Easter was a huge religious festival in the past and continues to be the most important annual religious celebration in the Christian calendar. In Ireland it marked the end of a dark and hungry Lent, a time of denial of many pleasures: meat, eggs, dairy products, alcohol, music and even sex were all off the agenda for practicing Roman Catholics. It marked a time to look toward Summer, and there were many traditions in Ireland surrounding Easter that went beyond religion.
Easter Saturday: celebrating the end of Lent
To symbolise the end of Lent, butchers held symbolic mock funerals for herrings. Herrings had sustained many during the meat-free Lent and by Easter Saturday people were quite tired of eating them. In parts of the country they held a procession heralding the final day of Lent known as ‘whipping the herring’. A herring tied onto a rope was pulled along and whipped to pieces by the crowd. In Cork city, a single herring was insulted and ridiculed as part of a noisy parade. This is marked in the wonderful painting (see below) ‘Whipping the Herring’ by Nathaniel Grogan (1740-1807) in Cork’s Crawford Gallery of Art https://crawfordartgallery.ie/work-of-the-week-6-april-2020/
On the morning of Easter Sunday many people rose early to see the ‘dance of the sun’. It was believed that the sun would ‘dance’ in the sky only at sunrise on Easter Sunday morning. People would gather on a high vantage point to witness the spectacle, but it was advised not to look directly at the sun (as in an eclipse) in case of damage to the eyes. Therefore, people observed the sun reflected in a pan of water. If the sun did not dance as expected, the pan of water was shaken so observers, especially children, could see the ‘dance’.
In Co. Fermanagh, pilgrims on Inishmacsaint on Lough Erne hold an all-night vigil on Easter Eve. The cross on the island is supposed to turn itself about three times on Easter morning to greet Jesus rising from the dead.
Below: Inishmacsaint (picture from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inishmacsaint )
Easter eggs and a holiday weekend
The use and decoration of Easter eggs is customary throughout Europe and Irish traditions are not that different. There would have been an abstinence from them for Lent, and a large glut available. A feast of eggs was enjoyed for breakfast on Easter Sunday. Boiled eggs were painted and decorated and either eaten, displayed or played with, eggs were rolled down hills in racing competitions by children. Easter dinner was second in importance to the Christmas dinner, and seasonal produce such as lamb was popular for those who could afford it.
Easter Sunday and Monday was associated with leisure activities and a time for showing off new clothes: women wore new bonnets and men also wore their just-purchased summer clothes. In a response to this and the finer weather, outings to the countryside took place, people visited landmarks and holy wells. As people gathered, festive bonfires were lit and celebrations ensued. Then, on Easter Monday fairs took place consisting of the usual trading and games, sports, sideshows, food, music, gambling and (occasionally) organised faction fighting.