Irish Christmas Traditions and Customs

I have always had a great interest in folklore and folk customs, so I was delighted to get a copy of the newly published Irish Customs and Rituals published by Orpen Press for my Christmas reading. 

This is a wonderful book that details the rituals and customs carried out by past generations  living in Ireland. Its a perfect book to dip in and out of or read cover to cover as I did with a pot of tea in front of the fire. I’m delighted that the book’s author Marion McGarry has agreed to share her knowledge relating to Irish Christmas traditions and has kindly answered a series of questions about how our ancestors in past generations celebrated Christmas. I hope you find this interview as interesting and informative as I do.

Marion, many congratulations on this wonderful book. How did you first become interested in Irish customs and traditions?

Thanks Louise. I grew up with some of these customs and rituals, and was aware of many more of them. But I became really interested in them when I was writing the book The Irish Cottage: History, Culture and Design. In parts of that book I discussed the house as a space to be safeguarded from supernatural activity and where rituals were performed at specific times of the year. The research for Irish Customs and Rituals really expands that and looks at common calendar customs, rituals of daily life and beliefs of important life occasions such as births, marriages and deaths, all from the 19th to mid twentieth century.

What also drove me on was the realisation that many people are not aware of these customs, but there is a huge interest there. And I thought that a well-researched but readable book would inform and entertain people.

As Christmas is almost upon can you tell us what a typical Irish Christmas was like? How did people in the past prepared for and celebrate Christmas?

Advent was a time of great preparation for Christmas in Ireland. First of all, people would go and do a massive spring clean of their house, and any outhouses, barns and so on. Inside and out would be pulled apart, tidied and given a fresh coat of whitewash. WE see this big spring clean is a feature of many Irish festivals, people cleaned their homes in advance of St Brigid’s day, and Halloween, too. Fuel was stockpiled. Decorations of holly and ivy were foraged and brought back home and used to decorate the house (and even the animals barns). This was the children’s’ job, and supplemented with their own handmade decorations. The Christmas tree usually comprised of a branch from a Christmas tree potted up, so that it was considerably smaller than what were used to today. This approach to decorating is much more sustainable, too. So was the approach to food – most things on the Christmas dinner menu in rural Ireland was grown or raised by the person eating it, and if not it came from the local community, goose, bacon, potatoes, winter vegetables.

Like all Irish festivals the big celebration started on sunset on the eve of the festival day, so on Christmas Eve in Ireland past candles were lit in windows (in a ritual manner, either by the youngest child or the mother of the house). This was to be a sign to show the Holy Family they were welcome to the house, as they sought an inn. Also, on Christmas Eve night, the door was left unlocked so the dead could return to the household, this custom was practised by many on Halloween for example. Greenery was placed on graves, too, over Christmas to remember the dead.

Christmas holly- an illustration from the book Irish Customs and Rituals

What are the main changes in how we celebrate Christmas today from how out grandparents would have celebrated it?

When I was growing up, I would hear my grandparents and people of their generation saying ‘sure its Christmas every day now’ as if to say that people had it good all the time. Christmas was a time for a bit of indulgence for people who had otherwise frugal lives. Decent food, sweet cake, a bottle or two of porter, a respite from work and a chance to wear the good clothes were all welcome diversions of a festival celebrated at a dark and cold time of the year. Today we can do these things any evening of the week. To people of my grandparent’s generation, luxuries, even small ones, were a huge novelty and you can imagine that Christmas was keenly anticipated. And they had a much humbler Christmas than we do today.

Nollaig na mBan or women’s Christmas is a very Irish tradition that has been embraced by Irish women in recent years, can you tell me us more about this tradition?

Occurring on 6th January (the Epiphany), there is an old tradition in certain parts of the country (mainly Munster) that it’s a day off for women. Roles are meant to be reversed, so the men have to do the housework while the women get a chance to socialise with their female friends, usually to have tea and cake. Death divination customs were practised on this day, where candles are lit and named for family members – the idea is that the candles burning out indicated the order in which death will occur.

Many people in modern Ireland will travel to ancient sites aligned with the winter sun for the solstice such as Knockroe and Newgrange passage tombs. Have you come across any customs relating to the winter solstice in the course of your research?

Not specifically. As most Irish calendar customs were appropriated by the Christian religion (a good example is Imbolc which became St Brigid’s day) one can imagine that whatever midwinter celebrations on 21st that occurred migrated across to December 25th. What’s interesting is that there are older non Christian (perhaps even ancient) customs surviving in there, the celebrations starting on the eve before, the spring clean, the death divination rituals, the appearance of wren boys on Stephen’s Day, the remembrance of the dead.

