From dinner to desserts, hot cross buns to whipping the herring, we take a look at some of the ways Easter is celebrated in Ireland.
Easter Traditions in Ireland, It’s Not All about Chocolate and Easter Eggs.
Irish Easter traditions
From dinner to desserts, hot cross buns to whipping the herring, we take a look at some of the ways Easter is celebrated in Ireland.
Easter in Ireland is always an enjoyable occasion. It is an important event for Irish people, as it has deep historical, cultural and, of course, religious significance across the country.
Easter in Ireland is about renewal after deprivation, fasting and feasting. It heralds the arrival of spring and an abundance of local ingredients after the harsh winter when food stocks were low.
Celebrating the arrival of Easter in Ireland involves many traditions, some of which have lasted for generations and some of which are more modern, but most revolve around food, delicious Irish food.
So, let’s take a look at the unique, and tasty, traditions and customs of Easter in Ireland.
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When is Easter in Ireland?
Easter Sunday falls on a different date each year. It takes place on the first Sunday after the full moon that occurs on or after the vernal (spring) equinox. Vernal means fresh or new like the spring. If the full moon falls on a Sunday, then Easter is the next Sunday. The spring equinox falls on March 20 or 21, therefore, Easter Sunday can be between March 22 and April 25 each year.
Once the date of Easter Sunday is known, the people of Ireland can start preparing.
Shrove Tuesday aka Pancake Tuesday in Ireland
Shrove Tuesday takes place the day before Ash Wednesday, which is the first day of Lent. Lent is when the fasting practices start. Shrove Tuesday is the day that people in Irish homes use up all the delicious, tempting ingredients that they cannot eat whilst fasting. The tastiest way to use up eggs, milk, flour, butter and sugar is to make pancakes. Traditional Irish pancakes are thin and usually served sprinkled with sugar and lemon juice.
On Shrove Tuesday, in Irish homes, the eldest unmarried daughter flips the first pancake. If the pancake falls to the floor, she would have little hope of getting married during the coming year.
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Lent in Ireland
In the old days, Lent in Ireland was a time of religious contemplation and fasting, as it commemorates the 40 days Jesus spent fasting in the desert. Lent lasts from Ash Wednesday until sundown on Maundy Thursday evening, however, the fasting continued until Holy Saturday. People were allowed to stop fasting on Sundays as these were feast days.
In Ireland, people were also allowed to stop fasting on March 17, the feast of St Patrick. They were also allowed to consume one alcoholic drink to wet the Saint’s head.
Ash Wednesday in Ireland
Ash Wednesday takes place 46 days before Easter Sunday. On Ash Wednesday in Ireland, religious people attend a special mass where the priest makes the sign of the cross on their foreheads. The priest makes the sign using ashes from the burned palms of the previous year’s Palm Sunday ceremony.
Then lent and the period of fasting and deprivation begins.
For centuries, most Catholics in Ireland would have fasted during Lent, giving up meat, milk, cheese, butter, eggs, and alcohol and attending mass every day.
However, nowadays, in Ireland, not many people practise fasting, though many still do ‘give up’ something for Lent, for example, alcohol, chocolate, cigarettes, etc.
Spoilin meith na hInide
During Lent, it was also customary to hang a small piece of meat, usually salted bacon, on the wall or from the rafters. This would act as a symbol of temptation — an analogy with Jesus being tempted by the Devil in the desert.
On Easter Sunday, the meat is taken down and thrown in the lit fire to fill the home with a tantalising aroma that hints at the feast to come later in the day.
Eating Fish During Lent
Fish, especially salted herring, was the mainstay of the Irish diet during Lent. There are several reasons why fish is an important part of Easter.
First of all, meat was not allowed during Lent, so fish was a nutritious but most importantly, readily available and cheap alternative in Ireland.
Fish is also a holy food and is featured throughout the Bible. Jesus carried out the Feeding of the 5,000 with just five loaves, two fish and a very big miracle.
Jesus also used fish to encourage Peter to join him as an apostle. Having fished, unsuccessfully, all day, Jesus told Peter to cast his net again and when he did, he caught such a haul his little boat could hardly bear the weight. Jesus said: “Follow me and soon you will be a Fisher of Men.”
Another fish often enjoyed at Easter time in Ireland is the John Dory. The distinctive round black marks on either side of the body of John Dory are said to be the fingerprints of Peter. The apostle left his fingerprints on the skin of the fish as he held it firm to retrieve a coin from its mouth. What could be a more appropriate Easter food than the very fish that is said to have been touched by the Patron Saint of Fishermen?
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Easter Holy Week in Ireland
‘Holy Week’ occurs the week after Lazarus Saturday and starts on the evening of Palm Sunday. In Ireland, it used to be a full week of extreme fasting.
Breakfast would be some dry bread, maybe plain porridge and tea with a drop of bull’s milk (water in which the porridge was steeped). Lunch would be more dry bread and tea, and dinner would be plain potatoes with salt.
As you can imagine, Holy Week was very tough, so much so that in the mid-1960s, Pope Paul VI reformed many of these strict fasting rules. Nowadays, Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are the only two obligatory days of fasting and abstinence for Catholics.
Good Friday Food in Ireland
Good Friday is the day when Christians commemorate Jesus Christ’s crucifixion.
Decades ago, Good Friday was the day of the ‘black fast’. Most people abstained from food altogether, but if they did eat, it would be a meagre meal of barley bread, cress and water. Most people spent the day attending mass, and work was discouraged — not that anyone would have the energy to work.
However, once the strict rules were relaxed, Catholics could have one meat-free meal, which is how fish became associated with Good Friday.
Today, many Irish households still eat fish on Good Friday, but the meal is a more convivial affair than a form of penance.
