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.
Our Michael van Turnhout has been a member of the Kilmacud Stillorgan Local History Society since 2016. Every year the Society publishes a journal, called “Obelisk”.
Michael van Turnhout has been a regular contributor to the magazine. This year his article is “Fernhill House and Gardens”, about a beautiful estate just around the corner from where Genealogy.ie is based, and which has recently been turned into a public park.
The fifteenth edition of the “Obelisk” was launched on 28 November 2020. Normally, the launch takes place in a local sports facility, where the members get a chance to meet the authors and enjoy some refreshments together. COVID-19 makes that impossible. So instead, the launch was a virtual one. Why not relax with a cuppa or a glass and enjoy the six-minute presentation by clicking here.
The image, which features on the cover of the journal, offers a view of Dublin Bay from the Stillorgan area in the early 1800s. Click on the image for the list of contents.
You can buy your own copy on the Society’s Online Shop. (Scroll down for “Obelisk 2021”).
Wishing you all a happy and safe Christmas and New Year.
Accredited Genealogists Ireland (AGI) is a representative body for professional genealogists in Ireland. It has been in existence since 1986. You can’t just join it, anyone* wishing to become part of the organisation will first need to apply to become an “Affiliate”. Affiliates who meet certain criteria will have a chance to become a full member in due course.
The initial application is assessed by an independent Board of Assessors and includes proof of experience and a case study.
Jillian decided to start this process and has now cleared the first hurdle:
* Membership is open to professional genealogists based on the island of Ireland, who are not engaged in full-time work outside of genealogy and whose research is mainly in Irish sources.
In the nineteenth century, most land in Ireland was owned by a small elite of – mostly – Protestant landlords. They would rent out their land to tenants or would have large estates cultivating land directly (the “Demesne”). Often it was a combination of the two. Some landlords would live on their estate, but others would not, leaving the management to middlemen. It was also not uncommon for landlords to own multiple estates. The Irish estates were an investment, run to provide a return for their owners. However, many estates had ceased to be profitable even before the famine of 1845 – 1849. The famine threatened their viability even further, as many tenants could no longer afford to pay rent. The famine afforded however also an economic opportunity, of which more later.
But let’s step back in time a bit further. Even before the famine, poverty was widespread in Ireland. It had 8 million inhabitants (today, 170 years later, the number is 6 million) and many Irish had to compete for work as landless labourers. Others would be tenants, but the growing population meant that many of their holdings had been subdivided into smaller and smaller plots of lands with each generation. For a lot of Irish people, the potato was their only source of food, as it was nutritious and cheap. Some would be able to afford bread and only a few meat. The “Board of Works” had been established in 1831 to deal with this poverty, by offering work to the unemployed on public works.
The famine was not caused because there was no food. As a matter of fact, Ireland still exported grain throughout the famine years of 1845-1849. The cause was a potato disease, called “blight”, making them inedible. The potato shortage also pushed the prices of other foods up. As a consequence, most simply could not afford any food anymore. Unfortunately, the “Board of Works” was completely overwhelmed, and by 1846 its failure was widely accepted.
An attempt at relief for the Irish poor was the purchase and sale of cheap grain. The budget was £100,000, or about £12 million in today’s money. To maximise the amount of grain, so-called “pigs-grain” (it was deemed only suitable as animal feed in India, where it came from) was bought. It required three times the amount of labour to turn it into usable flour, using heavy-duty utensils, as shown in the pictures below.
But Trevelyan, who was in charge of emergency food supplies in Ireland during the famine, advocated a policy of effectively withholding relief and allowing market forces to take their course. As the importing and selling of cheap grain by the government was deemed to be distorting the proper working of the free market, it was discontinued in 1847.
Private relief efforts did not fare much better. Best known of these efforts are the “Soup Kitchens”, where cheap soup was sold. However:
“Nicholas Soyer was a French Chef at the Reform Club during the famine. The soup he devised for the victims of the famine was pronounced excellent by members of high society who visited his Model Soup Kitchen in Dublin. However, it was widely attacked for its lack of real nutritional value. One meal of Soyer’s soup only provided one-tenth of the necessary daily intake of calories.”
National Famine Museum
The Quakers – who were heavily involved the running of soup kitchens – concluded in the end that without fundamental reform, their attempts were futile.
Which left the local Unions running Workhouses. They were also completely swamped by the famine. The authorities responded by increasing their number and expanding the existing ones. The problem was that they were financed by contributions made by landlords, based on the number of poor tenants they had.
This led to the next phase in the development of the famine. Landlords now had an incentive to get rid of their poor tenants, as well as an excuse (as the Unions were supposed to look after the evicted tenants).
Charles Trevelyan, Secretary of the Treasury, in The Times on 12 October 1847:
“.. the change from an idle barbarous isolated potato cultivation, to a corn cultivation, which enforces industry, binds together employer and employed in mutually beneficial relations, and, requiring capital and skill for its successful prosecution, suppose the existence of a class of yeomanry who have an interest in preserving the good order of society, is proceeding as fast as can reasonably be expected.”
As per the statement above, not only would the eviction of tenants reduce the taxes estates had to pay, but it also offered estates a much more profitably future: many estates were inefficient and badly managed before the famine, with many small sub-holdings. Switching to the growing of grain and the rearing of cattle on large farms was a much better economic proposition. And this required getting rid of the small plots and a lot fewer tenants.
Strokestown was an estate of about 11,000 acres and had its own village attached to it. It was owned by the Mahon family. Major Denis Mahon had inherited it in 1845, just when the famine started. The estate was not in a good position: a previous member of the family had run up debts by significantly enlarging the mansion. He was followed by his bother who was mad; and after that, there were 10 years of legal cases to determine who would inherit. For all of this time, it had been badly managed.
