An Irish Christmas
Posted by Mike McCormack on November 30, 2013 

The Christmas season in Ireland is a happy combination of modern and ancient customs that combine to bring a unique meaning to this special time of year.  While Christmas shopping, decorated trees, and Santa Claus are evident everywhere, traditional customs that signify the true meaning of this holy season still remain, especially in the towns and villages where people still celebrate the holy feast as their ancestors had for generations.

In the early times on Christmas Eve, the windows of the house were decorated with garlands of holly and ivy, with candles centered in each – often in a hollowed-out turnip for support.  This holly-encircled candle should be familiar since the Christmas Wreath we know today is a reminder of that Irish tradition which began back in 16th century, when Penal Laws outlawed the Catholic religion and clergy.  The Irish kept their faith though, and secretly met outlawed priests to celebrate Mass in the woods and mountains whenever they could.  Mass might be celebrated once a month, or even less, but one time they never missed was Christmas.  In spite of persecution, Christmas still brought hope.  An alien power may have controlled the land, but they couldn’t control the hearts of the Irish; they still had their customs, faith, and pride, and by God they would have their Mass.  One of those customs, older than the race that ruled them, originated in pre-Christian days with the ringing of doors and windows with holly and ivy.  That came from the ancient Celtic custom of ringing the openings of a dwelling with those magical leaves to ward off the evils of winter.  Since holly and ivy remained green when all other plants died, they were deemed immune to the killing force of winter.  The custom carried into the Christian era as a decorative function, and the Brits marveled at the hope that still burned in hearts they had tried so hard to discourage.  The source of that hope was their faith; and in each community, courageous families would risk fine and imprisonment to attend a mid-night Mass celebrated by an outlawed priest and one especially brave family would host the celebration.  Naturally, the house to be used was kept secret until just before the Mass was to begin, at which time a lighted candle was placed in the window to signal the faithful.  Once the signal was given, candles were lit in every house window to confuse any who might try to interfere with the celebration.  To the Irish, the meaning of the candle was clear, but to the stranger, it was merely an extension of the pagan custom of holiday decoration.  The candle, eventually became part of the custom, remaining long after its need as a signal disappeared.  Today’s Christmas wreath should serve as a reminder of the sacrifices made by those who placed a candle in a holly-encircled window to send out the message "The Lord is in this house tonight"

In later years, as evening fell over the Irish hills on Christmas eve, the candles in each window were lit casting amagical glow over the hillside like scattered jewels on Erin's cloak of evening, the largest of which were the churches dotting the landscape and  beckoning the faithful to Midnight Mass.  After Mass the people returned home and retired for the night leaving their doors slightly ajar as a symbol of hospitality insuring that no wandering couple seeking shelter would be turned away as was Joseph and Mary on that first Christmas Eve.  A cup and saucer was placed on the table in each home with home-made soda bread for the wandering souls from Purgatory who were thought to come home for Christmas.  On Christmas morning, the candles would be snuffed out, preferably by someone with the name of Mary.

On Christmas day came the Christmas meal - assorted vegetables and potatoes deliciously prepared to compliment the Christmas goose or turkey, followed by the Christmas pudding.  After dinner, the children would play games while the adults sat about the fire, reminiscing about Christmases past until it was time to cut the Christmas cake amid much excitement.  The reverent celebration of Christmas in Ireland did not conclude with the setting of the sun on Christmas day.  The season would extend for a full twelve days, and any feast that fell within that period was considered a part of the overall Christmas celebration. Saint Stephen's Day, December 26, is one such feast.

In early times, the children of Ireland would begin St. Stephen's day with a hunt for a small wren which they would kill and place in a little box. Today, a box decorated with feathers simulates the victim satisfying bird-lovers as well as saving the boys the trouble of the hunt.  These Wren Boys, as they were called, dressed in old blouses, pajamas, flour sacks, sashes and colored ribbons in as many combinations as the imagination allowed. They then set off carrying the `victim' and a collection of musical instruments centering around the Bodhran (a one sided drum similar to a large tambourine) which is beaten with a wooden stick as they make their rounds from door to door, singing the traditional Wren Song and collecting pennies as a reward for their deed, and to `bury the wren'.  The Wren Boys were practicing a ritual that was old in Western Europe before the Christian gospel was first preached in the hills of Galilee.  Scholars suggest that it is of Celtic origin and that, with the coming of Christianity, its meaning was Christianized.  What had the little wren done to be hunted down through history?  The ancient Druidic version is that the wren was condemned to persecution by his fellow birds because, he used trickery to oust the eagle from the kingship of all birds; the story was used as a lesson to children about the virtues of honesty.  The Christian version related that the wren flew from a bush betraying the hiding place of St. Stephen who was captured and martyred as a result, which explains the custom falling on St. Stephen's day, and why it is the duty of all good men to hunt and kill the little beast.  The tale associated with St. Stephen adds one more measure of religious significance to the season which continues until Little Christmas on January 6, when the visit of the Magi, or the three wise men, is celebrated.  Years ago in some areas of Ireland, as in many areas of Europe, it was this day, rather than Christmas, when gifts were exchanged in remembrance of the gift of the Magi.

