Why So Many Irish Mother’s Day Cards are Late! (Sorry, Mam!)

Ah, Mother’s Day is a bittersweet holiday for Irish emigrants for several reasons. The bond between a child and their mammy is usually very strong, so this is a time when we think of the family we left behind and get all maudlin and stuff.

What's an emigrant lad to do when Irish Mother's Day is two months before the American one?

What’s an emigrant lad to do when Irish Mother’s Day is two months before the American one?

However, it’s also the single-most problematic holiday for the Irish in the US on a strictly practical basis: American Mother’s Day falls on the second sunday in May, but Mother’s Day in Ireland falls two months earlier! So, if we rely on the festive hoopla in the media and the avalanche of cards in the stores to remind us, it’s too late! (To be fair — and stereotypical — this is mostly a problem for emigrant Irish men, as the Irish women I know seem to have little problem remembering anniversaries, birthdays, and holidays…) 

By the time the Mother’s Day displays go up in the US, Mother’s Day is already long over in Ireland.

This is because Irish Mother’s Day is based on the old religious holiday of Mothering Sunday, which occurs on the fourth sunday in Lent. Traditionally, servants (who were mostly Catholic) in big houses (which were mostly owned by Protestant families) were given the fourth Sunday in Lent to return to worship at their mother church. As people didn’t tend to travel very far before the automobile, this often meant that they could spend the day after church with their parents (servants didn’t get much time off in those days).

There were several attempts in the US to turn Mothering Sunday into a formal secular holiday in the 19th century, the first of which was as a fiercely anti-war statement in the aftermath of the American Civil War. A later attempt re-cast it as a more generic holiday in honor of mothers succeeded in establishing Mother’s Day as a recognized holiday to be celebrated on the second sunday in May (and thus providing a commercial boost to bridge the gap between Easter and Independence Day). In an ironic development, the woman who spearheaded this successful campaign, Anna Jarvis, spent most of the rest of her life complaining about the holiday’s commercialization, and was even arrested for disturbing the peace on Mother’s Day during her later years.

There's a way out of this dilemma...

Happily, there’s a way out of this dilemma…

After the second world war, the “Hallmark holiday” aspect of Mother’s Day crossed the Atlantic, and the celebration began to be marked by gifts and cards in Ireland and the UK as well, although the date continues to follow Mothering Sunday. The phrases Mother’s Day and Mothering Sunday tend to be used interchangeably in Ireland.

Emigrants like me mark the day by mailing a card (more or less) on time, and calling home for an extra-long chat. Although (and I’m ashamed to admit it) I’ve fallen back on the old excuse of celebrating American Mother’s Day more than once.

This year (2014), Mothering Sunday falls on March 30 in Ireland.

Lads, that gives us a couple of weeks to find Mother’s Day cards and get them in the post!



This has been an emigrant service announcement on behalf of Irish mammies;-)

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1 comment

  1. David Wynne’s avatar

    While I knew about the difference in dates on which Mother’s Day is celebrated in Ireland the U.S. I wasn’t aware of the origins of it as a holiday. A good article.

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