Irish History, Traditions, and Folklore for Kids

In the United States on March 17th, people wear lots of green, everything from fuzzy sweaters and party hats to shamrock pins and leprechaun ties.  We eat steaming plates of corned beef and cabbage, attend local parades, and pinch people who forget to wear green.  It is a day of revelry and fun – just like the Irish – famous for their funny stories, tall tales, and sparkling wit.  

In a prior episode, we talked about the history of Saint Patrick’s Day.  Today, let’s explore some other fascinating Irish facts.  Can you think of things that are made by the Irish or strange Irish customs?  Well, I’ve found a few and they range from spuds to harps to rocks!  So, let’s get started!

First, there are potatoes.  To me, when I eat a potato, I automatically think of Ireland and one of its most well-known crops.  But did you know that Ireland was not the original home of potatoes?  They were actually brought to Ireland by the British explorer, Sir Walter Raleigh, who planted them on his Irish estate in 1589.  They grew so well in Ireland, much better than other crops like wheat and oats, that soon everyone was planting potatoes.  This went well for hundreds of years, until 1845 when a terrible disease hit Ireland’s potato crop and went on for 7 years.  You might think: well, how can a crop of potatoes be so bad?  Couldn’t they eat something else?  Unfortunately, potatoes were the main source of food for many people – the only food they had, in fact.  Many people were so poor so they could not afford to raise chickens, sheep, pigs, or cows for meat, butter, and milk.  Most worked on land that wasn’t theirs – the land was owned by British aristocrats.  When the famine hit, the Irish could not work the land and had no money or food.  The very poor resorted to living in dirt holes in the ground and eating grass.  This potato famine killed over 1 million people and 1-2 million more fled to the US and Britain. This was a terrible time in Irish history, so today when I see a potato, I am very thankful for its nutrition – and its addition to my plate!

Today, you can see the descendants of those Irish immigrants who fled the potato famine – plus many more – celebrating Saint Patrick’s Day in cities like Boston, New York, Pennsylvania, and more! They hold parades complete with marching bands, leprechaun balloons, shamrock flags, and bagpipers.  They feast on corned beef and cabbage, which includes those wonderful potatoes!  And, as an added bit of history, corned beef and cabbage isn’t truly an Irish dish – the Irish like to use bacon and cabbage.  But those first immigrants couldn’t afford bacon, so they used corned beef instead!

And speaking of celebrations, Irish dancing has become very popular throughout the world in the last several decades.  The upbeat jigs played on Irish fiddles, along with the high kicking, stomping, jumping, and overall festive air have made this a crowd favorite all across the globe.  These dance shows have also given rise to famous groups of Irish singers, including Celtic Women and Celtic Thunder.  Their lilting songs rich with Irish stories and history are truly wonderful to hear!

And when we talk about music, we must mention the Celtic Harp, a triangular-shaped wooden instrument with wire strings that makes an incredibly soothing, rippling sound.  It makes me think of angels playing heavenly music on soft, puffy clouds.  These harps are featured on everything from Irish coins and coats of arms to flags and souvenirs.  You can see these harps in England, too, on the King’s coat of arms, along with unicorns, lions, and ostrich feathers.  This is because Ireland was formerly ruled by Britain. 

And we can’t forget the ancient Celtic myths, such as leprechauns.  In a prior episode, we discussed leprechauns, little imp-like mythical men who are said to be very wily, smart and almost impossible to see or catch.  They are said to be bootmakers for fairies, as well as the guardians of pots of gold at the end of rainbows.  We see these little leprechauns today on everything from cereal boxes to sportswear.  There is a popular cereal in the US called “Lucky Charms” with morsels shaped like shamrocks, rainbows, pots of gold, and unicorns.   The University of Notre Dame calls its sports teams “the Fighting Irish” and its school mascot is a leprechaun.  In Massachusetts, the Boston Celtics feature “Lucky the Leprechaun” on their logo.  He is a little winking man with a bowler hat, bow tie, pipe, and cane, twirling a basketball on one finger!   I guess Lucky has given up boot-making and is now playing basketball!

