Irish traditions: 11 Wonderful (And At Times Weird) Traditions In Ireland

irish traditions and culture
Photo left: Failte Ireland. Right: Neal Houghton (via Tourism Ireland)

I‘m going to level with you – any time (up until a few days ago) someone asked me for info on Irish traditions, I’d tell them about things like farming, music and sport.

That’s what traditions are, right?! Well, so I believed, anyway..!

It wasn’t until I was randomly searching for a definition for something on Merriam Webster that I stumbled upon the definition of a tradition, Irish or otherwise:

A tradition is ‘A long-established custom (widely accepted way of behaving or doing something) or belief that has been passed on from one generation to another.’

This was news to me… hopefully, I’m not the only one! In the guide below, you’ll find everything from Irish mythology and farming to slang, Irish humour and more.

Mighty Irish Traditions and Customs

  1. Farming
  2. The Use of Humour
  3. Halloween
  4. Irish Slang
  5. St. Patrick’s Day
  6. Traditional Music Sessions
  7. Christmas
  8. The GAA
  9. Watching The Late Late Toy Show
  10. Ancient (and Unusual) Festivals
  11. Storytelling

1. Farming

the Céide Fields
Photo by Peter McCabe

People have been skillfully farming in Ireland since the Neolithic period… that’s over 6,000 years ago. Arguably the most prolific evidence of this can be found in a corner of County Mayo.

The ‘Céide Fields’ is the most extensive Neolithic site on the island of Ireland and, interestingly enough, it’s the oldest field system in the world.

Fast-forward 6,000 or so years and beef and milk production account for roughly 66% of Ireland’s agricultural output (2018) with exports hitting a hefty €1bn per month.

In 2016, there were 137,500 farms in operation in Ireland, many of which will have been in the same family for generations. 

2. Halloween

Believe it or not, Halloween originated in ancient Ireland and it all began with the pagan celebration of Samhain, which took place every November.

The origins of Halloween date back 2,000 years to the time of the Celts. The Celtic festival of Samhain saw people gather around enormous bonfires which were used to scare off the Puca (ghost).

Many years later, in the 8th century, the Pope at the time decided that November 1st would be known as ‘All Saints Day’ and it would be used as a day to honour the many Christian Saints that had passed.

The evening before soon became known as ‘All Hallows Eve’ which went on to be nicknamed ‘Hallows Eve’ which then became ‘Halloween’.

There are a number of Irish traditions that take place at Halloween in Ireland:

  • Kids dress up and go trick-or-treating
  • People (usually those with kids or those expecting visiting children) decorate their homes
  • Pumpkins are carved and placed in the window with a candle burning inside
  • Fancy dress parties take place in schools and pubs

3. St. Patrick’s Day

titanic st. paddy's day
Photo by Gerry Sweeney via Tourism Ireland (Copyright Titanic Belfast)

St. Patrick is Ireland’s Patron Saint and it’s believed that he was born in Roman Britain in the fourth century. 

The very first St. Patrick’s Day event began with a lad named Luke Wadding, an Irish Franciscan friar from County Waterford.

It was Wadding who helped turn March 17th into a celebration for St. Patrick, after he managed to get the power of the Church behind the idea. 

At its foundations, March 17th is a celebration of the life of Ireland’s Patron Saint. However, over the years the day has become more of a celebration of Irish culture.

4. Craic and the Use of Humour

One of the most common questions that hits our inbox is from people asking for an explanation of ‘Craic’. The word ‘Craic’ simply means having fun.

Like many countries, Ireland’s home to a fairly unique type of humour. Now, don’t get me wrong, it’s not radically different to anywhere else, but it is uniquely Irish.

In some countries, two life long friends throwing light-hearted abuse at each other could be construed as a bad thing… not in Ireland, oh no. This is known as ‘Slagging’ and it’s generally not meant to truly offend.

If you read our guide to 30 brilliant (and crap) Irish jokes, you’ll get a bit of a sense of the type of humour that you’ll encounter in Ireland.

Here’s an example for you: Anto’s missus was in the Rotunda Hospital, ready to give birth to their first child. When they arrived, the nurse asked, ‘How dilated is she, sir?’. Anto replied, ‘Delighted? She’s over the moon!’

5. Traditional Music Sessions

Irish rebel songs

Now, many trad sessions that take place in Ireland these days aren’t really traditional in the sense that they’ve been happening for years.

They’re ‘traditional’ in the sense that they exclusively feature traditional Irish music that’s played using iconic Irish instruments.

Now, note that I said many. There are some traditional sessions that have been taking place in Ireland for years, and they’re traditional in every sense.

For example, Clancy’s pub in the town of Athy in County Kildare is home to Ireland’s longest-running trad sessions. It’s been taking place regularly for over 50 years. That’s pretty damn impressive.

If you hop into our guide to Irish culture, you’ll discover how traditional Irish dancing is just as celebrated in Ireland as the mighty trad session.

