Easter in Belfast in bygone days
By Lisa Johnston, Tour Guide, Belfast City Sightseeing
Easter in nineteenth century Belfast was one of the biggest social events of the year with thousands of people heading out of the city to the slopes of Cave Hill for the annual Easter Monday Fair.
The day’s proceedings were captured in verse by the poet William Read from County Down who wrote:
“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”.
This verse is taken from his poem ‘The Hill of Caves’ and tells the story of the massive crowds going to the Easter Monday Fair on Cave Hill in Belfast in 1818. He wasn’t exaggerating because as late as 1845, more than 25,000 people attended the Fair which was the equivalent of almost a third of the Belfast population at the time!
As the Ordnance Survey Memoirs of 1838/9 reveal, this was one of the major social events of the year not just for the people of North Belfast but for the entire surrounding east Antrim countryside.
The Cave Hill Fair was also a reminder that Easter, though a key religious point in the Christian calendar, was also an opportunity for festivities and celebrations. And according to the Memoirs, on Cave Hill there was little or no religious observance as Fair goers drank copious quantities of illicitly distilled poteen, danced the day away to “Hibernia’s planxties, and Caledonia’s reels” in specially erected tents!
The Fair was a day of feasting, and in the evening of dancing, and sometimes a cake was offered as a prize to the best dancer.
The Lenten fast ensured that by Easter surplus stocks of eggs were available. And although the last of the eggs were eaten up in the form of pancakes on Shrove Tuesday, the hens didn’t know it was Lent and, needless to say, went on laying!
So by the time Easter Sunday arrived eggs which had been stockpiled had to be used up in a variety of ways and anyone who couldn’t manage to eat at least two or three was considered very feeble!
Incidentally, the eggs which were laid on Good Friday were considered blessed and these, marked with a cross, were cooked for breakfast on Easter Sunday.
Children throughout Belfast, and indeed the whole of Ireland, were given gifts of hard-boiled eggs dyed variously with the help of onion skins, herbs, lichen, tea, and above all with yellow Whin flowers. Rags were often tied around the eggs to achieve a pattern in the dying process.
Some of the eggs were preserved by various means including ‘buttering’. Eggs were collected from the nest as soon as they were laid and the shells were rubbed with a thin layer of butter while they were still warm. Buttered eggs are still sold in markets today.
The game of ‘trundling’ eggs seems to have been exclusive to Ulster. It was practised at the Cave Hill Fair with women and children gathering in large crowds to throw or trundle the eggs along the ground, mostly downhill, gathering up the fragments to eat as they went.
The tradition of rolling Easter eggs down Cave Hill continues to this day. Children still boil their eggs in water containing the yellow flowers from the Whin bush (sometimes called Gorse) which grows on Cave Hill.
Once the yellow hardboiled eggs have cooled, they are rolled or trundled down the lower slopes of Cave Hill on Easter Monday. I can still remember my Granny taking the eggs which had been laid on Good Friday out of the nesting boxes in the hen house and painting them with faces and the grandchildren’s names and then slipping them back into the hen house for us all to find on Easter Sunday!
Happy Easter! And have a cracking time as you trundle your eggs down Cave Hill!