Marion this is a wonderful read and would make a great Christmas gift for anyone interested in Irish folklore and traditions.

Delighted you liked it Louise, it would make a great birthday gift too! The e-book is coming out soon which will make it even more accessible for readers and researchers.

Both The Irish Cottage: History, Culture and Design and The Irish Cottage: History, Culture and Design can both be purchased from Orpen Press and Irish bookshops

The Autumnal Equinox and the Sliabh na Calliagh Passage Tomb Complex

Sliabh na Calliagh Passage Tomb complex is  one  of Ireland’s finest prehistoric archaeological sites. I am delighted to present a  guest blog  by the wonderful Lynda McCormack   that explains the  archaeological significance of the complex and its role in the autumnal equinox.  Lynda  is currently carrying out  Doctoral Research at the Department of Archaeology at NUI Galway and Sliabh na Calliagh is one of her study areas.


The Autumnal Equinox and the Sliabh na Calliagh Passage Tomb Complex By Lynda McCormack


The Sliabh na Callaigh Passage Tomb Complex often referred as the Lough Crew Complex is located in the north west of County Meath on a raised ridge of lower carboniferous limestone which erupts in four individual summits known as Carnbane West, Newtown hill, Carnbane East and Patrickstown Hill. The central and highest hill within this ridge is Carnbane East. At a height of 274m this is the highest point in County Meath and from this position in the landscape it is allegedly possible to view up to 18 counties on a clear day.


A map of the Sliabh na Callaigh Complex showing the distribution of monuments (McMann 1995).

There are 31 archaeological monument found on the heights of summits and low valleys within this area. Antiquarian accounts of the area suggest there may have been many more monuments here with some dismantled in the past for the construction of walls in the 1800’s. Recent geophysical investigations which involve non invasive scanning of the ground to detect the signature of sub surface remains have clarified the pattern of monument distribution with the result that it is now possible to speculate that the arrangement of space within the Complex may have been quite different in the Neolithic (McCormack 2010, 2012, 2013, 2014).


Lynda carrying out geophysical survey  on the southern extent of Carnbane East.

Folklore and Origin legends

The name Sliabh na Calliagh translates as the hills of the Witch and references a local explanatory narrative which attributed these enigmatic stone heaps to a mythological Cailleacht/Witch who allegedly dropped these stones from her apron as she jumped from hill to hill in her quest to rule all of Ireland. She apparently fell to her death on the lower slopes of Patrickstown hill but not before dropping these stone cairns in her wake. The detail inherent in these stories suggests that the locals who perpetuated these narratives were familiar with the distribution of sites across the ridge. Not only is the site named after her, one of the distinctively shaped kerbstones on the northern face of one of the largest monuments Cairn T is  named the Witches’ chair and it is thought that if she had succeeded in her quest then this particular stone could have functioned as her throne.


Cartoon of the caillech/withch dropping the stones from her apron after (Eibhlin Nu Sheinchin 1937).


Determined now her tomb to build, Her ample skirt with stones she filled,
And dropped a heap on Carnmore; Then stepped one thousand yards, to loar,
And dropped another goodly heap; And then with one prodigious leap
Gained Carnbeg: and on its height, Displayed the wonders of her might. (Jonathan Swift 1700).

Hags chair

Drawing of the hag’s chair from the Discovery of the Tomb of Ollamh Fodhla (Conwell 1973)

Passage Tomb Complexes and Passage Tombs

The Sliabh an Calliagh Passage Tomb Complex is one of our four major Irish Passage Tomb Complexes. There are over 236 of these monuments in Ireland, many of which appear within these four main concentrations. While many other Megalithic structures such as the Court Tomb, Portal Tomb and Wedge tomb most commonly appear in isolation. The Passage Tomb monument type is distinctive for its appearance in groups. These groups are commonly referred to as Cemeteries but are most accurately referred to as Complexes because a burial role can only have been one small part of their ritual usage. The most famous Irish Passage Tomb Complex is undoubtedly the Boyne Valley Complex where Newgrange and Knowth have been extensively excavated and reconstructed to facilitate tourist access via the Bru na Boinne visitor center in Donore Co. Meath. The two complexes in Co. Sligo are known as the Carrowkeel/Keashcorran Complex and Cuill Irra and both of these have been subjected to multiple research initiatives including excavation over the years. The Carrowmore distribution which is central to the Cuill Irra Complex is also accessible via an OPW visitor centre.