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Good Friday Traditions in Ireland
Since mediaeval times there have been traditions and rituals around Good Friday, some of these are still practised today.
Depending on the date on which it fell, it was considered good luck to sow grain on Good Friday. Sowing seeds symbolised spring, growth, and rebirth. However, this would only be done if the potato seed had already been planted.
Hot Cross Buns
Since mediaeval times, to remember the crucifixion of Christ, all bread baked on Good Friday was marked with a cross. This custom survives all over Ireland today.
Hot cross buns, which are baked at Easter in Ireland, are decorated with a cross made from flour paste. The spices in hot cross buns are said to represent the spices that were used to embalm Christ after his death. Another old belief is that hot cross buns baked on Good Friday won’t go mouldy during the following year.
You can make hot cross buns by following this recipe by Good Food Ireland member Darina Allen, owner of the Ballymaloe Cookery School.
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Holy Easter eggs
Eggs laid by hens on Good Friday were, just like bread, marked with a cross using soot, a charred stick or a pencil. The eggs were saved until Easter Sunday morning when they were boiled. At breakfast, each member of the household would eat one of the Good Friday eggs as a blessing.
Over time, people started to decorate these Good Friday eggs by dying them using natural colourants from herbs and lichens. They would also add ribbons and wildflowers and would give the eggs as gifts to their friends and family.
This is why, today, decorated eggs are associated with Easter and painting eggs is a fun activity to do with children.
Easter Saturday Traditions in Ireland
Whipping the Herring Out of Town
By Easter Saturday, the people of Ireland had their fill of fish, and butchers were delighted that soon meat could be consumed again.
To herald the end of Lent, local butchers would host a ceremony known as Whipping the Herring Out of Town, which was a ‘funeral’ for the fish most widely consumed during Lent in Ireland.
The procession through the streets involved hanging a dead fish from a stick that everyone whipped with a birch broom. When the butchers reached the nearest lake or river, they tossed the herring into the water.
On the way back from the water, the procession would place a quarter of lamb (Lamb of God) on a pitchfork. The dead spring lamb would be adorned with ribbons and flowers.
This Irish Easter tradition of Whipping the Herring persisted right into the 20th-century.
The fast of Lent came to a close on Easter Saturday, so the next day was a day of feasting.
Irish Easter Sunday Customs
As mentioned, on Easter Sunday, the first thing eaten would be the boiled eggs that the hens laid on Good Friday.
Then, the small piece of meat that had been hung on the wall since Ash Wednesday was thrown into the fire, which would fill the home with a mouthwatering aroma to remind people of the feast to come.
But first, people attended Easter Sunday mass, which celebrates the Resurrection of Jesus Christ on the third day after His Crucifixion.
Following that, it’s home for Easter Sunday lunch.
Traditional foods served on Easter Sunday in Ireland include leek soup, roast spring lamb, corned beef, baked ham and boiled bacon. These would be served with cabbage and potatoes.
Sweet treats on the day might have included barmbrack — or bairín breac — a sweet, eggy bread studded with sultanas and raisins. Another traditional Easter food in Ireland is simnel cake. This is a light fruit cake covered in marzipan, with a layer of marzipan or almond paste baked into its middle. On the top of the cake are eleven marzipan balls which represent the true apostles of Jesus; Judas is omitted.
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On Easter Sunday, children would partake in an Irish custom called cluideog. This involved singing and dancing for their family and neighbours in the hope of receiving gifts of raw eggs. The children would then gather in a field and cook the eggs over a fire. The children would keep shells of these roasted eggs to decorate and hang on the May Bush on the first of May. In Ireland, May Day – also known as Bealtaine – is a traditional Celtic festival, which celebrates the arrival of the summer.
Chocolate Easter Eggs in Ireland
On Easter Sunday, once lunch or dinner is finished, chocolate eggs are enjoyed. This is by far the most popular of all Irish Easter traditions – Irish residents consume 17.5 million Easter eggs annually.
The first chocolate Easter eggs were created in France and Germany in the early 19th-century. British chocolatiers, John and Benjamin Cadbury made their first Cadbury Easter Egg in 1875.
Made from dark chocolate, the first Cadbury Easter eggs had a smooth, plain shape and were filled with sugar-coated chocolate drops called dragées.
Later on, inspired by the tradition of decorating real eggs at Easter, the Cadbury brothers enhanced the plain chocolate eggs with marzipan flowers and chocolate piping. Nowadays, chocolate Easter eggs have these designed debossed on the shell.
Easter Egg Hunt
In Ireland, the Easter bunny brings Easter eggs for the children. However, the bunny hides the eggs around the house and garden and the children must hunt for them. The bunny hides hard-boiled decorated eggs as well as chocolate eggs of all shapes and sizes.
The custom of the Easter egg hunt can be traced back to Germany to at least the 17th-century and is still enjoyed to this day. Easter is named for the Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring, Eostre. She is associated with hares and eggs which represent fertility and plenty. In German folklore, Eostre transformed a bird into a hare, and, in gratitude, the hare used its original bird function to lay eggs for the goddess on her feast day, Easter Sunday.
The Cake Dance
The cake dance is a competitive Irish custom that dates back to mediaeval times but is probably much older. On Easter Sunday, people have a dance-off and the winner takes the cake, literally.
The cake, usually a barmbrack, was placed in a prominent position on a fine piece of Irish linen. Then, the music would play and the dancing would commence. The winner might be the person, or couple, who exerted the most effort or who danced the longest.
The Irish Easter tradition of the cake dance was practised well into the 20th-century.
Easter Time in Ireland
As you can see, whether you are religious or not, Easter in Ireland is a wonderful time to cast off the shackles of winter and welcome in the warmth of spring. During Easter, we spend time with family and loved ones and share the bounty of great Irish food and food traditions. It is a splendid time to visit Ireland.
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