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Ireland’s rich cultural heritage is well documented, from Irish dancing and traditional music to the influence of the Celts on modern religious festivals. But for every familiar custom the country is famous for, there are more that are less renowned. Discover the Irish traditions that you may not have heard of before.
One Irish tradition that has stood the test of time is that of thanking the driver as you get off a bus at your destination – no matter how short the journey. According to Dublin Bus research reported by The Journal in 2015, 90 per cent of passengers still always say thank you to their driver.
Some Irish people don’t even understand The Rose of Tralee festival – or at least not how it is still in existence. Begun as a means of boosting tourism in the area of Tralee, County Kerry, the pageant has been running since 1959, its judges being tasked every year with selecting one of 32 ladies of Irish descent who is as ‘lovely and fair’ as the woman sung about in the song of the same name. The festival was expertly parodied in the iconic TV series Father Ted, in which Ted hosted a ‘Lovely Girls’ competition.
Irish politeness extends beyond the world of public transport and into the bird kingdom. Some Irish people say good morning to magpies, believing it to be a means of preventing bad luck. This avian superstition is tied to the children’s rhyme ‘One for Sorrow’, which suggests that the number of magpies you see can have a profound impact on your life – including supposedly predicting the sex of an unborn child – and is common in the UK as well.
Irish Halloween customs can be something of a choking hazard, given that many of them involve hiding things in food. The cake made at Halloween – barm brack – is traditionally filled with a small coin, a ring and other objects. Colcannon, another Halloween dish, is served with money hidden inside.
Possibly even odder than The Rose of Tralee, Puck Fair claims to be one of Ireland’s oldest festivals and is definitely one of its most fascinating. Also taking place in County Kerry, the fair can be traced back as far as 1603, and scholars suggest it may have originated as a celebration of the Celtic festival of Lughnasa. It involves the capture of a wild goat from the mountains, which is then brought to the town square and crowned ‘King Puck’ by a local schoolgirl. After three days of being worshipped, the goat is returned to his home unharmed.
A Christmas special of the world’s second longest-running chat show – The Late Late Show – The Toy Show, as it is colloquially known, is a treasured festive tradition for Irish households. Often the most popular broadcast all year on the Irish network RTÉ, it is used to showcase the best toys that have been released that year ahead of the all-important Christmas shopping season.
Though Ireland’s religiosity isn’t what it used to be, it’s still common to see people – especially older generations – doing the sign of the cross when they pass by a Catholic church. Consisting of tracing the shape of a cross on your chest, the act is intended as a prayer and a blessing.
Irish people typically drink in ‘rounds’, meaning each person buys a drink for every member of the group, taking turns in sequence. Refusing a drink can be seen as insulting in some circles, and accepting drinks from others but not purchasing a round is a significant social faux-pas. Rounds have also become common in the United Kingdom, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia.
One old Irish superstition still widely quoted is that if your nose itches, either someone is talking about you behind your back, or you are going to have a fight soon – or potentially both. In a related point, if the palm of your hand is itchy, it apparently means that money is coming your way.
The Irish wake originated with the Celts, who used to keep watch over those in their community who died until they were buried. Though fewer and fewer Irish wakes now take place in the home of the deceased – many are now held in funeral parlours – they are still common in rural areas. Unlike in some countries, it is typical for Irish people who didn’t personally know the person who died, such as friends of family members, to attend wakes and funerals as a mark of respect.
Another death-related Irish tradition: When someone dies, a death notice is often put in the paper to notify mourners of where to attend the wake and/or funeral, and non-Irish people have been known to be startled to come across daily death notices also being broadcast on local radio stations.
Practicing Irish Catholics regularly light candles at church as a votive offering in prayer. People sometimes do this when an important event like an exam or a medical procedure is looming for a loved one, or in other times of stress or hardship.