Irish Wedding Customs, Superstitions, and Lucky Traditions
We have all heard the expression “the luck of the Irish.” When a bride begins planning a wedding based on Irish customs, it is very true that much of what she does will be based on trying to bring good luck to the marriage and to shun bad luck at the same time.
Irish weddings are rich with traditions, some of which are very familiar to Americans, and others which may not be. From Claddagh rings to beautiful marriage vows to mischievous fairies, this is a look into the wedding customs, superstition, and lucky traditions of Ireland.
Would You Like To Hang Your Washing Next To Mine?
Like any marriage, an Irish one begins with a proposal. The customary phrase “Will you marry me?” is not the traditional way for an Irish man to ask for his beloved's hand in marriage, however. Instead, he may ask, “Would you like to be buried with my people?” or even “Would you like to hang your washing next to mine?” Somehow, when said with that charming lilting Irish brogue, these phrases convey the proper degree of love and devotion!
By the way, in olden times, the one chance that a woman had to propose to her man was on February 29th, because it was felt that the rules were suspended, as the day did not “count”. With leap year coming around only once every four years, however, it was a long wait for the woman who wanted to ask her boyfriend to get married!
If the woman accepts the proposal, she might wear the traditional Claddagh ring, an ancient Irish symbol. The Claddagh design consists of three key elements: a heart for love, a pair of hands for friendship, and a crown for loyalty. The motto of the symbol is “Let love and friendship reign,” surely a fine sentiment for any marriage.
As an engagement ring, the Claddagh is worn with the crown pointing inwards towards the wrist. Once the couple is married, it is used as a wedding ring by turning it around so the crown is oriented to point at the bride's fingertips. Irish husbands and wives wear their wedding rings on the ring finger of their left hands.
Lucky Earrings and Birthstone Rings
There are additional Irish customs regarding wedding jewelry. An old belief says that the wedding earrings worn by the bride will bring her good luck and happiness for ever more. In addition, those engaged women who do not wear Claddagh rings might wish to consider an engagement ring made from their birthstone, as that is also thought to be lucky.
Women married in the winter months sometimes wear a cloak pinned with a replica of the Tara Brooch. Believed to date from the 8th Century, the original Tara Brooch is now displayed in the National Museum of Dublin. Replicas are available of the ancient Celtic treasure, which consist of a large circular brooch with Celtic interlace knotwork, fastened with a pin through the center.
Lucky Wedding Months And Days
When it comes to picking the wedding date, the Irish bride and groom have plenty of superstitions to guide their choice. First there is the month, which is ruled by this old rhyme:
Marry when the year is new,
Always loving, kind and true.
When February birds do mate,
You may wed, nor dread your fate.
If you wed when March winds blow,
Joy and sorrow both you'll know.
Marry in April when you can,
Joy for maiden and for man.
Marry in the month of May,
You will surely rue the day.
Marry when June roses blow,
Over land and sea you'll go.
They who in July do wed,
Must labor always for their bread.
Whoever wed in August be,
Many a change are sure to see.
Marry in September's shine,
Your living will be rich and fine.
If in October you do marry,
Love will come but riches tarry.
If you wed in bleak November,
Only joy will come, remember.
When December's showers fall fast,
Marry and true love will last.
What about choosing the ideal day of the week for an Irish wedding? Surprisingly, the most popular days for modern weddings are among the least auspicious, according to this proverb:
Monday for health,
Tuesday for wealth,
Wednesday the best day of all,
Thursday for losses,
Friday for crosses,
Saturday is no day at all.
Don't Forget the Lucky Wedding Colors
One of the first steps in planning any wedding is to determine the color palette. The color green, of course, is widely thought of as the signature color of the Emerald Isle, yet for weddings, it is not traditionally the best color to use.
