To find the roots of Halloween in Ireland, and the traditional eating of delicious barmbrack bread, we need to travel back to Celtic times – to the festival of Samhain to be precise.
Changing of the Seasons
To our pagan forebears, Samhain marked the conclusion of the pastoral phase – the time when the gathering of the crops would have been complete and the livestock would be brought in.
Significantly, in the Celtic calendar this was also the last day of the year.
Pagan belief dictated that it was on this day that the souls of the dead would return to their earthly homes and when spirits could leave the Otherworld and be seen by humans.
This is the day we know as Halloween, a day when many Irish folk celebrate by eating traditional barmbrack bread.
From Darkness into Light
The Celts deemed that a day began in darkness and moved forwards into the light.
That same impression explains the fact that in those ancient times, winter – the season of long nights – marked the commencement of a new year, a year that progressed onwards into lighter days as the seasons changed.
The festival was therefore held on the 1st of November, with the celebrations beginning as the sun set the day before.
Such celebrations endured long after Christianity arrived on Irish shores.
It was perhaps inevitable that a more acceptable alternative would be sought to reconfigure pagan lore and culture into a more Christian form.
In an attempt to do so, the seventh-century Pope Boniface sought to achieve this by calling 1st November All Saints’ Day (also known as All Hallows’ Day).
Ghostly Samhain Traditions
Many traditions still followed today clearly come from Celtic times, when large bonfires burned in an attempt to confuse any lurking spirits, and people wore disguises and masks to confuse the returning dead and stop them targeting people who they held grudges against during their lives.
However, the more timid members of the community choose instead to leave out food offerings to the spirits, hoping that their kindness would appease any visiting spirits.
The Gift of Food
For some householders, the leaving out of food was specifically aimed at ghostly visitors from their own families.
One popular food that has long been part of the Irish All Hallows’ Eve celebrations is brambeck (báirín breac, meaning ‘speckled loaf’ in the Gaelic, because of the raisin-dotted dough).
This delicious sweetened Irish treat is a cousin to the Welsh bara brith. While yeast is not generally employed in the baking of Irish loaves, this one is the exception to the rule.
Another ingredient that marks it out is the strong black tea that replaces more usual baking liquids.
When traditional barmbrack bread is prepared at Halloween, tradition (deriving from Samhain) dictates that certain items should be added to the dough before cooking.
These are: a coin, a ring, a piece of cloth, a pea and a stick.
Each signifies certain outcomes for the person that discover it. The coin indicates the finder will become rich and the ring that the finder will soon marry.
The piece of cloth indicates hard times, the pea suggests that the finder won’t marry in that particular year and the stick points to an unhappy marriage.
While some traditionalists continue to add all these symbolic items to their Samhain-inspired Halloween Barmbrack bread, these days most people only add the ring.
It is absolutely delicious toasted and generously buttered. Because of its composition it will last for a good ten days after baking.
Traditional Irish Barmbrack Bread Recipe
Here is our recipe for Barmbrack which is delicious when served buttered. It will keep for around 10 days.
2oz/50g mixed candied peel
1 cup strong black tea
3 tbsp Irish Whiskey (optional)
1lb/450g plain flour
¼oz/7g dried yeast
1 cup/250ml milk (lukewarm)
1 level tspn ground cinnamon
1 level tspn ground nutmeg
3oz/75g softened butter
3oz/75g castor sugar
1 egg – beaten
- On the previous evening, place the raisins, sultanas, currents, mixed candied peel, the strong black tea and, if you wish, the Whiskey, which will give a fuller flavour, into a bowl and leave to soak overnight.
- When you are ready to make the brack, grease a 9inch/23cm round cake tin.
- Sift the flour into a ‘warm’ bowl. Then stir in the yeast, cinnamon, nutmeg and sugar. Make a well and pour the lukewarm milk into it. Make sure the milk is not too hot, otherwise it will kill the yeast. Add the beaten egg and mix into a consistent dough. Cover the bowl and leave in a warm place for at least an hour for the mixture to rise to about twice its size.
- Place the dough on a lightly floured surface and gradually work in the butter followed by the soaked fruit.
- Now is a good time to add any trinkets to it such as a ring, making sure they are wrapped in greaseproof paper and evenly distributed in the dough.
- Preheat the oven to 400°F/200°C/Gas Mark 6.
- Leave the dough for a further 20 minutes to continue rising.
- Place the dough into the baking tin and bake for 50 minutes or until golden brown.
- If you wish to glaze it then mix 1 tbsp sugar with 3 tbsp of hot water and brush this over the top of the brack and bake for a further few minutes.
- Remove it from the tin onto a rack and allow to cool.
Barmbrack is best served sliced and buttered with a nice hot cup of tea. Enjoy!