Another Irish Christmas link exists in the Church of St Nicholas in the village of Newtown, Co. Kilkenny wherein lie the partial remains of St. Nicholas, the fourth century abbot who inspired the legend of Santa Claus.  According to tradition, centuries after his death, a band of Irish-Norman knights traveled to the Holy Land as part of the Crusades, and upon their return to Ireland, brought with them the earthly remains of St Nicholas.  They had them re-interred in the Church of Saint Nicholas which now lies in ruins.  In truth, the nearby Cistercian Jerpoint Abbey was a launching point for Irish-Norman Crusaders and the Normans were keen collectors of religious relics.  The ruined church contains an unusual grave slab dating to the 1300s, carved with an image of a cleric and two other heads. The cleric is said to be St Nicholas and the other heads are the two pious crusaders, William de Dene and William Archid, who brought his remains back to Ireland.  The Church is a place of pilgrimage every Christmas and the Internet website, confirms the story with a photo of the grave slab and a verse which notes:

Devout wayfarer, cease your search,
for in Kilkenny's ancient church
Saint Nicholas' sepulcher is found
enshrined in Ireland's holy ground.

Here lie the bones of Santa Claus
secure beneath these marble floors.
So gentle pilgrim, hear the call
and may Saint Nicholas bless you all.

Many are the customs and traditions that surround Christmas in various countries but nowhere is it more beautiful or meaningful than on God's emerald Isle where the true meaning of the season is not forgotten.  Nollaig shona dhuit, (Happy Christmas to you).

December 1, 2018 By Mike McCormack
As 2018 ends, we recall that a century ago was a time of great change in Ireland. The Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) goal of Home Rule, an Irish parliament under the Crown, was supported by many before 1916, but Britain’s reaction to the Rising struck them like an Irish Pearl Harbor. The British secretly court-martialed and murdered the leaders who should have been treated as prisoners of war; they unleashed nation-wide Martial Law treating every Irishman as a rebel and Loyalists convinced Lloyd George to break off a piece of Ireland and give it to them. The reaction was predictable – no longer would Home Rule under the Crown do, for now, like the heroes of Easter Week, they wanted total independence.

Sinn Fein, an insignificant party, gained strength by defending the Easter Week patriots and by 1918, had four local election victories and became a new political force. Further, many Volunteer units re-formed as the Army of the Irish Republic (IRA) and young women joined a reinvigorated Cumann na mBan. The Hibernian Rifles of the American Alliance folded their organization into the new IRA as the First Battalion, Dublin Brigade.

Michael Collins
In 1918, Michael Collins, adjutant general of the Volunteers, became Director of Intelligence establishing a network of spies among the police, the British army and even in Dublin Castle – Britain’s control center. His spies intercepted messages and Collins often had them before the intended recipient. In April, a British Report confirmed partition and concurrently, conscription was ordered in Ireland. Reaction saw an unlikely alliance of Church and Sinn Fein rally opposition. As America entered the war, reducing the need for more recruits, and Irish opposition growing, conscription was never enforced.

In May, the British blundered again, claiming an attempt by Sinn Fein to import German arms for another rising and arresting 150 of the leaders. The so-called German Plot was found to be black propaganda by Dublin Castle to destabilize growing nationalist sentiment. Collins had warned of the coming arrests and some escaped capture while others chose to be taken to secure a propaganda victory. The internment was significant since it took the accommodating leaders away while militant leaders, heeding Collins’ warning, remained allowing Collins to consolidate control and put the organization on a more military footing.

On 4 July, the frustrated British finally banned Sinn Fein, the Gaelic League and Cumann na mBan and forbade public gatherings including GAA games. The Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA), one of the largest organizations in Ireland, had always been nationalist and responded by arranging a program of 1,600 matches at 3PM on 4 August calling it Gaelic Sunday. As many as 4,000 teams with nearly 100,000 players; took the field! The British ended their attempt to dictate to the GAA!

By the end of 1918, nationalism had grown considerably and the final nail in Britain’s political coffin was hammered themselves when, at War’s end, Lloyd George called for a December election to insure his continued power. However, an act, passed in 1916 to defuse Republican ire after the botched handling of the Rising, extended the vote to men over 21 and women over 30. This put nationalists in a position to take the country by storm and they did making 1918 a year of profound political change. When the votes were counted on 28 December, Sinn Fein won 73 seats as opposed to IPP’s 6 and Unionist’s 22. The 1918 Election was the last all-Ireland election ever held; it was also the first to allow women to vote; and the first to elect a woman (Countess Markievicz) to the British Parliament.

