all is not what it seems. Is the farm cursed? And why? Is Sally in danger? Or is she just imagining things because she recently lost both her parents? Helped by farmhand Stephen Sally discovers the truth.
Available for your Kindle for only £3.86 (just over €4 or just under $5) from Amazon. Click below to go to their store.
The oldest possible epidemic in Ireland dates back to the sixth century. We actually don’t know if there was an epidemic – it is believed there was one because many monasteries were founded in the sixth century. The thinking is that a plague epidemic caused a rise in religious fervour. Unlike Covid-19, which is a virus, the plague is caused by bacteria. The bacteria are spread by fleas.
We know there was an epidemic, known as the yellow plague, active in Ireland from 664 to 668 and again from 683 to 684. The second one was especially deadly for children, as a lot of adults had gained immunity during the first outbreak.
It wasn’t just plagues. We have descriptions of outbreaks of fever in Ireland since the 12th century. Fever would be endemic in Ireland, with the disease still around in the 19th century.
In the mid-fourteenth century, it was again the plague which wreaked havoc. This would be the most famous outbreak of the disease. It is thought that the “Black Death” as it was called, killed 30-60% of the European population. During the outbreak, it was believed rats were spreading the disease (bacteria were still unknown). This led to rats being hunted down and killed in great numbers. Causing the fleas that were living on the rats to spread and infect even more people! There were further outbreaks of this terrible pestilence until the early eighteenth century.
Another disease that is spread by lice is typhus. During the Famine, hunger was already having a devastating impact on many of the poor. They often had to leave their homestead, expelled by landlords for not paying rent or leaving to find food. In the hospitals, workhouses and on the ships to North America they huddled together for warmth and lack of space. This formed ideal circumstances for the spread of lice and with them the disease. It started in 1846 in the West of Ireland. It reached Ulster in the winter of that year. It is thought 20% of people in Belfast were infected. Although widespread among the poor, still more prevalent was the aforementioned fever, which also became epidemic during the famine. Interestingly it was among the higher social classes that typhus – more deadly than fever, mortality if untreated can be as high as 60% – was more widespread. It is thought it was contracted by those exposed to the disease (clergymen, doctors, member of relief committees) and then spread to their families, etc.
The famine was accompanied by several other diseases such as dysentery and smallpox. Like fever, these had also long been endemic in Ireland but swept the country epidemically during these years. And then in 1848-1849 Asiatic cholera became pandemic.
Dysentery is spread by flies, by direct contact, or by pollution of the water by faeces infected with the bacteria. Like typhus, it became widespread in Ireland during the terrible winter of 1846-47. It was especially the area of West Cork that was badly affected.
Smallpox is no longer active thankfully. Like COVID it is a viral disease transmitted by airborne droplets. Attacks would last for approximately 6 weeks and would work its way through a family. So, it would often afflict families for months. This would often mean even more poverty for already impoverished people, as they lost their earning power for a prolonged period.
Even in the 20th century, Ireland has had epidemics. Tuberculosis was one. Its common name was consumption as the patient was “consumed” by weight loss and breathlessness. According to research by the Irish Red Cross Journal, 12,000 young Irish adults died of TB in 1904. Mortality remained high in the 1920s and 1930s, especially among children. Despite years of non-stop efforts, it was not until the 1950s that TB started to decline and only by the 1970s it had all but vanished from our shores.
Another one was polio. This is again a viral disease, spread through person-to-person or faecal-oral contact. Its mortality is between 5 and 10%, but in some outbreaks mortality of over 25% has been reported. Unlike COVID, it especially affects children under 5. There is no cure but can be prevented with vaccines. In Ireland, vaccines were introduced in 1957, after several bad outbreaks. Ireland had its first registered epidemic of this disease in 1942. There were further waves in 1947, 1950 and 1953 and in 1956 in Cork. Advice from authorities might sound familiar: closure of swimming pools and schools, advice on handwashing and on general hygiene, warnings against unnecessary travel into or out of communities where the disease was prevalent. And for the vulnerable, in this case, children, to avoid crowded places and gatherings of other children. Circus, swimming and tennis tournaments and GAA activities were either postponed or abandoned. Social and commercial life was badly affected. The epidemic was over around May 1957. It was not completely gone but had returned to “normal” levels.
