Invited to an Irish wedding? You may be familiar with some of the Irish wedding traditions used in the ceremony and at the reception, but what do they mean? Irish weddings are some of the most romantic and soulful weddings to attend—even if you aren’t Irish. You’ll enjoy the celebration even more by understanding the sentiment behind these Celtic traditions and symbols of love.
"Many of our wedding traditions originated from the fear of evil spirits in ancient Ireland and other parts of Europe," says Nora Sheils of Bridal Bliss Events. "While some traditions are relevant today like wearing a veil and carrying fragrant flowers, others are not like getting married during harvest or before lent, eating salt on your wedding day, or that Saturdays are considered an unlucky day to tie the knot.”
Meet the Expert
Nora Sheils is the founder of Bridal Bliss, a top planner and a wedding expert in the Pacific Northwest. An 18-year event and wedding planning veteran, Nora has planned many Irish weddings. Nora's savvy leadership has guided her team to earn several awards as well as international recognition.
Here are some questions frequently asked by guests before attending an Irish wedding:
- Do all Irish weddings take place in a church? If the couple is Catholic and will be married in the Catholic faith, a priest will perform the ceremony in a church. But many today choose a secular wedding which can be performed anywhere.
- What do I wear? If it’s a church ceremony dress appropriately, take your cue from the wedding invitation.
- How long is an Irish wedding ceremony? If it’s a Catholic ceremony, it may be a Mass that includes the sacrament of Communion for Catholics in attendance, which can run 45 to 60 minutes long. Without Communion, expect about 30 minutes. The average time for a secular ceremony is 25 to 30 minutes.
- Should I bring a gift? Of course. Select from their gift registry or find something personalized that shows their Irish heritage like Waterford Crystal toasting glasses or Belleek Pottery. True etiquette says the gift should be shipped to the couple in advance.
Read on for the most common traditions, symbols, and customs you'll see at an Irish wedding.
What the Bride Wears
Some brides of Irish ancestry have their dresses specially made, or they embellish a ready-made dress with Celtic symbols like knots, crosses, or shamrocks in white embroidery. Another beautiful touch is to add Irish lace. You might also see an Irish lace headpiece or a veil with Irish lace accents. In cold weather, brides may want to wear a classic bridal cloak in wool or a combination of light-weight wool and Irish linen.
What the Groom Wears
Irish kilt tartans represent the counties and districts of Ireland, while Scottish kilts differ in that they represent their clan in their tartan design and color. There is also an Irish national tartan, made famous as a response to the Anglicization of the Emerald Ise by the British. Traditional Irish weddings have a full formal kilt outfit for the groom. He will likely wear a Brian Boru jacket (named for the Irish warrior king), a white tux shirt with bow tie, knee socks with ribbons to match the color of his tartan, a Sporran with shamrock detailing and Ghillie Brogue shoes. It is far more prevalent and popular in America for the groom to wear an Irish kilt than in Ireland. Many pipers and Irish musicians wear kilts, as do Irish dancers.
While we typically think of green as the color associated with Ireland, it was not the official color of the country until the 19th century. When King Henry VIII left the Catholic Church to form his Church of England, he named Ireland an independent protestant kingdom and granted them the right to have their own coat of arms and flag: a gold Celtic harp on a blue background. For hundreds of years, Ireland's flag was blue. Blue was also considered lucky for brides, as it was the color of fidelity and symbolized the bride’s commitment to her husband. Don't be surprised if the wedding has blue elements along with, or instead of, the many shades of green.
At the wedding, every wish for the couple is for a long and beautiful life together blessed with good fortune. You may see lucky shamrocks and perhaps tiny horseshoes in the bride’s bouquet or as part of tablescapes, favors and even on the cake. Irish brides once carried a real horseshoe down the aisle, open side up, so the luck would never run out. For more good fortune, an old superstition dictates that the bride must walk down the aisle with a sixpence coin in her right shoe.
Irish Uilleann Piper and Celtic Harp
While the Scottish favor the Highland Bagpipes, the Irish play the sweeter and smaller Irish Uilleann Pipes. These smaller pipes are used inside the church, as bagpipes are very loud. Dressed in kilts and full regalia, they cut a dashing figure at an Irish wedding. The piper may play before the ceremony as guests arrive, and also to announce the bride’s arrival to the church just before they lead the processional down the aisle. It is also customary to have the piper lead the couple out together down the aisle during their recessional. Another option is to have a harpist play the Celtic harp, renowned for its lyrical tone and the sound of the haunting Irish music written for it. As the national symbol of Ireland, the Celtic harp is included on everything from Irish government documents to labels on Guinness bottles.
Handfasting or Tying the Knot
Handfasting, a popular symbol of unity at many weddings, is an ancient Celtic tradition that dates back 2,000 years. The ceremony was an engagement or commitment ritual allowing the couple to live together for a year and a day to see if they were compatible; if they were not, they could merely separate. Today instead of lighting a unity candle or perhaps in place of vows, many opt to have a handfasting. The officiant places a ribbon or cording around the bride and groom's hands while saying vows of promise and commitment that they agree to aloud. All four hands are bound together: or the more popular way is to tie only the bride and groom's right hands together.
Wedding rings with clasped hands on them trace back to ancient Roman times. The Irish Claddagh ring first appeared in the 1700s in Galway and features two hands around a heart with a crown over the heart. There is a silent message sent out to those in the know about how the Claggagh is worn. The Claddagh as an engagement ring is placed on the left hand with the bottom of the heart pointing away from the wrist. Given during the ceremony, the rings will be placed on the left-hand ring finger with the point of the heart facing inward towards the heart of the recipient. A beautiful touch is to have the inside of the rings engraved with a Gaelic sentiment.
Ringing a bell is thought to ward off evil spirits. Another belief is that bells chase the discord away in a marriage, which is why the church bells may ring after a wedding, or tiny bells might be given to guests to ring as the couple makes their way down the aisle as a married couple. Presenting a bell to the newlyweds is also a traditional wedding gift. You may even see the Bells of Ireland flowers included in the bride's bouquet because, in the language of flowers, they represent luck.
Many Irish brides still carry a white Irish linen handkerchief. It’s an old tradition and a lovely way to incorporate the Irish culture into bridal attire. Embroidered with shamrocks, it's also a lucky talisman. In Ireland, the hanky is later sewn into a bonnet as part of the first-born child's christening outfit.
An Irish wedding reception just isn't a real celebration without Irish dancers. Irish dancing schools love to perform with an Uilleann pipe player or an Irish band; they are an integral part of an Irish wedding celebration.
The reception is sure to have Irish beverages. Meade (or mead) is made from honey and is the oldest drink in Ireland. In medieval times the bride and groom would toast each other with special goblets full of mead and carry on with this for a month or one moon cycle; hence the origin of the term "honeymoon." Irish mist liqueur, Irish whiskey, cream liqueur, cider, and beer are popular choices as well.
Irish Toasts and Blessings
An Irish reception will have many rounds of toasts and blessings beginning with family members, the wedding party and friends all before the traditional toasts. Keep your glass full, but don't sip too much. Sláinte!