Blue is the most traditional Irish wedding color, as it has signified purity and fidelity since Biblical times. In fact, several hundred years ago, the Irish flag was not the green, orange, and white stripes with which we are familiar, but a golden harp on a blue background. This rhyme spells out the traditional customs about wedding colors:
Marry in white everything’s right
Marry in blue lover be true
Marry in pink spirit’s will sink
Marry in gray live far away
Marry in brown live out of town
Marry in green ashamed to be seen
Marry in yellow ashamed of your fellow
Marry in black wish you were back
Marry in red wish you were dead
Marry in tan he’ll be a loved man
Marry in pearl you’ll live in a whirl
Beware the Fairies!
The other reason why a superstitious Irish bride may wish to avoid green is because it is thought to lure the fairies who are constantly trying to lure the bride away. Fairies, you ask? It turns out that a large number of Irish wedding rituals are based upon the ancient belief that fairies are drawn to beautiful things and wish to collect them.
Few things are lovelier than a radiant bride, which is why the fairies are particularly attracted to brides, and why many precautions are taken to keep her from their clutches. Although the fairies are a special part of Irish folklore, a great many wedding customs around the world are based on ancient beliefs that evil spirits are drawn to brides.
What else should the bride and groom do to keep those mischievous fairies at bay? When dancing at the reception, the bride should take care to always keep one foot on the ground. If she has both feet I the air simultaneously, those darn fairies might just spirit her away. The smart bride kicks up her heels one at a time!
Good Omens and the Good Luck Package
Once the wedding day arrives, there are many more superstitions and customs for Irish weddings. When the bride awakens the morning of her nuptials, one of her first acts may well be to take a look outside. The Irish do not buy into the idea than rain on the wedding day is good luck; in the Emerald Isle, it is good weather which equals good luck for the marriage.
To tip the scales in her favor, the bride can place a statue of the Infant of Prague outside the steps of the church to ward off rain. Other auspicious omens on the morning of the wedding are hearing a cuckoo or seeing a trio of magpies. On the way to the church, care was taken to avoid crossing paths with a funeral procession, which was a decidedly bad omen for the marriage.
When getting dressed for her wedding ceremony, the Irish bride will continue to take precautions to increase her good fortune. The familiar “something old, something blue, something borrowed, and something blue” is also a part of wedding folklore in Ireland. In England, the expression also includes “a sixpence in your shoe”; Irish brides may opt for the sixpence or an Irish five pence coin.
Just as the borrowed item in the wedding good luck package should come from a happily married woman, it should be a happily married woman who places the veil on the bride's head. The idea behind the custom is that the soon-to-be-wife is borrowing some of the happiness and luck from her married friend. In addition to the veil, many an Irish bride has worn a wreath of wildflowers in her hair. A few sprigs of lavender are often included in wreaths and bouquets as a symbol of love and devotion.
Horseshoes and Wedding Bells
Horseshoes are a lucky charm in Ireland, and are often carried by brides. In the olden days, a genuine horseshoe was carried, with the “U” shape facing up to keep the luck inside. Modern brides are more inclined to carry porcelain horseshoes than ones straight from the stable. An alternative is to wear a small fabric horseshoe on the wrist. If the bride does carry a horseshoe, it can later be nailed up over the door of the newlyweds' home; “U” shape up, of course, lest their good fortune run out. Even the way in which glad tidings are offered can be lucky or unlucky. Irish custom states that a man should be the first to wish joy to a bride, not a woman.
The sound of bells is believed to drive off malicious spirits in the lexicon of wedding traditions. This is the origin of ringing the church bells at the end of a marriage ceremony, not only in Ireland, but in many countries. Small bells are a customary wedding gift in the Irish culture; beyond their power to protect from evil spirits, their sound is thought to restore harmony between a quarreling married couple, perhaps by reminding them of their wedding and the pledge they made in their vows. Bells may also be handed out at the wedding. Guests ring them at the end of the ceremony and sometimes at the reception to encourage the newlyweds to kiss.
