Ashes to ashes: Lent and its observance in 21st century Ireland

With the season of Lent upon us, Cormac Murphy explores the past and present reality surrounding this rich spiritual tradition.

Forty days? In the wake of  The Ring franchise’s latest release, it conjures ghoulish imagery of a water-logged girl calling to give an unlucky recipient a fatal deadline. However, the forty days represent the length of time the season of Lent lasts – excluding Sundays.

While some of the world’s 2.2 billion Christians (not all of whom observe Lent) may view this period of self-sacrifice with reluctance, bated enthusiasm and dread, it is far from being a yearly horror franchise.

Lent is in fact, an essential religious holiday, where believers follow a period of fasting, moderation, and self-denial in the run-up to Easter.

Statue of Christ’s crucifixion in the Whitefriar Street Church, image by Cormac Murphy


Famed academic Mason Cooley once stated that “even the most fickle remain faithful to a few bad habits” – if this describes you, you’re in luck. Lent provides an opportunity for all to part with convention and live a healthier, more fulfilling lifestyle.  

While it is a Christian tradition, many non-believers also choose to give up certain foods or habits to show self-restraint or improve their general health.  

An online poll by The found that approximately 49% of 15,000 respondents were not giving up anything for Lent. However, a substantial minority of 38% were prepared to give something up, while 11% of those who responded were still undecided.  

According to Twitter, social networking was ironically among the top bad habits people were willing to ditch. Alcohol, chocolate, sweets, fast food, and swearing were also represented among the top ten habits people were abstaining from during Lent.

The forty days of Lent represent the time Jesus spent in the wilderness, fasting, praying and resisting the temptation of the devil.  

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Exterior of the Whitefriar Street Church in Dublin, image by Cormac Murphy

Its basis is heightened by the annual commemoration of Holy Week which marks the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Holy Week is the last week of Lent and it culminates with Palm Sunday, Holy Wednesday and Good Friday.  

Luckily for us Irish, we have some welcome respite from the rigid restrictions imposed upon us by Lent. This is because our national holiday, St. Patrick’s Day, always falls within Lent, and is widely regarded as a ‘day off’.

For the more devout, old-school Catholics, this year presents something of a dilemma as St Patrick’s Day falls on a Friday – a day in which Catholics traditionally abstained from meat.

There is some good news however as the Archbishop of Milwaukee has granted Irish Catholics a special dispensation for the day.  

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Poster marking events during Lent outside the Saint Mary’s Pro-Cathedral, image by Cormac Murphy


“We observe Lent to relate to the times Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness and to the forty years the people of Israel spent with Moses in the desert…The idea of fasting is to cultivate within the hearts of believers, a sense of anticipation for Easter which is the greatest feast on the Christian Calendar.” said Father Alan Hilliard, co-ordinator of the Dublin Institute of Technology’s chaplaincy.”

He believes the observance of Lent has fallen in recent years but stated, “I welcome Lent because there is always something I need to pay attention to that is not contributing to my well-being.”


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Side entrance to Saint Mary’s Pro-Cathedral, image by Cormac Murphy

Christianity remains Ireland’s predominant religion, a position maintained since the arrival of St. Patrick in the 5th century. While Roman Catholicism retains its dominance, 21st century Ireland has a diverse range of Christian denominations.

According to the Irish Census of 2011, 84.2% of the Irish population identify as Catholic, totalling 3.86 million followers. While these figures represented the highest number of Catholics recorded, it marks a significant decline as a percentage, down from 94% in 1961.  

The Church of Ireland and other Protestant denominations come in second, just shy of 3% of the population with 134,365 adherents.     

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Unitarian Church Dublin, image by Cormac Murphy


Speaking to The City, a press official for the Church of Ireland stated in relation to Lent: “It certainly is an important time of spiritual preparation and reflection – described in the lectionary as days of discipline and self-denial… Often churches will use the colour violet to denote the season in church fabrics and vestments which clergy may wear.

When asked about how it Protestant and Catholic practices differ he said, “There is quite a lot of similarity between the Catholic Church and the Church of Ireland, although there is some differences as the Church of Ireland views itself as reformed. The distribution of ashes does sometimes happen in certain places but it is not a widespread practice across the Church of Ireland.”

The branch of Christianity that has witnessed the biggest increase is Orthodox Christianity, doubling its figures from 2006 to 2011. There were over 45,000 members in 2011 census compared to 20,768 in 2006.

The majority are non-Irish nationals and comprise mostly of Eastern European nationalities such as people from Russia, Romania and the Balkan states.

Mount Athos in Greece, an important centre of Eastern Orthodoxy, image by Malenki at Wikimedia Commons

Father Thomas Carroll, an Irish priest in the Greek Orthodox Church described how Orthodox Christians celebrate Lent: “In the Orthodox tradition, there is a three-week period leading into Lent. During Lent, there is strict fasting for the forty days and we abstain from all meat and dairy products, as well as oil and wine.”

He elaborated that “during Holy Week the icons are covered in black.” On Holy Saturday, the church is clouded in darkness until midnight, when the Paschal candle is lit. At that point, the congregation come forward to light their own candles. This is followed by Divine Liturgy or mass… On Sunday morning we have a celebration of Vespers for the Resurrection.”

Footage of how Lent was celebrated on Ash Wednesday, March 1 throughout Dublin, video by Cormac Murphy.


While inherently religious, one thing remains clear – whether you’re Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, Agnostic or Atheist, Lent is a rich cultural holiday all can partake in. Also, unlike many ill-fated New Year’s resolutions, we can feel less guilty about giving up after forty days.

Lent provides an opportunity to ditch unhealthy habits and begin a new, more beneficial lifestyle. Observance may have fallen in recent years, but Ireland as a whole is far from giving up on the tradition.


Featured Image by Finaghy of St.Patrick’s College, Maynooth via Wikimedia Commons


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