Easter Celebrations

John Gray on the evolution of Easter holiday rituals in Northern Ireland

Now group on group is seen to follow far,
Like to a Persian army in array;
On foot, on steed, coach, jingle, cart, and car –
Tow’rds the high Hill of Caves they wend away.

Thus poet William Read described the massive crowds going to the Easter Monday fair high on the Cave Hill outside Belfast in 1818. He was not exaggerating: as late as 1845, 25,000 people attended, equivalent to almost a third of the Belfast population. As the Ordnance Survey Memoirs of 1838/9 reveal, this was the major social event of the year for the entire surrounding east Antrim countryside.

A Christian celebrationThe Cave Hill fair serves as a potent reminder that Easter, though obviously a key point in the Christian calendar when all faiths mourned the crucifixion and then celebrated the resurrection, was also an opportunity for popular festivity.

Certainly on the Cave Hill there was no vestige of religious observance as fair goers quaffed copious quantities of illicitly distilled poteen, danced the day away to ‘Hibernia’s planxties, and Caledonia’s reels’ in specially erected tents, and otherwise fought or courted.

The Lenten fast, followed by the severe penance of Good Friday when many ate nothing till lunchtime, and then only bread and water, ensured that the resurrection was doubly celebrated on Easter Sunday. In many areas this was marked by a walk to a high place, sometimes named ‘Sunday’s Well’ to see the reflection of the sun dance in celebration of the resurrection.

In the Mourne Mountains a possibly prehistoric pillar stone known as the ‘Grey Woman’ on Crotlieve Mountain was suitably decorated, and children slid down the hill on stone slabs. It was a day of feasting, and in the evening of dancing, and sometimes with a cake offered as a prize to the best dancer.

We are familiar with Easter eggs in all their chocolate glory, but in earlier times simpler ways prevailed. The Lenten fast ensured that by Easter surplus stocks of eggs were available. At breakfast on Easter Sunday all would vie to see how many eggs they could eat. Children throughout Ireland were given gifts of eggs dyed variously with the help of onion skins, tea, and above all with yellow whin flowers.

The game of ‘trindling’ eggs seems to have been more exclusive to Ulster. It was practised at the Cave Hill fair. Mason writing in c.1819 speaking of Holywood, County Down, described how ‘woman and children collect in large bodies for this purpose… throwing or trundling [the eggs] along the ground, especially down a declivity, and gathering up the fragments to eat them’.

Even today Peggy Weir, recalling a 1930s childhood in Straid, County Antrim, remembers her grandmother tying rags to the eggs to achieve patterns in the dyeing process, and the children assembling at ‘The Plantings’ on the road to Irish Hill (now the Belfast Road) to do their ‘trindling’, and just as Mason described it over a century earlier.

Easter Monday was always the more secular Easter day marked by organised or impromptu fairs throughout Ireland. The Catholic hierarchy was so concerned about the abuse of the day that in 1829 they secured Papal sanction to abolish it as a holy day. This tended to result in a shift of Easter Monday festivities to Easter Sunday.

For Ulster Presbyterians, who tended to discount Christmas because it lacked biblical authority, Easter Easter eggsremained their most important holiday, and they continued to celebrate Easter Monday and to attend their revel on the Cave Hill. By 1855 the growing moral severity of all faiths, and the obstruction of a land owner, ended the Cave Hill fair, but traditional festivities of this kind were in any case essentially rural and pre-industrial in nature.

Come the modern era and the breakneck growth of Belfast and Easter Monday did not in fact fade away, though the ways of celebrating it changed. Some were decorous – The Museum in College Square North opened specially for the public at large from Easter Monday 1845 onwards. Others were less so: the Pleasure Park on the Queen’s Island provided a new and more accessible venue for many of the Cave Hill practices from 1849 onwards. The heavy workload of the courts on Easter Tuesday provided continued testimony to the determination of the working class to celebrate their most ‘favouring day’ to excess as before.

In gentler mode Francis Joseph Bigger writing in 1923 described some of the other alternatives: you could go to see whether ‘a balloon went up (or did not) in the Botanic Gardens, or trains were run to take people further afield’.

Elsewhere the enduring significance of the Easter Monday holiday was reflected by Belfast’s preference for Easter rather than Christmas pantomime at the theatre right up to the end of the 19th century. Even today Easter Monday brings the highest visitor numbers of the year to Belfast Zoo on the Cave Hill.