Cairn T

Plan of Cairn T plan showing the location of the hag’s chair (McMann 1995)

Passage Tomb monuments are named for the presence of a long passage which leads to a chamber which is concealed within a cairn of stones and retained by a kerb line of boulders. There is much variation in terms of size and while some monuments are small and compact and may never have facilitated human entry others are large and complex and appear to have been constructed to be as impressive as possible to a spectator.

Paul Naessens

Photograph by Paul Naessens Cairn T centrally placed on Carnbane East with Cairn U to the right and Cairn S in the background.

They date to the Neolithic period c. 3000BC and are complex ritual structures within which cremated human remains were carefully deposited. Although human bone is usually within these structures, they were not just built to contain to remains of the dead. These structures were built with ritual and used with ritual an in many instances excavation has revealed a series of foundation events which predate the structures suggesting that the very positions which they occupy within the landscape were of importance long before they came to be monumented in reflection of this in the Neolithic.
The Sliabh na Calliagh Passage Tomb monuments were brought to prominence by local school inspector Eugene Alfred Conwell in 1863 after a fortuitous visit to the summit of Carnbane East. It is most likely that the monuments were already well known to the locals and possibly also further afield but their significance was not understood or contextualised within the Irish Passage Tomb Tradition until Conwell began his investigations. He thoroughly searched the ridge and the surrounding hinterland and carefully documented each monument and implemented an identification scheme by which the individual monuments are still known today. Following his detailed field walking he undertook a series of investigations focused specifically on the recovery of human remains and the careful recording of each decorated surface. His records are of great value particularly because much of this art has been badly damaged and is no longer visible. Conwell also presented his findings to the Royal Irish Academy on numerous occasions and was responsible for the publication entitled The Discovery of the Tomb of Ollamh Fodhla. His research was conducted in the style of the time where different questions were asked of the data and so very little attention was paid to stratigraphy. Despite this however, Conwell was an industrious student and not only are his records detailed they are thoroughly engaging as he describes how he conducted his investigations under the watchful gaze of a number of ‘fine ladies’. Although the Sliabh na Callaigh Passage Tomb Complex is well known for its Neolithic Passage Tombs, it is a multi-period landscape which includes evidence for Mesolithic, Bronze Age and Iron Age activity extensively focused on the landscape to the north of the ridge.

Map 2

Multiperiod Sliabh na Calliagh (McCormack 2010)

The Equinox at Cairn T Sliabh na Calliagh

Many of the passage tombs on the height of the ridge are orientated towards the east and Cairn T in particular is carefully positioned with the effect that it captures the rays of the rising sun on the mornings of the Equinox in March and September. This alignment takes place over the course of five mornings and lasts for up to 30 minutes provided that the sun can penetrate the clouds.

Sunrise LC

Facing the rising sun on the 21st September 2015

Having visited the Equinox for over 15 years myself, I can say that it is easier to see it in March around 6am in comparison to September around 7am when the weather can be a little more unpredictable. Each year on the mornings of the Equinox, hundreds of tourists climb Carnbane East in the dark to watch the sun rise and to access Cairn T where they can watch the light travel over the floor space of the passage until it eventually reaches the highly decorated backstone which is directly aligned with the entrance portal.


The illumination at 6.30AM

chamber.jpg 3

Illumination at 7.05AM

Those who enter the chamber of Cairn T on the mornings of the Equinox can watch the sunlight trace its decorated path across the surface of the stone, starting in the top left hand corner and moving right in front of their eyes until it comes to rest on the chamber orthostat to the right of the recess.

light chamber

The illumination at 7.10AM

Interestingly, the quality of the light changes as it moves across this stone, as the sun rises. The colour of this light also changes from a deep red to a vibrant golden yellow.

chamber.jpg 2

The illumination at 7.30AM


The decorated backstone has been extensively studied and Shee Twohig (1981) notes that the ‘sunburst motif’ which is illuminated by the sunlight on the mornings of the Equinox is not found elsewhere within the Complex or within the Irish passage Tomb Tradition.

Chamber 5

Illumination at 7.15AM, the light showing the decoration on the backstone.