Like the rest of the world, Ireland is now suffering from the outbreak of the COVID 19 pandemic. The whole country now sees restrictions even more severe than those in Cork in 1956. History shows the importance of adhering to these restrictions: many epidemics/pandemics have seen several waves and high levels of mortality, esp. among the vulnerable. By social distancing, working from home, not having large gatherings, festivals, etc. we should be able to minimise the impact. And nowadays many can work from home and we can stay into contact via social media. So there are no excuses. And the good news: many vaccines have been developed and most of the diseases mentioned have been eradicated or their prevalence has been drastically reduced.
Stay safe, stay healthy, stay firm!
This week we had both local and European elections in Ireland. Fine Gael, Fianna Fail and Labour (the traditional parties) held their own. Sinn Fein did badly and the Green Party did exceptionally well.
So who are these parties, with their strange names? Irish parties defy the traditional stereotyping of “right”, “left”, “liberal”, “Catholic”, etc. Here is a very short and high level overview.
The oldest party in Ireland is the Labour Party. It is a social-democratic political party. (Communism never really caught on in Ireland). Founded in 1912 in Clonmel, County Tipperary, by James Larkin, James Connolly, and William X. O’Brien as the political wing of the Irish Trades Union Congress. In those days – and ever after – it was overshadowed by the national parties, which strived for political autonomy or independence. Labour has been traditionally the third largest party in Ireland, although this position has been challenged in the last years.
Sinn Fein is not a party – it is multiple parties! The orginal Sinn Fein was founded in 1905 by Arthur Griffith. It was subsequently heavily infiltrated by the Irish Republic Brotherhood and became a vehicle for its struggle for independence. In the 1918 election (then still part of the UK general election) it caused a major upset by beating the up to then dominating Irish Parliamentary Party led by John Dillon. The latter had supported the UK World War I effort by calling for Irish men to volunteer for service. The results were devastating as the picture shows:
After the War of Independence Sinn Fein broke in two: the followers of Eamon de Valera, who had opposed the Treaty with the UK, eventually formed Fianna Fail. After a short period in opposition, it won the election after the 1929 financial crash. Although it did spend some short periods in opposition, the party would be the party of government until 2011. In that year, another financial crash ended this period of dominance and it is now neck and neck with Fine Gael.
This party was also an offshoot of Sinn Fein. Its main component, Cumann na nGaedheal, was formed after the Civil War by the followers of Michael Collins, representing the pro-Treaty side. After its defeat in 1932 it merged with two other parties, to better compete with the Fianna Fail juggernaut. These parties were the National Centre Party (representing mostly farmers) and the National Guard (popularly known as the “Blueshirts”, whose leader turned out to be a fascist and was therefore quickly deposed).
The party currently known as Sinn Fein has its roots in Northern Ireland. Here, discrimination against Catholics boiled over from the 1960’s, leading to a bloody war of terror. This was not ended until 1998, when the Good Friday Agreement was signed. This Sinn Fein has always had a presence in the Republic of Ireland as well, but it was only after it forsook violence, it became a large force in politics. Despite its heavy losses in this election, it is still the third most popular party in Ireland.
About a month ago we attended a workshop at a conference about politics in Ireland one hundred years ago. We believe some of the notes we took are worth sharing.
Before doing that, we want to set some context: one hundred years ago, in 1919, the War of Independence started in Ireland. This was in effect a guerrilla war fought in Ireland from 1919 to 1921 between the Irish Republican Army (IRA, the army of the Irish Republic) and British forces: the British Army, along with the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC, the police force) and its paramilitary forces the Auxiliaries and Black and Tans. Michael Collins is often depicted as the leader on the Irish side, but he did not start out as such and technically never was.
The War of Independence was a culmination of what had started in Easter 1916. Then the Irish Brotherhood via the Irish Volunteers (or at least part of that organisation) and the Irish Citizen Army launched a rising against British rule. Michael Collins did take part in the rising but only in a minor role. The rising was defeated a week later but the harsh British response led to great popular support for the Irish republicans.
As a result, in the December 1918 election, the republican party Sinn Féin won a landslide victory in Ireland and formed on 21st January 1919 a break away parliament (Dáil Éireann) and government and declared Irish independence. Eamon de Valera was its leader.
And now for some of the notes we took.
The parliament was quite different from what we expect from a legislative house. To ensure that not all TD’s (Teachta Dála, or members of parliament) would not be arrested at the same time, when a sitting was called, some got a letter stating “You are invited not to attend”! It only met 21 times in two-and-a-half years, with two gaps of 4 and 8 months respectively. In its entirety its minutes only amounted to 300 pages.
