In celebration of St. Patrick’s Day, I thought it might be fun to explore another big day in Ireland – the Irish wedding.
In ancient, pagan times, couples showed their commitment by the Celtic ritual of “hand-fasting”; a ceremony of unity. Marriages were typically celebrated during the harvest festival (Lughnasa) which occurred on August 1st and often groups of brides/grooms were wed at the same time.
I thought it was very modern that couples were given the opportunity to choose the amount of time the hand-fasting would last. They could choose “while their love burned strong and true”, which was a trial that could be renewed (if both parties agreed) the following year; or “till death do us part”; or to “be together in the afterlife”.
The ceremony of hand-fasting is sweet: The couple holds hands, wrists crossed so that they would hold left hand in left hand and right hand in right hand. A ribbon was wrapped around their wrists in a figure eight to represent infinity (probably where the saying “tying the knot” came from”). Thus the pair is literally as well as symbolically united.
Hand-fasting still take place in Ireland, and it has had a recent revival, but modern weddings are more likely to be held in a church. There are a lot of traditions to consider when planning an Irish weddings.
It all begins with the proposal. A potential groom might ask his potential bride “would you like to be buried with my people?” (I would hope that some more romantic words precede this question). Friends and family when inquiring about the big day might ask “when are you giving us a day out?”
Setting the date for the wedding brides will first consider the month:
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.
And then the day:
Monday for health, Tuesday for wealth, Wednesday the best day of all, Thursday for losses, Friday for crosses, Saturday is no day at all.
Traditionally, the bride’s father pays for the wedding, but sharing expenses with the groom’s parents, or expenses born solely by the couple are becoming increasingly common. What has not changed is that in most cases the groom usually leaves the planning to the bride.
A very important decision the bride has to make concerns the dress. The color is very important as it can have consequences:
Marry in white everything’s right
Marry in blue lover be true
Mary in pink spirits will sink
Marry in grey 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
The other reason why a superstitious bride would avoid green is because it was thought to encourage the fairies to lure the bride away. Few things are lovelier than a radiant bride, which is why the fairies are attracted to her.
Some brides choose to wear a veil, while traditional brides favor a garland of wildflowers, typically lavender which is a symbol of love and devotion. Whatever the choice, the head-piece should always be placed on the bride’s head by a happily married woman. This custom is in order for the soon-to-be-wife to borrow some of the happiness and luck from her married friend.
The bride then turns her attention to the items she will need to carry for luck:
Something old, something new,
Something borrowed, something blue,
And an old Irish penny in her shoe.
This famous saying has its roots in an old English rhyme, “something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue, a sixpence in your shoe” which names the four good luck objects a bride should carry (or sew into her dress) on her wedding. The rhyme originated in the Victorian era in Lancashire county, England and was meant to ward off the evil eye (which is a curse passed through a spiteful glare that could make the bride infertile).
“Something old” symbolizes continuity and is usually fulfilled by the mother of the bride gifting her with a family heirloom, or the bride wears a piece of jewelry or clothing belonging to a relative who has had a long, happy marriage.
“Something new” offers hope and optimism for the future and a new chapter in the life of the couple. It could include her wedding dress/shoes/veil, or a gift she treats herself to.
“Something blue” represents love, purity and fidelity, the three key qualities in a solid marriage. Traditionally, the something blue was a garter worn high on the bride’s thigh which the groom would remove with his teeth (much to the amusement of friends and family). Modest brides usually opt for blue flowers in her bouquet.
The final ingredient “an old Irish penny in her shoe” represents prosperity and good luck. Some brides make this more personal by sewing into her dress (no it does not have to go in the shoe) a penny from the year they were born or the year the couple met.
Many brides choose to carry a special handkerchief on her wedding day which will later be made into a christening bonnet for the first-born baby. When the child is grown and gets married, the stiches are removed and he/she carries the handkerchief on his/her wedding day.
