For many, the first things that come to mind when Irish culture is mentioned are leprechauns and shamrocks. But leprechauns and shamrocks are only a small part of the rich, ancient culture of Ireland.
Sometimes called the Emerald Isle, this beautiful land has often been the scene of conquest and conflict. Remnants of ancient cultures still linger, and Irish culture and traditions reflect those who came before in their holidays, music, literature, and even in the sports of hurling and Gaelic football.
As you learn about your Irish ancestors, take time to learn about the traditions that they experienced to better understand your Irish heritage.
A Brief History of Ireland
Thought to have been originally the home of hunter-gatherers in prehistoric times, Ireland saw the arrival of the Celts and Gaels during the Iron Age (around 500 BC). Normans and Vikings invaded Ireland around the 12th century. Then during the 16th century, the English began a long campaign to conquer and colonize the island.
During times of conflict and famine, especially during the Great Potato Famine of 1845, the Irish migrated to other lands, taking their traditions with them. In 1921, as a result of the Irish war for independence from Great Britain, the island was partitioned into the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland.
Through all the upheavals, the Irish adapted to the different influences, making a vibrant culture.
Religion has been an important part of Irish society since ancient times. Before Christianity came to Ireland, the ancient Celts followed a druidic religious system. According to tradition, St. Patrick, a 5th-century Christian missionary and bishop of Ireland arrived around AD 432. With the introduction of Christianity came additions and changes to traditions and culture.
In the 16th century, when England was dominating the area, Anglo-Irish and Scots-Irish (Ulster Scots) Protestant families came to settle on plantations. This period was the beginning of religious, economic, political, and social conflict that continued for hundreds of years.
Holidays in Ireland
Along with religion, holidays are an important part of Irish society. These holidays feature a mix of Celtic and Christian traditions, including Celtic seasonal celebrations.
- Imbolc (im-blc), celebrated on 1–2 February and also known as St. Brigid’s Day, marks the beginning of spring. The day includes feasting, spring cleaning, and making Brigid’s crosses with rushes.
- St. Patrick’s Day, held on 17 March, originally was to celebrate Christianity coming to Ireland but has become a day to celebrate all things Irish around the world. In Ireland, the day features traditional music, dancing, and parades.
- Beltane (bel-tein), on 30 April–1 May, is the Gaelic May Day festival. It marks the beginning of summer and is celebrated with bonfires and decorating homes with flowers.
- Bloomsday, on 16 June, was first celebrated in 1954. It commemorates the Irish writer James Joyce and the date of the setting of his novel Ulysses. It includes dramatizations and readings, with some enthusiasts dressing in Edwardian costumes.
- Litha (lee-tha) occurs on the summer solstice, at which time people celebrate the beginning of summer with bonfires and dancing.
- Lughnasadh(loo-nah-sah) marks the beginning of the harvest season and is celebrated on 1 August, often with feasts of newly harvested crops, music, and games.
- Samhain (sow-in), held on 31 October is the Celtic New Year's Eve, which marks the end of the harvest. It is also known as All Hallows’ Eve, or Halloween, a Christian holiday. In Ireland, people celebrate the day by having bonfires, wearing costumes, and honoring ancestors.
- Christmas, as in much of the world, celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ. In Ireland, a candle in the window and holly are traditional decorations. The greeting for "Merry Christmas" in Irish is “Nollaig Shona Duit,” pronounced “null-ig hun-a dit.”
Traditional Irish Folklore, Music, and Dance
The Irish have a rich literary tradition of storytelling using myths, fables, poetry, rhymes, and sayings that help explain Irish history and culture. Along with folklore, traditional Irish music has roots in the past. Traditional Irish music includes drinking songs, love songs, dancing songs, funny songs, and ballads, either with or without accompaniment by an instrument. Some early instruments are still used today, including fiddles, bagpipes (the Irish version is called uilleann pipes, pronounced ill-eee-un), pennywhistles, horns, harps, and bodhrán (pronounced bow-rawn), a framed drum, traditionally covered with a goatskin and played with a stick, sometimes called a cipín, or beater.
Irish Slang and Language
Ireland has two official languages: English and Irish Gaelic, known as Gaelige. Gaelige was the primary language of Ireland until the 18th century, but it is still spoken throughout the country.
- Sláinte (slahn-chae] is an Irish expression that derives from the Old Irish word slán, meaning "healthy,” used mostly as a toast.
- Slán abhaile [slahn-a-wal-ya), meaning ‘safe home”, is a phrase used to say goodbye to someone who is travelling home.
- Dia dhuit (jee-uh ghwitch): means hello.
- Eejit (ee-juht): a friendly way of saying someone is acting like a fool.
- Wean (wayne): means child.
Incorporating Irish customs into your family traditions
Consider adding some Irish traditions into your family as you search for your ancestors using thousands of records available at FamilySearch. Be sure to include what your experiences on the Memories feature. Another way to help make history and culture come to life is by accessing the FamilySearch feature, Where Am I From? Try using this feature with Google Maps to see photos of your family’s homeland and virtually stand where your ancestors stood.