It was however successful in setting up ministerial departments. Arguably the best run of these were the Department of Finance, led by Collins, and that of Local Government which had Cosgrave at its head. The latter department was based in Wicklow Street, in an office masquerading as an Insurance company. Before leaving, Cosgrave would put on a disguise, as he was a wanted man. This did not fool everyone however, and one day, leaving his office, he was greeted by a beggar with the words “Please spare me a copper, Mr. Cosgrave.”
Not all were able to evade the British forces. By accident De Valera, the leader of the Irish government, was picked up in Blackrock, a suburb of Dublin. The local police must have been disgusted to get an order from British Prime Minster Lloyd George to release their catch! This was because at that stage, Lloyd George had realised he could not win the war and he needed someone to negotiate with.
The War of Independence was fought by the Irish Army. However, it always adhered to the civilian government, as least in theory. The negotiations also took place between the civilian governments of the United Kingdom and that of what would later become the Republic or Ireland. The veneer was kept intact that a civilian democratic government was in charge. This was important for Ireland’s future development. The country easily could have gone autocratic a number of times in its history. Thankfully the seeds of democracy were sown and Ireland has always been a democracy.
Back to the negotiations however: De Valera was still the leader of the government. Rather than leading the delegation himself however, he requested Collins to lead the negotiations.
Collins had become notorious. The British press had created an image of Collins as a most dangerous man, responsible for most violence in country. Collins was a mystery for a lot of papers. Once a paper even thought he did not exist. Others described him as the most wanted person in world, thought he had dozens of doubles and was even called the Moriarty of the IRB. A US reporter wrote he did not find a man, but a god. There were stories of Collins dressed as a monk or woman, some even saying Collins kept trinkets of his murders. He was called a bloodthirsty chief, mysterious Mike.
When negotiations started officials on the British side were disappointed. Descriptions from them at the time said he had the demeanor of a civil servant, that he was uneducated, stupid, ordinary. Although all agreed he was a good military leader.
In fact it is not even certain Collins ever killed anyone, or even fired a gun. He was a manager, an organiser. One of his biggest accomplishments was the ensure money would come in and was managed properly. He did create his murder squad (called Collins squad, or the 12 apostles), but was not in control of most of the violence in the country. He was however very accomplished in PR – using outrages about the violence committed by the British forces to his advantage, and he is thought to have stopped a plan to kill the British government because it might lead to adverse opinion. And he probably fanned the imagination of the British papers, leading to the above descriptions. However, violence was for Collins functional and not an aim. Despite photos of Collins in an army uniform are the best known, he only wore one in the last 6 weeks of his life. And again the reason was more political than military: he was trying to convince the army to support the treaty he had negotiated with the British. The treaty that would lead to Irish autonomy and as Collins predicted, would form a stepping stone to Irish independence. Unfortunately he had to fight a Civil War first against the opponents of the treaty, which would lead to his killing in 1922.
Although there are undoubtedly more symbols of Ireland, we will tell you a little more about five of them. The official one is the harp. The shamrock is probably the most used. We also chose St. Patrick, Ireland’s patron saint. The Irish flag has to be one of them. And finally, the Irish Anthem.
Ireland has the distinction of being the only nation to have a musical instrument as a national emblem. The Harp is exclusively an emblem of the State, both at home and abroad. It is used by Government Departments and Offices, as in the example below taken from gov.ie
The Harp was first recorded as the arms of Ireland in medieval times. It is depicted as such alongside the coats of arms of a dozen or more medieval European kingdoms on a single folio of the Wijnbergen roll of arms (a Flemish roll of arms) compiled about 1270. The model for the current standard representation of the heraldic Harp is the 14th century harp now preserved in the Museum of Trinity College Dublin, popularly known as the Brian Boru or Brian Borumha Harp.
The State coat of arms is a gold Harp with silver strings on an azure field. This is adapted in flag form as the Presidential Standard, which is flown at the President’s residence, Áras an Uachtaráin. The Government, its agencies and its representatives at home and abroad, also use the Harp as the ordinary emblem of the State. It is the principal element of the seals of the office of President and all Government Ministers. The Harp is also found on the obverse of Euro coins minted in Ireland.
St. Patrick is Ireland’s patron saint. He lived from ca. 385 to ca. 465 AD. He was born in Roman Britain, apparently in a well-to-do family. This did not protect him from being kidnapped by Irish marauders who sold him into slavery in Ireland. He managed to escape and return to his homeland, where he became a priest. It was in this role he returned to Ireland, this time to convert the then still pagan Irish to Christianity.