Then, on 7 January 1919, Sinn Fein’s elected members decided not to take their seats at Westminster; instead, they formed their own independent Parliament called Dail Eireann. On 21 January, 24 members of Dail Eireann first met at Dublin’s Mansion House; in a roll call 35 names were in British prisons. They declared Ireland an independent Republic based on the principles of 1916, which led to the War of Independence that fought the Brits to the treaty table, resulted in the 26-county Free State and ultimately to a partial Republic of Ireland! That meeting, 100 years ago, was the most defining moment in Irish history! We’ll visit that meeting next month.

Were there Irish slaves?

The Irish slave trade began when James II sold 30,000 Irish prisoners as slaves to the New World. His Proclamation of 1625 required Irish political prisoners be sent overseas and sold to English settlers in the West Indies. By the mid 1600s, the Irish were the main slaves sold to Antigua and Montserrat. At that time, 70% of the total population of Montserrat were Irish slaves.

Ireland quickly became the biggest source of human livestock for English merchants. The majority of the early slaves to the New World were actually white.

From 1641 to 1652, over 500,000 Irish were killed by the English and another 300,000 were sold as slaves. Ireland's population fell from about 1,500,000 to 600,000 in one single decade. Families were ripped apart as the British did not allow Irish dads to take their wives and children with them across the Atlantic. This led to a helpless population of homeless women and children. Britain's solution was to auction them off as well.

During the 1650s, over 100,000 Irish children between the ages of 10 and 14 were taken from their parents and sold as slaves in the West Indies, Virginia and New England. In this decade, 52,000 Irish (mostly women and children) were sold to Barbados and Virginia. Another 30,000 Irish men and women were also transported and sold to the highest bidder. In 1656, Cromwell ordered that 2000 Irish children be taken to Jamaica and sold as slaves to English settlers.

Many people today will avoid calling the Irish slaves what they truly were: Slaves. They'll come up with terms like "Indentured Servants" to describe what occurred to the Irish. However, in most cases from the 17th and 18th centuries, Irish slaves were nothing more than human cattle.

As an example, the African slave trade was just beginning during this same period. It is well recorded that African slaves, not tainted with the stain of the hated Catholic theology and more expensive to purchase, were often treated far better than their Irish counterparts.

African slaves were very expensive during the late 1600s (50 Sterling). Irish slaves came cheap (no more than 5 Sterling). If a planter whipped or branded or beat an Irish slave to death, it was never a crime. A death was a monetary setback, but far cheaper than killing a more expensive African.

The English masters quickly began breeding the Irish women for both their own personal pleasure and for greater profit. Children of slaves were themselves slaves, which increased the size of the master's free workforce. Even if an Irish woman somehow obtained her freedom, her kids would remain slaves of her master. Thus, Irish moms, even with this new found emancipation, would seldom abandon their kids and would remain in servitude.

In time, the English thought of a better way to use these women (in many cases, girls as young as 12) to increase their market share: The settlers began to breed Irish women and girls with African men to produce slaves with a distinct complexion. These new "mulatto" slaves brought a higher price than Irish livestock and, likewise, enabled the settlers to save money rather than purchase new African slaves.

This practice of interbreeding Irish females with African men went on for several decades and was so widespread that, in 1681, legislation was passed "forbidding the practice of mating Irish slave women to African slave men for the purpose of producing slaves for sale." In short, it was stopped only because it interfered with the profits of a large slave transport company.

England continued to ship tens of thousands of Irish slaves for more than a century. Records state that, after the 1798 Irish Rebellion, thousands of Irish slaves were sold to both America and Australia.

There were horrible abuses of both African and Irish captives. One British ship even dumped 1,302 slaves into the Atlantic Ocean so that the crew would have plenty of food to eat.

There is little question that the Irish experienced the horrors of slavery as much (if not more in the 17th Century) as the Africans did. There is, also, very little question that those brown, tanned faces you witness in your travels to the West Indies are very likely a combination of African and Irish ancestry.

In 1839, Britain finally decided on it's own to end it's participation in Satan's highway to hell and stopped transporting slaves. While their decision did not stop pirates from doing what they desired, the new law slowly concluded THIS chapter of nightmarish Irish misery.

But, if anyone, black or white, believes that slavery was only an African experience, then they've got it completely wrong.

Irish slavery is a subject worth remembering, not erasing from our memories. But, where are our public (and PRIVATE) schools???? Where are the history books? Why is it so seldom discussed?

Do the memories of hundreds of thousands of Irish victims merit more than a mention from an unknown writer? Or is their story to be one that their English pirates intended: To (unlike the African book) have the Irish story utterly and completely disappear as if it never happened.

None of the Irish victims ever made it back to their homeland to describe their ordeal. These are the lost slaves; the ones that time and biased history books conveniently forgot.