Carrying a horseshoe is often carried (“U” shape facing up to keep the luck inside) by brides for luck; an alternative is to wear a small fabric horseshoe on the wrist. The horseshoe can later be nailed over the door of the newlyweds’ home.
Traditionally the wedding band is a Claddagh ring (a gold ring with two hands holding a crowned heart), handed down through the generations from mother to daughter. Modern wedding bands can be as simple as a continuous Celtic knot to bands featuring shamrocks, Claddagh hearts and Celtic knots set with emeralds to represent the Emerald Isle.
On the day of the wedding, the first thing a bride will do is look out the window to make sure the sun is shining, as the sun blesses the union and brings good luck. The Irish don’t believe in the adage that rain on the wedding day is good luck. To tip the scales in her favor, she may place a statue of the Infant of Prague outside the church steps to ward off rain. Other lucky omens on the morning of the wedding are hearing a cuckoo or seeing a trio of magpies. On the way to the church, care is taken to avoid crossing paths with a funeral procession.
Most of the rituals and traditions of the marriage ceremony are set by the church, but there is a special Irish wedding vow which many a bride has included in her ceremony:
By the power that Christ brought form 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.
Many couples include this old Irish proverb in their wedding:
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.
Two candles burn separately during the ceremony, which at some point in the ceremony are used to light one taller candle known as the Unity candle which signifies the two becoming one.
The sound of bells is believed to keep malicious spirits away and restore harmony between quarreling married couples. Guests ring bells at the end of the marriage ceremony, and often during the reception to encourage the newlyweds to kiss. The first person to offer congratulations to the bride must be a man, so traditionally a male member of the groom’s family will be the first to welcome her to the family.
After the ceremony, the bride and groom exit the church accompanied by the sound of pipes; hopefully played by a family member or friend of the family. The bride must travel a different way than she travelled to the church to symbolize the fresh start of her new life.
Rice is thrown over the newlyweds in the hopes that the fertility of the seeds will be conferred on the bride and groom. Modern weddings in Ireland seek alternatives to throwing rice for the same reason 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!).
At one time the reception was always held at the home of the bride’s parents, but today many couples have their reception at a hotel, hall or restaurant depending on their budget. Wherever the reception is held, before the festivities begin the bride and groom each take three bites of salt and oatmeal to ward off the evil eye.
Everyone is given a glass to toast the health of the bride and groom. There are many different ones such as:
May there always be work for your hands to do May your purse always hold a coin or two May the sun always shine on your window pane May a rainbow be certain to follow each rain May the hand of a friend always be near you May God fill your heart with gladness to cheer you
Followed by the toast for all occasions in Ireland: Slainte! (pronounced SLAWN-cha!).
Once the toasts and blessings are over, the dancing begins. The groom leads his bride in their first dance as a married couple. When dancing, the bride should take care to always keep one foot on the ground; if both feet leave the ground at the same time, fairies might spirit her away.
Cutting the cake is a very important part of the reception, with the guests gathering around to watch as the first slice is cut. A traditional Irish cake has two tiers of rich, whisky soaked fruit cake with almond paste icing. The smaller, upper tier cake is packed away after the wedding and used as a christening cake for their first-born (which traditionally is expected within a year of the wedding). Unmarried women take home a slice of wedding cake to place under their pillows, which is said to bring dreams of their future husband.
To make sure that top tier is needed, the couple drink a traditional honey wine called Bunratty Meade at the wedding. Every evening for the first month of their marriage, the newlyweds continued to drink the mead to promote fertility. It is believed that if the mead does its job the couple will conceive a baby within that first month, and then no one could contest their union or try to tear them apart. The term honeymoon actually has nothing to do with going away on a trip; the “honey” represented the meade and the “moon” represented the full lunar month the couple spent in seclusion.
Wedding gifts commonly given include Irish linen or lace, salt and pepper shakers, flutes, or a porcelain bell to remind the couple of the bells that rang when they were married. A special gift would be a piece of Belleek pottery or Waterford crystal.
Here’s to Irish weddings! Slainte!