Within Cairn T in particular there are 19 decorated orthostats, 2 decorated sill stones, 8 decorated roof stones and one decorated kerbstone known as the Witches’ chair (Shee Twohig 1981, p. 214). Another interesting motif which is found on the surface of this stone is the offset motif which is also known as the scaliform motif (Robin 2008), Robin’s recent research into the structured placement of megalithic art within Passage Tomb monuments has shown that this particular motif is commonly found in association with entrances and sill stones and places of transition within the monument.

scaliform motif

The Scaliform motif (Robin 2008) Decorated back stone Cairn T (Conwell 1873)


Antiquarian sketch of decoration backstone cairn T

Antiquarian sketch of decoration back stone cairn T


Its appearance here on the backstone is potentially indication of a metaphorical transition seeing as it is not possible to physically move thorough this space. Perhaps the presence of this motif on this surface is also connected to the transition of the sunlight across the surface of the stone. Megalithic art is commonly referred to as abstract art. There are multiple interpretations of what the individual motifs might represent and each interpretation is a valid as the next but it is impossible to be sure of the true meanings affixed to the individual motifs. One thing is certain though, this art was undoubtedly integral to the ritual experience of the site and undoubtedly had a deep meaning for those who constructed and used these spaces in the Neolithic.

CT 2

Cairn T photographed from the west on the morning of the Equinox 21st September 2015.

Visiting Sliabh na Calliagh

The central hill of the Sliabh na Calliagh Passage Tomb Complex known as Carnbane East is state owned and access can be gained free of charge to this site throughout the year. The key to Cairn T can be obtained from a local coffee shop and so access is facilitated to this monument even after the OPW have withdrawn their tour guiding presence which extends throughout the summer months .This Monday on the 21ST of September at 7AM hundreds of us made our twice yearly pilgrimage to the heights of Carnbane East in the dark hoping to experience the sun light trace its decorated path across the backstone of Cairn T. In doing so we were potentially re-tracing the footprints of our Ancestors who constructed these monuments 5000 years ago who may have climbed this hill with comparable anticipation. Those who made the trip this year were rewarded by the sight of a sunrise from the highest vantage point in County Meath, We were also rewarded by the sight of the sunbeams carefully captured within the monument for this short period of time.
We will gather again in March 2016 for the Vernal Equinox which marks the return of the light and the lengthening of the days but until then we are left with an evocative image of how these monuments may have been used to measure the passing of time in the Neolithic.

You can keep up todate with Lynda’s research on twitter at  @LyndaMcCormack1 and on

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Conwell, E. 1873. Discovery of the tomb of Ollamh Fodhla. Dublin, McGlashan &Gill.
McCormack, L. 2010. A Comparative and Multiperiod Landscape Analysis of the Sliabh na Callaigh Hills. Unpublished MA Thesis. NUI Galway.
McCormack, L. 2012. A Geophysical Investigation of the Sliabh na Callaigh Passage Tomb Complex Phase 1. Unpublished report NUI Galway
McCormack, L. 2013. A Geophysical Investigation of the Sliabh na Callaigh Passage Tomb Complex Phase 2. Unpublished report NUI Galway.
McCormack, L. 2014. A Geophysical Investigation of the Sliabh na Callaigh Passage Tomb Complex Phase 3, Unpublished report NUI Galway.
McMann, J. 1995. Loughcrew the Cairns a Guide, Meath, After Hours Books.
Robin, G. 2008. Neolithic Passage Tomb Art around the Irish sea Iconography and Spatial Organisation. Unpublished Ph.D thesis, Nantes.
Shee Twohig, E. 1981. The Megalithic Art of Western Europe. Oxford, Clarendon Press.

The Hidden World of the Irish Medieval Park

I am  delighted to present a guest post by  Fiona Beglane who is the author of a wonderful book on  deerparks in Medieval Ireland.  Hunting and the keeping of deer was such and important part of medieval life in Ireland but to date it has received little attention in academic or popular books.  This is a topic  I know little about so I was delighted when Fiona agreed to write a guest post  to share her knowledge and her research on the topic.


Anglo-Norman Parks in Medieval Ireland


The Hidden World of the Irish medieval park

Over the last couple of decades there has been increasing interest in both medieval archaeology and in landscape studies. Until recently very little work has been done on medieval parks in Ireland although these were an important part of the manorial landscape particularly for large, important manors that had castles at their centres. This blogpost will look at what the parks were used for, where they are and what we know about them.

The castle and park at Dunamase, Co. Laois

View of the castle and park at the Rock of Dunamase Co Laois

My research has shown that some of the recorded medieval parks can still be identified in the modern landscape. Medieval parks where I have carried out detailed surveys include those at Loughrea, Maynooth, Nenagh, Dunamase, Glencree and Carrick, Co. Wexford, while parks at places like Oakpark, Co. Carlow and Kilkenny are now under more recent demesne landscapes.

