Listen for the Cuckoo: Irish Wedding Traditions
May is a popular month for weddings, except in Ireland. The Irish adhere to the axiom “Marry in May, rue the day!” Traditionally, August was the main wedding month. Lughnasa was the time for couples to engage in a one-year trial marriage. The following Lughnasa, they could make it permanent or go their separate ways, no harm done. A Celtic couple was united by a handfasting ritual during which a Druid wound a rope or long ribbon around the couple’s hands. While some sources say this was only a betrothal or engagement, Brehon law (the law under which the Irish lived before the British occupation) recognized handfasting as an official act of marriage. While there are a number of elements of a Celtic marriage—the dowry, the woman’s rights, the power to divorce—which were different from other European marriages, this post will not focus on them. Instead, it will look at Celtic wedding traditions and superstitions which have been passed down through the generations, many of which continue in some form to this day. And, in order to stay focused (and maintain some brevity), it will exclusively discuss those which come from the Irish.
Surely you’ve have heard of “the luck of the Irish.” The truth is the Irish work at having luck, and there are few days when it’s more important to have a bit of good luck than on a wedding day. To that end, Irish brides carry a horseshoe down the aisle. Yes, you read that right. In the old days, they would carry actual full-sized metal horseshoes. To keep the tradition going, modern Irish brides will carry a miniature one made of porcelain. Alternatively, they can get a small metal one, studded with gems, from an Irish jeweler.
A wise bride also has a penny in her shoe. This may make for an uncomfortable walk down the aisle but it is worth it if, as folklore maintains, it brings good luck and prosperity to the couple. The most important item an Irish bride is sure to have, though, is her magic hanky. This is the “something old” part of the famous “something borrowed, something blue” saying. It is a lace handkerchief, often made by a family member and handed down through the generations from mother to daughter. Not only does it bestow good luck, it is an item of great significance. It is from her mother and will be used again at the christening of the bride’s first child. A beautiful symbol of how family intertwines and bonds just like the lace itself or a Celtic knot.
Of course, working for good luck starts before the wedding and continues even after the ceremony. The family will look for signs of luck and blessing. If the sun shines on the bride on the morning of her wedding, the couple, according to tradition, will have a happy marriage. Now, you can’t always depend on the weather to cooperate, so the parents will turn to a higher power. Just to be sure, the bride’s family will place a statue of the Child of Prague outside the church. This is said to be a potent preventer of rain.
It’s also a good idea to put some planning into choosing the best route to the church. The couple to be married need to avoid funeral processions. If they meet one on the way to the ceremony, it means bad luck for them and their marriage. On the other hand, if the bride or groom hears a cuckoo or sees three magpies, that means very good luck for them. Another sound the couple longs to hear is the ringing of the wedding bells. These are said to chase away evil. In contemporary Ireland, bells are a popular wedding gift. Some brides even wear a bracelet of bells as part of their outfit.
A final bit of pre-wedding insurance is to lock the church doors once all the guests have arrived. This is to prevent the groom or bride from bolting away in a sudden burst of cold feet.
After the ceremony, there’s still some work to do. As the couple leaves the church, the groom tosses coins into the crowd. This is said to bring good luck. The bride’s job at this point is a little more dangerous. For good luck, a guest (preferably someone who is fond of her) throws an old shoe over her head. Also, to ensure the couple will have beautiful children, the bride is supposed to look (briefly) directly at the sun. She has to be careful as well in regards to whom she encounters as she leaves the church. A man should be the first person to wish the bride joy. If a woman is the first, apparently this will result in just awful luck! Again, a bit of family planning (assigning the man) will help to avert disaster.
An American wedding tradition is for the bride and groom to feed cake to one another (sometimes none too gently!). The Irish have a different tradition. According to folklore, the first thing an Irish bride and groom should do at the wedding reception is to eat oatmeal. This is to keep them safe from the Evil Eye.