The Celtic Handfasting Tradition Is Still Alive Today
The ancient Celtic ritual of handfasting is something that is a source of fascination for many couples, including those outside of Ireland who seek a way to show their unity, typically in a non-religious marriage ceremony. Dating back to pre-Christian times, it involves the bride and groom crossing hands and clasping them together, right to right and left to left. A rope or piece of cloth is wound around the couple's wrists in a figure eight pattern to symbolize infinity, and thus the pair is literally and symbolically united.
This is how we got the phrase “tie the knot” to mean a couple is married. The exact meaning of handfasting may have varied somewhat in Celtic times. It may have indicated engagement, marriage, or at times a state in between the two, almost like a trial marriage. The trial marriages were believed to have lasted for one year and one day after the handfasting ceremony. At the end of the time period, either party was free to walk away from the union, or if they both decided to stay, it formalized the marriage as a lifelong commitment.
Irish Wedding Fertility Rituals
Many wedding traditions in Ireland (and elsewhere) are associated with fertility and children. A very charming custom among Irish brides is to carry a special handkerchief on her wedding day which will one day be turned into a Christening bonnet for the first born baby. When that child grows up and gets married, the stitches are removed, and he or she carries that same sentimental hankie on his or her wedding day, continuing the custom. Another fertility ritual is throwing rice at the end of the ceremony. This popular custom dates back to pagan times, when grains were tossed over the newlyweds, in the hopes that the fertility of the seeds would be conferred on the bride and groom.
An Irish Wedding Vow
Quite a few Irish weddings are held in the Catholic church, with all of the associated rituals and traditions. There is also a special traditional Irish wedding vow which many a bride has included in her ceremony:
By the power that Christ brought from heaven, mayst thou love me. As the sun follows its course, mayst thou follow me. As light to the eye, as bread to the hungry, as joy to the heart, may thy presence be with me, oh one that I love, 'til death comes to part us asunder.
At the conclusion of the ceremony, the newlyweds exit the church, possibly with the accompaniment of a bagpiper waiting outside the church. Not only might they be showered with rice (although this custom has been dying out in Ireland for the same reasons as in the United States), the bride may also need to duck as an old shoe is tossed over her head—for good luck, of course!
The Wedding Cake and Honeymoon
The wedding reception follows the marriage ceremony in Ireland as it does elsewhere. Certainly there will be wonderful Irish music and possibly some Irish step dancing, but there a few other interesting customs which may also be observed. If the newlyweds each take three bites of salt and oatmeal at the beginning of their reception, it is said to ward of the evil eye (always advisable!).
The Traditional Cake
The traditional Irish wedding cake is a rich whiskey-soaked fruitcake frosted with almond paste icing. It is customary to save the top layer of the cake to serve at the Christening of the first baby, which traditionally was expected to be within a year of the wedding. Additionally, single women could take home a slice of wedding cake to place under their pillows, which was said to bring a dream of their future husband.
The Origin of "Honeymoon"
To make sure that top tier of wedding cake was needed, the newlyweds drank a traditional honey mead called Bunratty Meade. It was a honeyed wine believed to promote fertility, and for the first month of their marriage, the newlyweds continued to drink of the special meade.
The honeymoon sprung from this ancient custom; the “honey” was for the meade and the “moon” represented the full lunar month the newlyweds spent in seclusion. The origins of the custom may not be entirely romantic; it was believed that if the meade did its job and the couple conceived a baby within that first month, no one could then contest their union and try to tear them apart.
Walk Beside Me...
There are many, many wonderful customs and traditional rituals associated with Irish weddings. For the couple living in Ireland, or the one living in another country who wishes to honor their Irish heritage, it is only natural to include some of the meaningful customs described above. One final thing which a bride and groom will surely want to include in their wedding is this old Irish proverb:
Don't walk in front of me, I may not follow. Don't walk behind me, I may not lead. Walk beside me and just be my friend.