Nowadays, his day – 17 March – is a huge celebration across the world.
Every year our “an taoiseach” (Irish Prime Minister) gets to visit the White House in Washington to offer the sitting President of the USA a bowl of shamrock.
The parade in New York City is one of the biggest parades on New York’s calendar. It has been going since 1762 (although initially it was a gathering and not a parade).
And of course people drink and eat green food, fountains spout green water and landmarks “go green”. In 2017 a record 278 iconic landmarks and sites in 44 countries were turning green for St Patrick’s Day.
In Ireland St. Patrick’s Day has been turned into a 5-day festival and it is an excellent excuse to visit the beautiful country of your forebears.
Tradition holds that St Patrick used the shamrock, a green trefoil, when preaching the Christian gospel in Ireland to explain the concept of the Trinity. The first records of it being used as a badge on St Patrick’s Day date from the 17th Century. Today the shamrock is also used extensively as a badge by Irish sports teams and, to a lesser extent as a component of the logos of some Irish State organisations and companies, both semi-State and private. It is also displayed on the uniforms of Irish troops serving abroad.
The flag was first introduced by Thomas Francis Meagher in 1848 who based it on the French tricolour. However, it was not until after the Easter Rising of 1916, when it was raised above the General Post Office in Dublin, that the tricolour came to be regarded as the national flag. The flag was adopted in 1919 by the Irish Republic during its war of independence and subsequently by the Irish Free State. It was given constitutional status under the 1937 Constitution, which established the Republic of Ireland.
The green section in the flag symbolises the older majority Gaelic tradition of Ireland, made up mainly of Roman Catholics. The orange represents the mainly Protestant minority. The white in the centre signifies a lasting truce between the two cultures and living together in peace.
Amhrán na bhFiann or The Soldier’s Song is the national anthem of the Republic of Ireland. The anthem was written in English by Peadar Kearney in 1907, and the Irish lyrics were written by Liam Ó Rinn. The song became the official state anthem in 1926.
The song is regarded by some nationalists as the national anthem of the whole of Ireland, and it is therefore sung, for example, at Gaelic Athletic Association matches held anywhere on the island. The anthem consists of 3 verses and a chorus but generally, only the chorus is sung.
Some Unionists, however, reject this use of Amhrán na bhFiann, and at international games played by teams that represent both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland the song Ireland’s Call is sung instead of, or as well as, Amhrán na bhFiann.
We in Ireland are looking forward to next weekend, when we celebrate St. Patrick. Patrick is Ireland’s most famous saint. He lived from ca. 385 to ca. 465 AD. He was born in Roman Britain, apparently in a well-to-do family. This did not protect him from being kidnapped by Irish marauders who sold him into slavery in Ireland. He managed to escape and return to his homeland, where he became a priest. It was in this role he returned to Ireland, this time to convert the then still pagan Irish to Christianity.
Nowadays, his day – 17 March – is a huge celebration across the world.
Every year our “an taoiseach” (Irish Prime Minister) gets to visit the White House in Washington to offer the sitting President of the USA a bowl of shamrock.
The parade in New York City, this year under Grand Marshal Loretta Brennan Glucksman,is one of the biggest parades on New York’s calendar. It has been going since 1762 (although initially it was a gathering and not a parade).
And of course people drink and eat green food, fountains spout green water and landmarks “go green”. Last year a record 278 iconic landmarks and sites in 44 countries were turning green for St Patrick’s Day – the biggest number to date.
In Ireland St. Patrick’s Day has been turned into a 5-day festival. This year it takes place from 15-19 March. You can read all about it here: St. Patrick’s Festival Dublin 2018
It is also a busy time for genealogists, as many Americans, Canadian, Australians, etc. want to learn more about their Irish roots. If you have a friend, family member or acquaintance who is interested in his or her Irish ancestry, can you imagine how happy they would be to get professional help?
Here at Genealogy.ie we sell vouchers in USD, EUR and GBP and in various amounts. You can order them by clicking on the picture below.
Yesterday, we had a lovely visit to June Blake’s Garden in Blessington, Co. Wicklow. Even on a autumn’s day it was a sea of colour and life. Huge thanks to June and her son Dara for the very informative tour. You can find out more about June’s garden and the holiday rooms she has available to rent here: June Blake’s Garden.
Below you can enjoy our short video of our visit.