Traditional festivals and folklore relating to springtime in Ireland.
St. Patrick’s Cross, Co. Kildare
St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, is honoured on the 17th March, a day on which all Lenten restrictions were temporarily lifted. Children made ‘St. Patrick’s crosses’ – badges of fabric and paper. They wore these crosses to Mass and then to local parades and festivities. Adults wore shamrock during the day as it was believed that St. Patrick used its three leaves to illustrate the Holy Trinity – the existence of three persons in one God. By evening the worn shamrock might be dipped in an alcoholic drink, called ‘St. Patrick’s Pot’, and a toast raised in honour of the saint.
Easter morning marked the end of Lent and of fasting. The build-up of eggs and dairy produce during Lent provided for a welcome breakfast. There were usually enough eggs for children to decorate and use in Easter games.
St. Brigid’s Cross
Spring began with the feast day of St. Brigid, whose cult had strong associations with that of a pagan goddess of fertility. It was a season of growth on the land and of new life on the farm when people looked forward to better weather and longer days. In order to protect the family, the animals and prospective crops, crosses were made to honour St Brigid and seek her blessing. These were made in a variety of styles using straw, rushes, or other natural materials and were hung in the home and in outhouses. A festive meal of potatoes and butter was also eaten on the eve of St Brigid’s Day.
In some of parts of Ireland ‘Biddy Boys’ (or girls) went from house to house with an effigy of the saint, named ‘Biddy’, collecting money and food for a party in St. Brigid's honour. Sometimes the ‘Biddy Boys’ would carry a large straw girdle or belt through which those in the house would step or pass. They did this in the hope of gaining the
saint’s protection from illness during the coming year.
During Lent – a religious observance for forty days – people fasted from meat, eggs and dairy products. Lent and its associated fasting was in general more strictly observed in the past than today. Fish supplemented porridge, potatoes and dry bread on occasion. On Shrove Tuesday – the eve of Lent – people prepared for the period of deprivation by feasting on all the remaining stock of meat and dairy products.
Pancakes were a traditional way to use up surplus eggs, butter and milk. This was also the most favourable day of the year to marry as weddings and festivities were not permitted during Lent.
The first Sunday after the beginning of Lent was known as ‘Chalk Sunday’ and on this day, those not married were often chased by local children who would chalk an ‘X’ on the backs of their clothes which was visible to all after Mass.