The Irish people are famous for making things besides music and harps.  They built the Titanic and it was a glorious ship – a wonder of its time.  It featured massive chandeliers, gleaming staircases, stained glass windows, and gorgeous staterooms. Unfortunately, Mother Nature made an even more impressive masterpiece – a gigantic iceberg.  The Titanic was no match for an iceberg, and it sunk in the chilly Atlantic Ocean on April 15, 1912, on its very first voyage.  Many lives were lost on that fateful day.  Today, there are beautiful statues in Belfast and Addergool, Ireland, honoring the Irish passengers on the Titanic.  The Addergool statue is a stunning piece of metal art.  It shows men in caps and suits, and women in long skirts and bonnets, carrying suitcases toward the prow of a ship, some of them are turning and waving.  Of the 14 Addergool passengers, only 3 survived the sinking of the Titanic.  What a beautiful memorial this is in honor of those brave, hopeful travelers.

And if building, dancing, and singing weren’t enough for the Irish, they also like to kiss-and not just people, but stones!  And they do it upside down!  Do you believe that?  Yes, it’s true.  It is actually called “Kissing the Blarney Stone!”  So, what does “blarney” mean and why is a stone involved?  Well, “blarney” means to speak flattery or nonsense – basically being very charming but not really meaning it.  Have you ever heard someone say, “You’re full of blarney!”?  They’re saying, “You’re full of nonsense!”   

And then there is the history of the Blarney Stone.  In Ireland, there is a castle called Blarney Castle.  Many centuries ago, Queen Elizabeth 1, who was the ruler of England and Ireland at the time, sent one of her earls to take Blarney Castle away from its owner, the King of Munster.  Queen Elizabeth needed castles and land to give to her British people as payment for fighting the Irish.  But this king was a smooth talker and charmed the earl.  When the Queen heard that the earl had not yet captured the castle, she was furious, stating that the earl’s reports were full of “blarney.”  

A legend then grew that if you kiss a certain stone on Blarney Castle, you will receive the gift of gab and persuasiveness just like its former owner, the King of Munster.  The thing is, you have to lie on your back, hold on to hand railings while leaning backward, and kiss the stone upside down!  Picture yourself laying on your bed and trying to kiss your bedside table or bureau upside down while leaning off the edge of the bed.  I don’t know who is filled with more blarney – the folks who do this or the Irish who convince them to do it!  But Winston Churchill is said to have kissed the stone in 1912 and went on to become one of the most famous British Prime Ministers, giving amazing speeches and helping his nation win WWII.  So, is it really a bunch of “blarney?”

And after kissing the Blarney Stone, many folks like to relax and sip some Irish beer.  The Irish make some of the finest beer in the world with names like “Happy Days” and “Harp.”  I guess I can understand these names after listening to these stories of stone kissing, harp music, and smooth-talking Irishmen.  

Finally, there are the Irish proverbs like:  “If you’re lucky enough to be Irish, you’re lucky enough” and “A best friend is like a four-leaf clover: hard to find and lucky to have.”  Or my favorite: “Always remember to forget the friends that proved untrue. But never forget to remember those that have stuck by you!”

I have loved learning all these little Irish facts!  What about you?   Have you ever heard about leprechauns and their pots of gold at the end of rainbows?  What do you think of kissing a cold stone on a crusty castle?  

I think Ireland is full of fascinating history and folklore and would love to learn more.  What about you?  Why don’t you ask your parents to take you to a library this Saint Patrick’s Day to find children’s books about Ireland and its folklore?  How about “Spuds and the Spider” about a friendship between a spider and a leprechaun, or the book titled, “Irish Fairy Tales and Legends.”  For older kids, there are stories about the Irish Pirate Queen Grace O’Malley or the voyage of the Titanic.  These all sound like great reads under the covers.

I’d love to hear from you and learn what Irish books you’ve read or Irish traditions you celebrate on Saint Patrick’s Day.  Feel free to click the link in the show notes below and complete the form.  You might just be mentioned in a future episode!

So, from me to you this Saint Patty’s Day, I wish you the luck of the Irish and “Erin Go Bragh!” (“Ireland Forever.”)