Analysis: Ash Wednesday marked the start of 40 days of fasting, penitence and denial in the lead-up to the eagerly anticipated Easter festival

By Marion McGarryGalway Mayo Institute of Technology

These days, we are more likely to hear about intermittent fasting as a diet solution than to do with Lent. In the past in Ireland, Lent loomed larger than it does today over most peoples' lives. A period of religious fasting and denial reflecting the penitence of Christ, it begins on Ash Wednesday, lasts around six weeks and ends on Easter Sunday.

Today, Lent might involve giving up an edible treat, such as sweets. In the past, it was a time of denial of many pleasures and many basics too. Meat, eggs, dairy products, alcohol (obviously) and even sex were all off the agenda for practising Catholics. Included on the list was music and merrymaking of any kind: there was a solemn custom of ceremoniously putting musical instruments into storage on this day.

Yet people always found ways around some of the bans when required. There were some ingenious ways of "making" meat into fish, for example, as fish was allowed. According to Kevin Danaher's "The Year In Ireland; A Calendar", the flesh of the barnacle goose was considered as a type of fish in coastal areas and therefore was thought to be fine for the people to eat during Lent. There were also occasional blow-outs to look forward to, such as St Patrick’s Day, when people gave themselves a day off Lent to partake in meat, alcohol and other enjoyments usually forbidden at this time.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, Cathy Halloran and Pat McGrath take a look at traditions of Ash Wednesday and Lent

On Ash Wednesday, Catholics attend mass to be marked on the forehead by ashes by the priest as he recited: "dust thou art and into dust that shall return". People created their own ash by burning the palm from the previous year’s Palm Sunday and bringing it to church for a blessing on Ash Wednesday. These could then be mixed with oil or lard to be used as a type of rub believed curative for ailments throughout the year.

Ash Wednesday was one of the "black fast" days, an extreme fast done out of religious devotion. People would have one meal only, usually of water and dry bread on black fast days (another black fast day was Good Friday). Children over the age of seven were expected to partake in this. There was a cruel (but thankfully rare) belief that babies would have to cry three times before they were allowed to be fed on a black fast day.

Given the fact that Lent was such a long period of penitence and fasting, Easter became one of the most eagerly anticipated and enjoyed feast days in the calendar. Occurring at a time of better weather, it was a time for outdoor excursions, wearing new clothes and enjoying foods and activities previously denied.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Today with Sean O'Rourke, Paddy O'Gorman meets people wearing ash for Ash Wednesday

In Co. Fermanagh, pilgrims on Inishmacsaint on Lough Erne would hold an all-night vigil on Easter Eve. According to the Calendar of Irish Folk Customs (Appletree Press, 1980), the cross on the island is supposed to turn itself about three times on Easter morning to greet Jesus rising from the dead. On the morning of Easter Sunday, many people rose early to see the "dance of the sun". It was believed that the sun would "dance" in the sky only at sunrise on Easter Sunday morning. People would gather on a high vantage point to witness the spectacle, but were advised not to look directly at the sun (as in an eclipse) in case of damage to the eyes so they observed the sun reflected in a pan of water.

The most celebrated foodstuff was eggs. The decoration of Easter eggs is customary throughout Europe and Irish traditions are not that different. A large glut of them would have collected during Lent so a feast of eggs was traditionally enjoyed for breakfast on Easter Sunday. Children dyed eggs using washing blue (a coloured washing detergent), or onion skins were added to water to colour them. The boiled eggs were painted and decorated and either eaten, displayed or played with, or rolled down hills in races. Later, the colourful shells would be saved for decorating the May Bush for Bealtaine.

From RTÉ Archives, what will the people of Dublin give up for the 40 days of fasting and abstinence during Lent? A RTÉ News report from 1985 by Alasdair Jackson

Easter dinner was second in importance only to the Christmas dinner, and seasonal Spring meats such as lamb, veal or kid were customary. Prosperous farmers distributed meat amongst their poorer neighbours so that they too might enjoy a festive dinner.

In a response to the finer weather, outings to the countryside took place, people visited landmarks and holy wells and festive bonfires were lit. In some areas, a "cake dance" was held outdoors or at a crossroads on Easter Sunday evening, with a large cake as a prize for the best dancers. On Easter Monday, fairs took place consisting of the usual trading and games, sports, sideshows, food, music, gambling and occasionally, organised faction fighting, a great spectacle for onlookers to behold. The dark days of Lent were over and it was time to look toward late spring and the beginning of summer, and hopefully to better times ahead.

Dr Marion McGarry is an art historian, author, independent researcher and lecturer at Galway Mayo Institute of Technology


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