Medieval parks were enclosed areas of land surrounded by a wall, hedge, ditch or palings (a wooden fence) or by a combination of these, and in fact the word park means ‘enclosure’. In Ireland the recorded high medieval examples range between four acres and 913 acres, with the majority having a land area of between twenty and two hundred acres. In an ideal world, the lord owning of one of the largest parks would have kept a herd of fallow fallow deer which would have provided venison for the table, but this was out of reach for the vast majority of park owners who had more humble enclosures. Parks were important for growing large trees to provide timber for construction, and by enclosing these the trees were protected from being take for firewood, charcoal burning or general carpentry. Smaller pieces of wood such as coppiced poles and firewood could also be deliberately produced within parks and were important resources within the manors, both for the lord’s use and for his tenants. The vast majority of parks in Ireland also seem to have been used for pasturing cattle and other animals, which were protected from theft while they were enclosed. These could belong to the lord or to his tenants and could even include animals impounded by the court, for example on non-payment of fines.

The ditch forming the southern park boundary at Carrick   Co. Wexford

The ditch forming the southern park boundary at Carrick Co. Wexford


I have found documentary evidence of at least forty-six parks in Ireland up to c.1400, all of which are from areas of the country held by the Anglo-Normans. They are mostly in the east of the country, with a few examples in Anglo-Norman areas of the west and south. They appear in a variety of documents including Inquisitions post-mortem, court records, patent rolls, church and manorial records. The most detailed of these can include descriptions of land areas, the layout of a manor, livestock within the park and the value of grazing lands, and as such they can provide a valuable resource for understanding medieval land use and mind-set.

Many of the parks are difficult to physically find in the modern landscape. In some cases the site of a recorded medieval park has been lost under urban sprawl, although sometimes the pattern of the road system has fossilised the park boundaries. Other parks fell out of use fairly shortly after being created and so there is little evidence of their location. Place names can sometimes be helpful, however it is important to be cautious. The very common place name ‘Deerpark’, is post-medieval and would not have been used for a medieval park, while townlands or areas of land called ‘Park’ can be of high medieval or of later origin. Using maps and detailed fieldwork it has been possible for me to identify the location and boundaries of some of the Irish medieval parks. These include u-shaped, sub-rectangular and oval shapes and they can be bounded by lakes, rivers or roads on one or more sides.


The River Slaney formed the northern park boundary at   Carrick, Co. Wexford

The River Slaney formed the northern park boundary at Carrick, Co. Wexford

Before the Anglo-Normans arrived in Ireland the country was divided into a large number of túatha or petty kingdoms. There is evidence that many of the parks were constructed on land that was woodland in this earlier period, which would make practical sense. In some cases, there were also prehistoric or early medieval monuments within them, and there was place name evidence to show that the Anglo-Norman lords deliberately enclosed symbolically-important land. By doing this, the new owners aimed to control access to memories and monuments of the past and to demonstrate their control over the local population.

Glencree, Co. Wicklow

Glencree, Co. Wicklow

Parks were key features within the medieval landscape and have long been ignored. It is now possible to find these in the modern landscape and they can help us to understand how and why people in the past used the land in the way that they did. Parks had both practical and symbolic purposes ranging from enclosing deer and cattle though timber production to being used as a symbol of status and authority. If you would like to know more, then check out my recent book  Anglo-Norman parks in Medieval Ireland.

Beglane, Fiona. 2015. Anglo-Norman parks in medieval Ireland: 1169-c.1350. Four Courts Press, Dublin.
Beglane, Fiona. 2015. ‘The social significance of game in the diet of later medieval Ireland’. Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy. 115C: 1-30.
Beglane, Fiona. 2014. ‘Theatre of power: the Anglo-Norman park at Earlspark, Co Galway, Ireland’ Medieval Archaeology. 58: 307-17
Murphy, Margaret & Kieran O’Conor. 2006. ‘Castles and Deer Parks in Anglo-Norman Ireland’, Eolas: Journal of the American Society of Irish Medieval Studies, 1: 51-70

Dr Fiona Beglane is a lecturer of archaeology at IT Sligo. Her research interests focus on zooarchaeology, hunting, medieval archaeology, medieval landscape and settlement and the use of scientific techniques in archaeology. She has a particular interest in integrating scientific and social/cultural interpretations of archaeology and in examining the interaction of humans and animals. She can be contacted at