In the past, receptions took place at the bride’s parents’ home, as they were paying for the whole affair. Nowadays, though, many Irish wedding receptions take place in rented venues. Even so, there are traditions to be upheld. First, a long series of speeches, toasts, and blessings are given. This can go on for a good while as the Irish appreciate the power of the spoken word.
Next comes music, which the Irish also highly value. Preferably, there’ll be a harpist. (The harp is so beloved by the Irish it is the national symbol of Ireland.) In the past, the bride herself would be expected to entertain the guests by singing at least one song. Today, a hired band generally provides the music and, as is usual at most wedding receptions, the groom takes his bride to the center of the floor for the first dance. Unlike most other contemporary receptions, though, he must be careful not to sweep her off her feet. According to an Irish superstition, if both of the bride’s feet are off the floor at any point the faeries will come and carry her away with them. Oh those faeries! You’re not safe from their mischief even on a wedding day.
Of course, the cutting of the cake is a highlight of the reception. A traditional Irish wedding cake is a fruit cake that has been soaked in brandy or good Irish whiskey. It needs to be big enough not only to give a piece to each guest, but to give an extra slice to all the single women in attendance. The women then take their extra slice home and place it under their pillows in order to dream about their future husbands.
An extra piece also is given to the groom’s mother. She then breaks this slice of cake over her new daughter-in-law’s head. Somehow, this ensures a life-long friendship between the two women.
And what would a wedding reception be without champagne? Traditionally Irish, of course. While many Irish couples now do have champagne, for centuries mead was the drink of choice. The tradition was for the newly-married couple to drink mead every day for a month, starting on the wedding day. Since mead was made from fermented honey, some people theorize that this is the origin of the word “honeymoon” (a month being from moon to moon). The Irish drank mead as another way to protect the bride from the faeries and to promote fertility. Some Irish couples today honor that custom by drinking honey wine.
There are other Irish wedding customs related to ensuring fertility. A bride will carry gorse flowers in her bridal bouquet as a symbol of fertility. Lavender is another good choice for the bouquet as Celtic folklore says it stirs a husband’s passion. In fact, wedding beds used to be stuffed with lavender in order to promote married bliss. There is danger, however, in using this flower as it is a favorite of the faeries and attracts them. Those pesky Good Folk! A bride’s fertility also could be affected by the shoes she chose to wear to the wedding. More on this below.
The Wedding Dress and Accessories
People today have become so accustomed to white wedding dresses that it seems strange to imagine a young bride wearing anything else. This custom only started, however, in the 19th century with Queen Victoria’s bridal gown. The traditional color of an Irish wedding dress is blue. To the Irish, this color symbolized purity and fidelity (true blue). Until fairly recently, Irish brides also didn’t wear veils. They wore wildflowers, ribbons, and /or lace woven in their hair. A word of caution: no matter what a contemporary Irish bride chooses to wear—veil or hair decoration—she must not put it on herself. To do so is bad luck!
Then there is the important choice of shoes. Custom says they should be old. The wearing of old shoes, according to folklore, increases the bride’s fertility. How? For the answer, you’d have to ask the old folks.
If you’d like to see some of these Irish wedding traditions in action, take a look at the music video “Angel” on YouTube. The song and video are by the Irish pop-rock group, The Corrs. Even though the bride wears a white dress, she has lace in her hair and no veil. Check out her shoes! There are a few other titbits the eagle-eyed will notice. But the one thing everyone reading this post will know is, at the end of the video the groom makes a BIG mistake! Here’s a link to the video. If you don’t feel comfortable clicking links, just go to YouTube and type in “The Corrs Angel.” Be sure to watch the “Official Music Video.” It’s the only one with a wedding reception. The other videos are of The Corrs performing live.
Thanks for reading. I hope you enjoyed learning about Irish wedding traditions. If you enjoyed the post, please LIKE it and SHARE it. SUSCRIBE to have the blog delivered to your inbox each week and please share your thoughts n the COMMENT section below. Thanks!
Slan go foil!
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