Irish Traditions in Pregnancy

This post is taken from: Hawaiian Education nursing program

When you think of the Irish, your immediate thought is probably not culture in Hawaii. Of the 35 million persons of Irish descent in the United States today, only about 70,000 live in Hawaii.  Hawaii is a mixture of cultures and traditions, and many of the Irish in Hawaii have taken on cultural customs and traditions of the other ethnicities of these islands.  However, some of the Irish traditions still persist — especially those surrounding childbirth and motherhood.  So, in honor of those persons of Irish descent living in Hawaii, we hope this website will give the non-Irish citizens a glimpse of some of the customs and beliefs that the Irish have regarding childbirth and motherhood.


For the Irish, protecting the mother and the unborn child from “evil” or “malevolent” forces was most important and there are several beliefs that help to keep the mother and baby safe.  Some are tied to religious beliefs, others are cultural.

Pregnant women should not enter graveyards.  If they did, their child would starve and be weak.  Also, if the woman twisted her foot on a grave, her baby would be born with a clubfoot.

A pregnant woman should wear a medal of their patron saint to protect them from evil.  For many, St. Brigid or St. Elizabeth medals were worn during pregnancy and childbirth for protection.  Another “all purpose” Catholic method for strong protection against evil was, of course, holy water blessed by a priest.

A pregnant woman had to avoid meeting a hare (rabbit), or her child would be born with a hare-lip.  But rabbits were not the only animals to avoid. It was believed that cats could steal your baby’s soul, so being pregnant or having a newborn in the house with a cat was avoided.

Being a “godmother” was usually a very important role for the Irish — but if you were pregnant, you could not be a godparent.  It was believed that either the child you were carrying or the child being baptized would die.

Pregnant women were to avoid contact with newborn babies.  Newborn babies were considered to be new arrivals from the “spirit world” and could cause a miscarriage of her unborn baby.

An expectant mother could determine a baby’s sex by tying her wedding ring to a string and holding it above her stomach.  If the ring moves in a circle it’s a boy, if it moves back and forth, it’s a girl.  Variations of this method for determining sex is common in many different cultures.

If you have other children, it is believed that the direction of the hair swirl at the top of your child’s head will determine whether their next sibling will be a boy or a girl. If the swirl went to the right (clockwise), it would be a boy.  If the swirl went to the left (counterclockwise) it would be a girl.

If you ate honey while you were pregnant you would have a baby with a sweet disposition.  If you ate food that was spicy, you would have trouble on your hands. Eating lots and lots of carrots would help prevent your child from having to ever wear glasses, and eating a lot of corned beef and cabbage couldn’t hurt.  But remember — stay away from GREEN potatoes.  Traditionally, there was the belief that the ingestion of green potatoes would cause birth defects.

Washing windows or raising both hands/arms above your head was avoided during pregnancy.  If the pregnant woman did this, it was believed that the umbilical cord would wrap around the baby’s neck.

The father should spend time talking to or singing to the baby while the mother was pregnant to form an attachment to the baby and ensure that the baby knew it was welcome and happy


Often times when the time for delivery had arrived there was strong encouragement for the father and other male family members to congregate at the Pub to await news of the birth.  In spite of the stereotype, this was not so the men could drink as much as it was because the Pub was a family social center and births, deaths, weddings, and church events were recognized and celebrated in that social center.  Some of the men interviewed stated that they had attended the births of their children — sometimes against the dire warnings of their families!

There are several different methods for dealing with the pain and stress of labor and childbirth.  Some of these include praying the rosary, piercing the clothing of the laboring mother with a needle that had the eye broken to “pierce” the pain and keep it from staying with the mother, and keeping a Saint’s Medal on hand.  Keeping religious or spiritual objects around helped ensure the safety of the infant.

Babies born at night would have the power of seeing ghosts and fairies.  But if they were born between midnight and noon they would not have this ability. Babies born on May Day were thought to be assured of good luck.  Lastly, it is considered bad luck for three people in the same household to be born in the same month.

The Irish, who view fairies much differently than Americans had grave concerns that the fairies would steal newborn babies, and specific actions were required to keep this from happening.  When a recovering mother or a baby became sickly, it was believed that the fairies had stolen them away and left a changeling in their place.  To avoid this, precautions were taken and, although simple, they were thought to be highly effective.  Some of these would be tying a red ribbon across the cradle or crib, and one around the baby’s ankle or wrist until they were a year old.  Some family members went so far as to sew bits of red ribbon into all the baby’s clothes to ensure they were protected.  A cloth exposed to the sun on St. Brigid’s Feast Day was thought to protect mother and baby.  Putting a piece of iron in the hem of baby’s clothing or salt under the cradle of the crib also provided protection .


Parents did not typically allow visitors around the newborn for a set period of time — usually 30 days.  It was thought that this protected the baby from any spiritual attacks that might occur as they were fresh from the spirit world.  As mentioned earlier, this is part of the reason that pregnant women were not to be around newborns or bodies being placed in coffins to prevent any spiritual confusion around the newborn’s soul.  Baptism was also very important as the Irish believed that unbaptized babies could not be buried in consecrated ground and so they were buried in either cillinigh (little graveyard) or on the borders of regular cemeteries.  It is not unusual for a baby to be baptized twice; once quickly immediately after birth and then later at a christening attended by family and friends.  It is common to find christening gowns that have been used for several generations used to dress the baby for their christening.  Spiritual upbringing was  considered to be more important than physical upbringing in many Irish families.  Therefore, the selection of godparents for a baby was a very important decision.  It was not unusual for godparents to be selected before a couple even became pregnant.

To keep both breast feeding moms and babies healthy and happy there are some general guidelines.  Eating lots of meat and vegetables ensured that baby and mom would have lots of energy and be healthy.  Warm milk with cinnamon relaxed mom, so when she nursed baby he would relax too.  Eating onions was thought to give the baby colic and spicy foods would lead to hot tempers.

It was also important to the health of mom and baby to never rock either an empty rocking chair — which would curse the mother — or an empty cradle — which would curse the infant.

Finally, not to be left out, fathers had a very important job, they typically named the babies.  While there are no hard and fast rules, typically one would see the use of a lot of family names.  For example if the new baby was a boy and the paternal grandfather was named Michael and the maternal grandfather was named Joseph, the new baby’s name would be Michael Joseph.  The next boy might be Joseph Michael, and the next named after brothers and so on.  This was also true of baby girls.  If the grandmother’s names were Margaret and Elizabeth, then the baby’s name would be Margaret Elizabeth.  If for some reason something happened and both names were not used, it would not be unusual to find the Mother’s maiden name used as a middle name in some form.  For example, if Michael O’Riley married Maggie Shannahan and Michael had a falling out with his father, or if his brother had beat him to the punch having a baby, then the baby might be named Joseph Shannahan O’Riley.   This practice ensures that both family names and surnames are not lost through time and marriage.
We hope you have enjoyed our web page and invite your comments.  We would like to leave you with an Irish Blessing.

May love and laughter light your days,
and warm your heart and home.
May good and faithful friends be yours,
wherever you may roam.
May peace and plenty bless your world
with joy that long endures.
May all life’s passing seasons
bring the best to you and yours!



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