Celtic society was based on a clan system so kinship and consequently marriage had a great deal of significance and importance. Not surprisingly then, a whole series of customs developed around marriage. Many of these practices have survived down to today. As you learn about Celtic marriage customs you’ll notice that there was a great deal of emphasis on securing “good luck” for the newlyweds. This was not because the Celts were especially superstitious, but because life in the 7th Century could be pretty precarious and most people believed that fate would ultimately determine whether a family struggled or thrived. Why not do all you could to make sure that fate was on your side!
The terms Irish and Celtic are often used interchangeably these days, but it is worth noting that the people we refer to as “the Celts” at one time could be found living all across the European continent. As the Roman Empire expanded however, the Celts became almost exclusively associated with the North Western fringe of Europe, and by about 500 AD, only the peoples of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, the Isle of Man and parts of Northern France were considered “Celtic” in language and customs. The Celts were known as a warrior people but they were also considered talented artisans (primarily in metalwork like jewelry and weapons) and were known to have very vibrant cultural and mythological traditions.
Most of the practices outlined here were regional variations of Celtic culture found primarily in what is modern day Scotland and Ireland - the two areas where Celtic traditions seem to have been most resilient.
As indeed you will see, many Irish wedding traditions reflect the humble practices of a largely rural farming society.
Celtic society was based on the clan, or extended family, and so even in pre-Christian days, marriage was considered tremendously important in that it had social implications that extended far beyond the couple in question. Social and strategic considerations continued to be important in later periods too because at a time when agriculture was the source of a family’s food and overall wealth, marriage was the central mechanism by which land was exchanged. This is why matchmaking was such serious business. Irish literature is littered with stories of matchmakers plying their trade and the ensuing mayhem! "He loves me, he loves me not."
But all this is very unromantic you say! Weddings, in fact, bring out the romance in the Irish people. Although contemporary Ireland is a place full of high tech companies and every modern convenience, it wasn’t always so. Prior to the late twentieth century, most people earned their living off the land and so everyday life was sometimes tough and decidedly unromantic. A wedding, however, was a time for people to put down their work, to dress up in their Sunday best and to celebrate something beautiful.
And even today an Irish wedding is often made that much more special by the return of family and friends who have emigrated to faraway lands. A wedding is a gathering of the clan in the very happiest of senses. It is an occasion for poets and musicians to put aside the laments and poignant tunes and instead to use their skill to shine a light on love and all the promise it brings.
The tradition of Matchmaking was common in Ireland up into the 20th century and many localities had their own matchmaker. Very little was left to chance and few couples enjoyed a match based solely on love. Marriages between the landless and well-to-do were very uncommon. Families held tightly to their land and social status and tended to move within their respective economic circles.
As well as lining up potential mates for men and women, the matchmaker assisted in negotiating a "dowry," between the groom and bride's father. A girl brought her dowry with her into the marriage.
Lisdoonvarna in County Clare still hosts a week-long matchmaking festival. Check out Christy Moore's wonderful song entitled "Lisdoonvarna."
CELTIC WEDDING TRADITIONS
Named after a fishing village located where the Corrib River meets Galway Bay, Claddagh rings have been in use in Ireland for several hundred years. The first such ring is believed to have been crafted around 1690 by the blacksmith Richard Joyce. Initially only popular in Joyce’s local village of Claddagh and around County Galway, the rings later gained popularity throughout the country and today, Claddagh rings are found all around the world. Outside of the purchase of the family boat, the purchase of a ring was often a family’s biggest financial outlay and as a result these rings tended to be passed from generation to generation. Claddagh rings can serve as an engagement ring or a wedding ring or, indeed, as both.
Today, many couples like to express their Irish heritage by having Claddagh rings as their wedding bands. The design of the ring itself is filled with special meaning. It depicts two hands holding a heart that is topped with a crown. The heart is of course the symbol of love. The hands on either side represent friendship, and the crown represents loyalty and fidelity.
The manner in which the ring is worn has a symbolism of its own. If the wearer is married, the ring is worn on the wedding finger and the heart faces inward, denoting that one’s actual heart is taken. The same holds true if the wearer is engaged, although in this case, the ring may be worn on the right hand. If your heart is not taken or if you’re free to love, the heart is faced outwards toward the world indicating your openness to inviting love into your life.
The Claddagh design can be taken one step further and used as a theme for the entire wedding. It is appropriate for use on invitations, wedding programs, and thank you cards for example. You might choose to have Claddagh vases hold your floral centerpieces or even to have a Claddagh cake topper.
Why the Bride's family sits on one side
and the Groom's family on the other
Traditionally the "side of the heart" or left side is for the woman of the house and legend has it that the left side of the fire was always reserved for women. Similarly, at Irish weddings, the brides' side of the family tend to sit on the left side of the church.
Before Vatican II, women often took the left side of the church and men the right. Yes, they were often sat separately.
This tradition is a holdover from the past but it does explain why there are "sides" and I love the idea that it's related to the heart and not one clan as opposed to another!
IRISH WEDDING BLESSINGS AND TOASTS
May the soft winds freshen your spirit
May the sunshine brighten your heart
May the burdens of the day rest lightly upon you
And may God enfold you in the mantle of His love.
May the road rise to meet you
May the wind be always at your back
May the sun shine warm upon your face
and the rain fall soft upon your fields
And until we meet again my friend
May God hold you in the hollow (palm) of his hand
May God be with you and bless you
May you see your children's children
May you be poor in misfortunes and rich in Blessings
May you know nothing but happiness from this day forward
But rich or poor, quick or slow,
May you know nothing but happiness
From this day forward.
May the joys of today
Be those of tomorrow.
TRADITIONAL IRISH BLESSING OF
A BRIDE AND GROOM
I wish healing upon you
The healing of Mary with me,
Mary, Michael and Brighid
Be with me all three.
Fly with the birds of the air
Fly with the wasps of the hill
Swim with the sea-going whale
For they are swiftest
Be upon the clouds of the sky
For they are the rainiest
Be upon the river's current
Cascading to the sea
If you’re looking to set the cultural tone right from the start you might consider the “Celtic Wedding Processional.” I originally developed this gentle and highly romantic melody while experimenting with an old traditional march that I thought could be re-arranged to be a terrific wedding processional. My hunch was proven right and the “Celtic Wedding Processional” as I call it, has since become the tune of choice for Irish and Scottish wedding couples in the United States. So popular has the piece proven that I went into the studio and, together with some of the finest musicians from both sides of the Atlantic, recorded five different versions with various combinations of instruments. Depending on your tastes you might choose a version with anything from beautiful low-key lush strings to a more buoyant version with pipes, drums, and low whistle. You can find recordings of all the different available arrangements at Store together with Sheet Music.
Another very popular piece is “Give Me Your Hand” written by the great harper Rory Dall Ó Catháin. It is also known by its original Irish name “Tabhair Dom Do Lámh.” This is pronounced toor dum duh lawiv for those of you who are interested, and it translates literally to the English title. Most Irish musicians will be familiar with this tune should you include it on your request list.
And when all is said and done, vows made and rings exchanged, you might opt for a jaunty Recessional such as the very spirited “Haste to the Wedding” from the great John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara movie "The Quiet Man." Or, if you prefer a more classic sound, you could ask your harpist to play the very lovely “O’Carolan’s Concerto.” This last piece is named after Turlough O’Carolan (1670-1738), a blind harpist who is considered one of Ireland’s most talented composers.
There are a myriad of beautiful Irish airs to choose from for the quiet pauses in your ceremony. For suggestions and sheet music, please see "Meditation Interludes."