6. Slang

Another Irish custom is the use of slang. Now, Irish slang tends to vary greatly depending on the county that you’re in along with the age of the person that’s speaking and their background.

For example, some slang from Belfast will sound like French to a person from North Dublin. Here’s a handful of examples of Irish slang (you can find loads more here):

  • I’m grand/it’s grand = I’m OK/it’s OK
  • Gobshite = a silly person

7. Christmas

Christmas market belfast 2020
Photo by stenic56/shutterstock.com

Christmas is widely celebrated across the island of Ireland and we have our fair share of Irish Christmas traditions that range from nice and normal to pretty damn unusual.

Some of the most common festive traditions are the likes up sticking up decorations and making Christmas cake (7 to 8 weeks before Christmas).

Some of the more unusual traditions, like the ‘Wren Boys’ and ‘Little Christmas’, are more unique and, unfortunately, being practised less and less. Nip into our guide to Ireland’s Christmas traditions to read more.

8. The GAA

Now, before we dive into sport and the GAA, bash the play button on the video above. It’ll give you an idea of what you can expect if you attend (or play) a game of Hurling – the fastest field sport in the world.

Sport has played a significant part in Irish culture for many years and the most popular traditional sports to come out of Ireland are Hurling, Football and Camogie.

Many Irish traditions are intertwined with sport. Gaelic games take centre stage in many families across Ireland and traditions of playing sport and watching it is present in many households.

The biggest event in the sporting calendar is the All Ireland Final, which is like the Champion’s League Final of football in Ireland. This is an annual tournament that debuted in 1887 and it has taken place every single year since 1889.

9. Ancient (and Unusual) Festivals

the puck fair killorglin kerry
Photo by Patrick Mangan (Shutterstock)

So, the likes of St. Patrick’s Day and Halloween are fairly bog-standard festivals. Don’t get me wrong, they’re part of Irish tradition, but there’s nothing too unique about them.

It’s when someone tells you about the Puck Fair and the Matchmaking festivals that you start to get a sense of the more unusual side of some Irish customs.

The Puck Fair, which takes place over three days in Killorglin in Kerry, is said to be the oldest festival in Ireland. The Puck Fair kicks off when a group from the village go up into the mountains a catch a wild goat.

The goat is then brought back to Killorglin and crowed ‘King Puck’. It’s then placed in a small cage and put up on a high stand in the town for three days. During this time, plenty of festivities take place. On the final day, he’s led back up into the mountains.

Another unique festival that’s been taking place for 100+ years is the Lisdoonvarna Matchmaking Festival. The festival is run by Willie Daly and he’s said to have set up around 3,000 marriages.

10. Watching The Late Late Toy Show

The Late Late Show (an Irish talk show) first aired many years ago, in 1962. It’s now the longest-running talk show in Europe and the second longest-running talk show in the world.

In the 1970s, the Late Late Toy show first aired and, over the years, it has become a tradition for people in Ireland, old and young, to sit down and watch it.

The show features all of the latest kids toys that are set to be ‘the next big thing’ that year. It also features interviews and performances from musicians.

When I was a kid, I always saw the arrival of the Toy Show as the start of Christmas. A mighty show that’s stood the test of time.

11. Storytelling

Irish culture and customs
Illustration by Stephen Reid (1911)

One of the most famous Irish traditions revolves around the art of storytelling. Now, back in the day, one could get a full-time job as a storyteller. During medieval times, a ‘Bard’ was a professional storyteller.

The bard was employed by a patron and was tasked with telling tales of the patron’s (or their ancestors) activities.

The tradition of storytelling dates back to the arrival of the Celts in Ireland. Back then, over 2,000 years ago, history and events weren’t recorded in writing – they were passed from one generation to the next via the spoken word.

Over the years, Irish mythology and Irish folklore were born and both blossomed, with incredible tales of love, loss and battle gripping listeners across Ireland for centuries.

Many of us that grew up in Ireland were told tales of Irish legends that featured the mighty warriors Fionn Mac Cumhaill and Cu Chulainn and the many battles that they fought in.

Other stories were a little bit creepier. I’m talking, of course, about tales of the Banshee, the Abhartach (the Irish Vampire) and the Puca.

What Irish Traditions have we Missed?

Irish culture benefits greatly from the many rich traditions that still take place in Ireland to this day. Have we covered all of them in this guide? Of course not!

Which is where you come in. Do you know of any Irish traditions that we need to add in sharpish? They can be anything from mini traditions that are practised in your home or big, weird and wonderful traditions that take place in your town or village.

Let me know in the comments below and we’ll get them added.

Howaya! Thanks for visiting the Irish road trip! This site exists to inspire and guide you on an Irish adventure that’ll give birth to a lifetime of memories (sounds very arsey altogether, I know!) You'll find everything from things to do in Ireland to where to stay in Ireland (unique and unusual places) if you have a nosey around!

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