The Holiday and the Ivy – Frank McNally on the 130th anniversary of Ivy Day

An Irishman’s Diary

Still on the theme of dates that could be suitable as new holidays, there may also be a case to be made for today's, October 6th: once (and still in select quarters) known as Ivy Day.

This year's version is the 130th anniversary of the event it commemorates: the death of Charles Stewart Parnell on October 6th, 1891. But in recent times, the main ceremony tends to be on the nearest Sunday, when the Parnell Society organises a wreath-laying and oration at his grave in Glasnevin. So it was the weekend just past, with Prof Daire Keogh from Dublin City University doing the honours.

As anything like a mass participation event, Ivy Day peaked in the years immediately after the chief protagonist’s (or should that be the protagonist Chief’s?) early demise. It had taken its name from a spontaneous tribute at his funeral, where mourners plucked ivy leaves from the walls of the cemetery and wore them on lapels in his memory.

There was an irony to this in that Parnell, who was notoriously superstitious, had always detested the colour green, in all its shades. He thought it unlucky. But superstition aside, ivy is not the most popular of plants generally, being a parasite that kills or stunts the growth of other trees. This cannot have helped the commemoration’s public appeal.


While searching "Ivy Day" in our archives, for example, I found a report from 1951 under the headline "Fight Ivy!" It concerned an appeal from a tree-loving Wexford clergyman, who was urging the establishment of a national "Anti-Ivy Day". That was nothing to do with the Parnellite split, I'm sure, although clergymen had also been prominent in that. But whether the Rev Cormac Lloyd's call for annual day of action against ivy ever came to pass anywhere is unclear.


As I had almost managed to forget until now, we were also briefly in danger a decade ago of acquiring an annual Iveagh Day around this time. It wasn't called that, exactly. It was "Arthur's Day", marking the September 25th birthday of the man who founded both Guinness's Brewery and a dynasty that now includes a continuing line of Earls of Iveagh (which should not be pronounced "Ivy", by the way, but widely is, especially in connection with Iveagh House).

In fairness to the Guinness family, it was the marketing geniuses of Diageo who came up with the idea of the feast-day, on which we were encouraged to raise a toast "to Arthur" at one minute to 6pm (17.59, corresponding to the year of the brewery's foundation), which among other things might have had major implications for the Angelus.

Preposterous as it was, the stunt threatened for a time to become an established holiday. It might never have been an official day off. But just as it can be hard for outsiders to tell the Irish State harp from the Guinness one, the line between an official festival and one backed by the all-powerful drinks brand could have quickly blurred. In the event, that version of Irish thanksgiving died (from shame, or related complications) in 2013. Happily, the public response had become more of a no-thanks giving by then.


Subdued as the modern commemoration is, Ivy Day 2021 is also being marked as far away as Tuscany, thanks to the James Joyce story it inspired. Along with "The Dead", "Ivy Day in the Committee Room" is now featuring in a two-part dramatisation of Dubliners, running this week and next at the Teatro della Pergola, in Florence. The show is billed as "The Dubliners" which, notwithstanding our Hiberno-English habit of inserting definite articles where they are not required (eg "the Covid", "the Christmas", "the County Carlow", etc), may sound strange to Irish readers of Joyce. "The Dubliners" evokes not so much a classic collection of short stories as a classic collection of long-bearded balladeers. But anyway, thanks to it, Joyce has elbowed his way in among the various celebrations of the Dante 700, which continue across Italy.

Speaking of which, and of cultural confusions involving Dubliners, I'm reminded of a small but dramatic moment on the train to Ravenna last month, when I was on the way to visit Dante's tomb. It so happens that one of the last stops on the route is a small town called Godo (so-named not for any association with the Samuel Beckett play in which nothing happens twice but because of an association with the Rome-invading Goths of old). Sure enough, the train pulled up there to an empty platform.

Then we waited for Godo, with bated breath.

But as in Beckett’s version, nobody came.

*This article was amended on October 6th, 2021.