The cultural history of Ireland incorporates many elements – ancient Celtic traditions, Christian teachings and folk-lore from the predominantly rural populace. Thus Irish wedding customs include all of the above aspects, giving the wedding ceremony a beauty and symbolism that is quite unique. So if you are interested in knowing more about Irish wedding customs and traditions, here is an overview.
Selecting a date
Once a couple in Ireland decide to get married, the first step is deciding on the wedding date. Traditionally, the last day of the old year is considered to bring fortune on couples getting married whereas Childermas Day or Holy Innocents is believed to be unlucky for weddings. An old superstition holds that May is an unlucky wedding month, because of its association with the Virgin Mary, yet in reality it is one of the most popular months for weddings, both in Ireland and among Irish-origin families in America, probably on account of the good weather that is more common at this time. Also a sunny day is believed to be lucky, and a rainy one, unlucky for weddings. Christmas and New Year's Eve are again thought to bring luck to newly married couples. According to a popular Irish folklore, “You Marry on Monday for wealth, Tuesday for health, Wednesday the best day of all, Thursday for crosses, Friday for losses and Saturday no day at all”.
Putting up the banns
Since the time Ireland came under British rule, Irish couples intending to get married were required to put up banns of marriage. This consisted of an announcement in church for three Sundays prior to the wedding. The main purpose of putting up the banns was to prevent people from marrying in haste and it also gave anyone who might object enough time to learn of the match. In fact even now giving three months notice to the registrar is still a legal requirement for getting married in Ireland.
Dressing up the bride
'Something old, something new/something borrowed, something blue/and a silver sixpence in your shoe'. In the Victorian times, this maxim became quite popular with brides and eventually became part of Irish weddings. Something old refers to wearing something that represents a link with the bride's family and her old life. This is usually a piece of family jewelry but it could also be her mother's or grandmother's wedding dress.
Wearing something new represents good fortune and success in the bride's new life. In most cases it is her wedding gown which has been made for the occasion but if she is already wearing an old one, it could be any other new item of the bride's wedding attire.
Wearing something borrowed, which has already been worn by a happy bride at her wedding, is thought to bring good luck to the marriage. A borrowed item could be a trinket, a handkerchief or part of the wedding ensemble.
However the most typical aspect of an Irish bride’s dress is ‘something blue’. This dates back to biblical times when the color blue was considered to represent purity and fidelity just like white does now. Originally thus Irish brides would wear wedding gowns in a shade of blue. Over time this evolved to wearing a blue band around the bottom of the bride's dress while in modern times it is more common for the bride to wear a blue or blue-trimmed garter.
Even now, placing a silver sixpence in the bride's left shoe is a symbol of wealth. This is not just to hope that the bride is lucky to find financial prosperity in marriage but also a wealth of happiness and joy throughout her married life.
One of the noisiest but also most enjoyable customs which characterize Irish weddings consists of people honking their horns as the couple to be married go on their way to the church. This is a much tamer version of an earlier custom which had people firing their rifles as much as in celebration of the wedding as to warn off intruders and troublemakers who may be planning to disrupt the wedding in progress.
However the custom which is most characteristic of Irish weddings is Handfasting. This actually harks back to the pre-Christian Celtic traditions according to which once the hands of a man and woman were clasped together under certain circumstances, they could be declared husband and wife. In the Christian era, handfasting came to acquire various meanings ranging from public announcement of a betrothal to a kind of trial marriage. According to the latter, a couple that has gone through handfasting could go a step beyond betrothal but not enjoy a relationship as permanent as marriage. In popular usage, it was believed that handfasting ‘for a year and a day’ would normally lead to a permanent and valid marriage but if either party chose to leave, the relationship could be declared null. Even if children were born out of such a relationship, they were considered lawful offspring of both parents.
In these times though, handfasting figures as a part of a conventional Irish wedding ceremony where the priest or civic official asks "Who gives this woman to be wed?" and then takes her hand from her father or whoever is giving away the bride and clasps it to the hand of the groom, thus signifying that they have been joined in marriage. In fact for contemporary couples handfasting is popular more as a neo-pagan, nonreligious alternative to a conventional religious ceremony.
The Claddagh Ring
One of the most popular customs associated with Irish weddings is the Claddagh ring. Designed as two hands clasping a heart which is surmounted by a crown, the ring is symbolic of love, friendship as well as loyalty. And though the Claddagh ring can be given to a friend or a lover too, it is one of the most cherished designs for Irish weddings.
Leaving the wedding
According to an old Irish custom, a bride would return home by a different path with her new husband than the one she took to the church or wedding with her father. While this may have begun as an attempt to avoid pranks and kidnappings by rival tribes, eventually it came to symbolize that after marriage a woman travels a new road in life.