To rescue his estate, Major Denis needed to reform, which meant getting rid of his tenants. Like other estates, Strokestown did offer incentives to tenants to emigrate, including forgiveness of debt and payment of passage. About a thousand Strokestown residents would take up the offer. But the ships the estate chartered did justice to the name “coffin ships”, with over a third of their human cargo not surviving the trip.
And it was nowhere enough for the heavily indebted estate: by late 1847 Strokesdown had become a byword for mass evictions. Strictly speaking, the estate could only evict tenants from their land, not their house. But the landlord also controlled who would be registered for relief with the Unions. And the condition invariable was that the tenants would leave their house as well. Which would subsequently be demolished to prevent them from being re-occupied.
This obviously created tensions. Priests in the Catholic Church were often accused of inciting violence and disobedience, and the local priest in Strokestown was accused of having a role in what was to follow. Most priests would preach obedience to law though, so it is more than likely that a “secret society” of disgruntled locals was responsible for the shooting dead of the landlord of Strokestown: on 2 November 1847 the patriarch of the family, Major Dennis Mahon was assassinated. It is this event that made him famous, as he was the first landlord to be killed. Other assassinations would follow and soon almost every landlord would fear for their lives. Quite a few decided to leave Ireland.
The estate did survive, however. The last member of the Mahon family to live on the estate, Mrs. Olive Hales Pakenham Mahon, moved to a nursing home in England only in 1981, at the age of eighty-seven.
She had already sold the estate in 1979 to a group of local businessmen. They started a much-needed restoration; it was in a very bad state of repair as Olive Mahon had run out of money. A consequence of the latter is that a lot of the features and fabrics are original, as there never had been money for replacements. This did not include the paintings, as they had been sold off a long time ago to generate some income. But it does include a beautiful kitchen that is 200 years old. The gallery below gives you an impression.
The new owners did find a large collection of estate and family papers which formed the basis of the development of the National Famine Museum on the premises of the house. You can visit the museum, as well as the house and its walled garden. For more information, click here.
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.
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!
The third and final installment of our posts on genealogical resources.
If you are researching the period before civil registration started, your only source is the Parish registers. You do need to know in what County and Parish your ancestor(s) lived. If you don’t know, a good starting point is to look at where your family lived in the Census, as a lot of families would continue to live in a Parish for many generations.
Most Parish Registers only started round 1830, and for many counties even decades later. Also, over time, many have been lost. You should also consider that errors – both in the original entry and in transcription – are not uncommon. Names were also often misspelled: priests would write down what they thought the name was and many of the parishioners could not check it as many could not read or write.
The three main sources for the Parish records are:
The second of three posts on Irish genealogy resources: the Civil registrations of Irish births, marriages, and deaths. This was started in 1864, although Non-Catholic marriages were registered from 1845. If you are looking for records from before these dates, you will have to rely on the Parish records, of which more in our third post. You should also be aware that a significant portion of births, marriage, and even deaths were never registered and thus go unrecorded.
The main resources for these records are the following two free databases:
We recommend you search BOTH databases, because they are not identical.
On Irish Genealogy you will find the indexes for
The index often contain a link to the original registration, which you can download for free. But if not, the record will need to be ordered. If you require help with obtaining a record, please feel free to contact us.
When searching, be aware that you might have to try different variations and spellings of the names you are looking for. Also, you will be asked for the “Registration District”. There were usually 3 to 6 registration districts in each county, and some districts crossed county borders. If you don’t know, it can be quite a puzzle to find out. Again, we would be happy to help. Finally, be aware that people were not always born, married or died in the same area they lived in.
Family Search, Ancestry (paid) and FindMyPast (paid) also offer Irish civil registration indexes up to 1958 (excluding records from Northern Ireland after 1922). However these are indexes only, and it often hard to be sure that you are looking at “your” ancestor or someone else’s.
For Northern Ireland after 1922 you will need to go to GRONI This contains the records for births over 100 years old, marriages over 75 years and deaths over 50 years. You can search and view the original registrations for this period but you do need to sign up and purchase credits to undertake a search.
This is the first in a series of posts to help you discover your Irish roots. This first installment you will probably be familiar with, but we hope our tips might still be useful.
This should really be your first port of call for your research into your Irish roots. Unfortunately, during the Civil War which followed the War of Independence most censuses were destroyed. Only the 1901 and 19011 remain, although there is a list at the National Archives from people who applied for a copy of their entry in the 1841 or 1851 Census to prove that they were old enough to claim a pension when this was introduced.
The 1901/1911 censuses contain:
Both can be searched free online. The surname requires exact spelling so you might try a number of variations, and I have seen cases of misspelling which makes it very hard to find someone. You should also note that ages can be wrong; these were often estimated, or people lied about their age to be older (for a job or pension entitlements) or younger. Unless you are lucky enough to have a very uncommon surname, you will need a townland as well. Alternatively, you might consider searching for a townland and review all occupants. It is possible to refine the search with additional data, but unless you are very sure about your information, it is best to start wide and narrow it down until you get a reasonable number of records. These you review record by record. Make sure to tick the “Show All Information” box. The database contains both a transcription and images of the original census form. The latter also contains a description of the buildings occupied by the household (Form B1).
As you will have noted, it is important to know the townland where your ancestors lived to search the census. The townland is the smallest unit of administration and often only contains a small number of families. Above the townland sits the civil Parish (not to be confused with the ecclesiastical parishes, which were entirely separate). Next up were Baronies and finally Counties. Confusingly in the Census you will also find the DED (District Electoral Division) which was for the administration of the vote. If you don’t know the townland, you might consider asking us for help.