Palm Sunday marks the beginning of Holy Week which leads up to Easter Sunday. This moveable feast commemorates the triumphant welcome Jesus Christ received upon his entry into Jerusalem, where palm leaves were waved in the air and strewn before him as he entered the city. It is still an international custom for Christians in many countries to commemorate this date each year through holding Palm Sunday procession, fashioning crosses from palm leaves, and with people decorating their clothing and homes with palm leaves. In Ireland it seems that only the last of these three is traditionally observed in Ireland – and even then, with its own particular regional variations. Due to the absence and difficulties of growing palm trees in Ireland a variety of native and introduced evergreens served as replacements for holy palm. Conifers including firs, pines, and spruces were more popular than broad leaf evergreens, but laurel, ivy and holly were also used. However, it is the yew tree that was traditionally most commonly substituted for palm leaves; so much so that the traditional Irish name for Palm Sunday is Domhnach an Iúir, or Yew Sunday, while Patrick Weston Joyce noted that the yew was always referred to as a palm tree during his youth in County Limerick during the 1830s, and that he only came to know it’s true name in the latter days of his youth.
As Palm Sunday is the last Sunday of Lent special services are held in churches of all denominations on this day. The blessing of ‘palm’ seems, however, to be restricted to Catholic Churches. It is customary on the morning of Palm Sunday for people to bring branches of yew to their local chapel to be blessed by their priest. After mass sprigs of these blessed yew branches would be broken off and used to adorn the button-holes and lapels of shirts and jackets, as well as hat-bands, as the parishioners made their way home from Mass. In some areas the palm was worn long after Palm Sunday or even Holy Week had ended; an account by Thomas Lonergan of Tullow, County Tipperary found in the Irish Folklore Commission’s Schools’ Collection, mentions that some ‘old men keep the palm in their hats from one Palm Sunday till the next.’ Once home from church branches of yew were placed in the roof, over the mantel, doors, and windows, and around the frames of religious pictures, while a branch was also often put in the byre to protect the cows. For man, woman and beast the hanging of ‘palm’ was believed to protect against a wide variety of dangers including fire, the weather, sickness, accidents, and evil influences. In some houses the ‘palm’ was kept in the home until it was replaced the following Palm Sunday, in others the sprigs of yew were kept until Ash Wednesday when they were burned to create ashes used to make the sign of the cross on a person’s head.
In years when Palm Sunday fell on the same day as Saint Patrick’s Day it was believed to be an ominous occasion, and many considered that a year in which the two days fell together was a harbinger of great change. The falling of these two days together is, however, a rare occurrence; with the last occurrence in 1940, and the next to be in 2391. In the Tailor and Ansty Eric Cross, who had been visiting Timothy Buckley, ‘The Tailor’, throughout the nineteen-thirties noted that Buckley had an understanding of the significance of these two days falling on the same date and had predicted ‘that war would come from the East. It would come in the year when the palm and the shamrock are worn together on the same day.’ As many will notice the tailor’s prediction could be considered to be a year late, however, the bombing of the village of Campile in Wexford on 26 August 1940, where three people lost their lives, could be said to represent the coming of war to Ireland. In a similar manner a story from the Schools’ Collection tells of a man who predicted that Ireland would be free when the shamrock and the palm are worn together – only another 370 years so…
Hole, Christina. A Dictionary of British Folk Customs. Oxford, 1978.
Kirby, Michael. Skelligside. Dublin, 1992.