Analysis: We love our "bank holidays" in Ireland. But where did they come from and who gets to decide when they are?

We love a bank holiday in Ireland. We love talking about the bank holiday weather and the bank holiday traffic, we love planning for them and we love lamenting when they're over. But where did they get their name and who gets to decide when they happen?

"The idea of a public holiday, a special day of rest, isn’t all that new," says Dr Coleman A. Dennehy, Humanities Institute, UCD. "It’s probably been going on since the high middle ages. Quite possibly they had more holidays than us when you take in to account all the feast days."

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In the middle ages and in the early modern period, there would often be recognised rest days or festival days that were prominent in different parts of the country. They could be centred around regional traditions, says Dennehy, harvests, religious observances, feast days or saints that might be prominent locally.

But Dennehy says these days were whittled away quite a bit as we became more urbanised and people moved from the farms into the factories in the 19th century. For instance, the Bank of England had about 40 days holidays when it was closed, but that changed drastically by the 1860s.

No prizes for guessing that banks are in fact the reason we call them bank holidays. All the way back in 1871, when Ireland was still under British rule, it was the Bank Holidays Act (1871) that introduced four days off: St Stephen’s Day if it’s a weekday — referred to as the 26th day of December, not Boxing Day or St Stephen’s Day — the first Monday in August, Easter Monday and Whit Monday.

A lot of the detail in that Bank Holidays Act is actually about things like settling debts and promissory notes

"It’s where the name comes from," says Dennehy. "It seems strange to people today that we still call them bank holidays. A lot of the detail in that Act is actually about things like settling debts and promissory notes."

The record of parliament shows that there wasn't a huge amount of debate about the four bank holidays. The bill was introduced by Sir John Lubbock, who was "very popular in the press as a result," says Dennehy. It wasn’t until 1903, when the Bank Holiday Act (Ireland) added March 17th, St Patrick's Day, as a bank holiday that we started getting the day off for that. It was passed by Westminster parliament and sponsored by a number of "Home Rulers" like James O'Mara, John Redmond, William O'Brien, John Dillon, George William Russell and others.

Fast forward another couple of decades and Ireland becomes a Free State. At this point in history the Public Holidays Act (1924) is essentially passed to right a technical legal issue and to officially repeal the UK acts. Dennehy says Kevin O'Higgins, who was serving as Vice-President of the Executive Council (the government) at the time, described the bill as "not of any importance".

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However, during a debate in the Dáil in 1924, TD Thomas Johnson, leader of the Labour Party and a representative for Co Dublin, urged his fellow politicians to consider the plight of the "workmen." He said "the term holiday is, of course, pleasing to the ear, and sounds very nice; but a man is easier in his mind when he is getting a holiday if he is getting his pay for the same day. In regard to a very large number of people, when you tell them they are going to have a holiday, it means that they are going to lose their pay for that day.

"I would ask the Minister favourably to consider the insertion of a clause in the Bill ensuring to workmen who are given a holiday by statute that they shall have their day's pay for that holiday. I think it would be a popular proposal, and I am sure it would do justice to men who are deprived by statute of an opportunity for earning their living."

This was, however, "largely ignored, unsurprisingly perhaps for 1920s Ireland," says Dennehy.

Ireland currently has 10 public holidays a year which is below the EU average of 12

In 1939, the Oireachtas passed the Holidays (Employees) Act, which also set out workers’ entitlements to paid leave. This Act set into law Christmas Day, St Stephen’s Day, St Patrick’s Day, Easter Monday, Whit Monday and the first Monday in August as bank holidays. Whit Monday later became the first Monday in June with an updated Act in 1973, while New Year’s Day was added in 1974 and the October holiday in 1977. The May holiday was added in 1993.

These days, the terms bank holiday and public holiday are used interchangeably, though all laws now refer only to public holidays. Despite some confusion, Good Friday is not a public holiday, but a bank holiday. While banks and some businesses do close, you’re not legally entitled to the day off.

The most recent public holiday added to the list in Ireland is St Brigid's Day on February 1st, also marking the Gaelic festival of Imbolc. It was introduced in recognition of the efforts of the general public, volunteers and all workers during the Covid-19 pandemic, and to remeber the people who lost their lives due to it.

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Ireland previously had a one once-off public holiday when December 31st 1999 was designated a public holiday in recognition of the Millennium. September 14th 2001 was designated a National Day of Mourning for the victims of the September 11th attacks in the United States.

Who gets to decide on a new public holiday?

Until the creation of the Irish Free State in 1922, it would have been the monarch's job to proclaim any new public holidays in Ireland. But according to Article 28 of the 1922 Constitution, new public holidays were to be proclaimed by the Executive Council alone for the polling day in general elections, Dennehy explains.

This is still true today, which means it falls to the government in power.

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Do we have a lot of public holidays in Ireland?

No. Ireland currently has 10 public holidays a year, which is below the EU average of 12. When that’s combined with the statutory annual leave days, we get 30 paid days off a year and the EU average is 34. Not only that but, according to Eurofound, we also work an average of 39 hours a week compared to the EU27 average of 37.8 hours.

Some TDs have previously called for more public holidays to bring Ireland in line with the EU average, says Dr Brenda Daly, Associate Professor of Law in the School of Law and Government, Dublin City University.

From Daly’s perspective, Ireland should be looking at increasing the amount of public holidays for the sake of employees: "I certainly would advocate that there is a benefit to it."

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What are you entitled to on a public holiday?

What you’re entitled to depends on your employment situation. Daly explains that your public holiday entitlements as an employee are set out in the Organisation of Working Time Act 1997 and the Organisation of Working Time (Determination of Pay For Holidays) Regulations 1997. Most full-time workers will be entitled to paid leave on public holidays, but there are exemptions when it comes to certain part-time workers.

If you qualify for a public holiday benefit, you are entitled to one of the following: a paid day off on the public holiday, an additional day of annual leave, an additional day's pay or a paid day off within a month of the public holiday.

This is a bit different for part-time workers. They only qualify for the paid day off or the pay in lieu if they've worked 40 hours in the last five weeks leading up to the public holiday. If they’re required to work that day, they are entitled to an additional day’s pay. Even if you’re not rostered to work on that particular day, you should get one-fifth of your weekly pay.

What you're entitled to on a bank holiday depends on your employment situation Photo: PA

The most important thing is to always check your employment contract first and foremost, says Daly. Your entitlement can vary depending on where you’re working and who you’re working for, and your employer might have particular industry agreements with trade unions. It may also be different depending on whether you’re on an agency contract.

Dates for your diary: a list of public holidays in Ireland

New Year’s Day (January 1st)

St Brigid’s Day (first Monday of every February except when February 1 falls on a Friday)

St. Patrick’s Day (March 17th)

Easter Monday (date changes every year)

May Bank Holiday (first Monday in May)

June Bank Holiday (first Monday in June)

August Bank Holiday (first Monday in August )

October Bank Holiday (last Monday in October)

Christmas Day (December 25th)

St Stephen’s Day (December 26th)


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