Famous for its tall tales, it’s no surprise that the bewitching mystery and merriment of Halloween started in Ireland! Irish Halloween can be traced back to the Celtic festival of Samain. There are strong Irish traditions and delicious Irish Halloween food like a slice of warm Barmbrack that will tell your fortune for the coming year. I’ve never really engaged with Halloween. It always seems like something just for children who want to eat lots of sweets, but the Irish traditions are fascinating, and I’m hooked now that I know Halloween started in Ireland.
Halloween started in Ireland and continues to be celebrated today. Photo: Tourism Ireland.
Did you know that Halloween started in Ireland?
Irish Halloween traditions involve the whole family in a quirky set of predictions, promises and feasting. It draws from the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, which falls on the last day of October, just like Halloween. Samhain is about celebrating the harvest with a huge feast of the season’s produce.
Ireland really gets into Halloween with haunted happenings and wailing banshees, along with plenty of tricks, treats and festivals, making it a wonderful time to visit. Derry (officially known as Londonderry) in Northern Ireland turns into a ‘City of Bones’ with inflatable monsters, banshee bike rides and fireworks from October 28 to November 1.
In Dublin, the capital of the Republic of Ireland, the Bram Stoker Festival delves into the legacy of Dracula’s Dublin-born creator from October 30 to November 2.
Across the counties of Meath and Loth, the Puca Festival includes a recreation of the symbolic lighting of the Samhain fires on the Hill of Ward near Athboy on October 31. My Heaney ancestors came from the adjacent county of Caven, so they probably celebrated in similar ways before emigrating to Australia in the 1880s. The Púca Festival (pronounced poo-kuh) is a chance to indulge in traditional barm brack, colcannon, baked apples and other local seasonal treats. There will also be a Banshee Bingo Hall, comedy witch trials, interactive werewolf games, self-guided treasure hunts, and traditional handfasting ceremonies.
According to Irish and Celtic traditions, Puca, a shape-shifting character that comes alive at the ancient new year to roam the night and change the fortunes of those who cross it. You might also meet Morrigan, the goddess of war, Fear Dearg the faerie of mischief and Boann, the goddess of the Boyne.
Irish Halloween traditions include the Jack O Lantern. Photo: Kerry Heaney
Irish Halloween traditions
It’s interesting to learn that many of the traditions that I associate with an American Halloween actually have their roots in Irish Halloween traditions.
Trick or treating comes from poor Irish children going door to door to ask for food, money or kindling. (Imagine that today!). They sang prayers in reward and were given a soul cake which was a bread that contained fruit.
Jack O Lanterns also are an Irish Halloween tradition. The first lanterns were carved from turnips or large potatoes. The name comes from an Irish folk tale about Stingy Jack who tried to trick the devil. His punishment from the devil was to wander forever with only a burning ember inside a turnip to light his way.
Irish immigrants brought these traditions to America, the home of the pumpkin. It’s true that Halloween started in Ireland!
You might call this mashed potato, but in Ireland it is colcannon and a traditional Irish Halloween food. Photo: Tourism Ireland.
Irish Halloween food
Halloween started in Ireland with Samhain. This is a great festival of fire and feasting that marks the change of season. It is the end of the season of light and the beginning of dark days.
Samhain recipes feature turnips, nuts, gourds and apples, apple cider, ale and mulled wines along with beef, pork and poultry. As the harvest work halted, the community came together for feasting started. The Celts enjoyed eating the fruits of their labour. They told stories and tried to predict their fortunes.
The original traditional Halloween foods were potato dishes such as champ (mashed potatoes with spring onion or chives) and a hearty colcannon (mashed potatoes and kale or green cabbage) dinner. Eat them the traditional way and dip each spoonful into a well of butter. Boxty is potato pancakes made with grated raw potatoes and buttermilk pan-fried until golden.
Fadge is made using a cake batter created using freshly boiled potatoes, melted butter and flour and a pinch of salt with a layer of apples added before baking. When the cake is almost done, the pastry lid is turned back, and butter and brown sugar is sprinkled over the apples to make a sauce.
Fruit, nuts and barmbrack bread are other Irish traditions for Halloween.
A slice of Barmbrack studded with charms is an intriguing Irish Halloween food. Photo:
A slice of Barmbrack tells your fortune
Barmbrack is eaten all year round, but at Halloween fortune telling charms are added to the mix. The fruits can be soaked in whiskey, tea, or both, to give richness to the flavour.
Back in the day, Irish homes would be filled with the smell of baking bread and barmbrack cooking over the open fire. Barmbrack is a dried fruit-studded bread. The name comes from the Irish ‘bairín breac’, which means speckled loaf.
The Irish Halloween food tradition is that everyone gets a slice of the bread, but you need to careful when biting into it! You may find that something has been hidden inside that will tell your fortune for the year ahead.
If you find a ring, expect the discovery of true love and a wedding. Find a thimble, and you will never marry. Those who have a rag in their piece can expect a period of poverty while anyone finding a coin will be rich. I’ll have a coin, please.
There are more charms with meanings that can be found in your brack. A stick or matchstick means an unhappy relationship or major argument while a thimble signifies a period of independence/singlehood. A button means bachelorhood. Pretty gloomy predictions, so I think I might pass on a slice.
If you would like to celebrate Halloween or Samhain by making your own Barmbrack and continue the tradition that Halloween started in Ireland, I have an easy recipe at the end of this post.
Barmbrack is the Irish Halloween food that tells your fortune.
An apple a day but not at Samhain
Although apples have long been associated with Halloween, the Irish Halloween food tradition is never to pick them during that time. Why? Because the púca (fairy shapeshifters) were thought to spit on them the night after Samhain!
That’s why creepy apple bites, apple monsters and apple pies with ghost-white cream have become Halloween children’s treats.
How to make an Irish Halloween tradition – Barmbrack
Baking Barmbrack is an Irish Halloween food tradition that comes with fortune-telling opportunities if you include some charms. Remember, Halloween started in Ireland so you could experience the luck of the Irish and receive the best charm!
The recipe takes about 3.5 hours to complete, including resting and cooking time.
Slice and serve it hot.
- 350g (1½ cups) sultanas
- 50ml (¼ cup) Bushmills whiskey
- Warm tea (enough to cover the sultanas)
- 1 lemon, juice and zest
- 450g (2 cups) strong bread flour
- salt, pinch
- 15g (1tbsp) dried yeast
- 280ml (9.5fl oz) room temperature milk
- 50g (3½tbsp) butter, softened
- 50g (3½tbsp) sugar
- 1 beaten egg
- 1tbsp butter
- 1tsp ground cinnamon
- ½tsp ground mixed spice
- Soak the sultanas in the whiskey, lemon juice and warm tea for 30-45 minutes, then drain off the liquid.
- To make the dough: put all the ingredients into a mixing bowl and mix with a wooden spoon.
- Knead the dough on a floured surface with your hands for five minutes.
- Put the dough in a bowl, then cover with a damp tea towel. Leave it for about 1 hour, until the mixture has risen and fills the bowl.
- Knead the dough again on a floured surface, adding soaked fruit until evenly spread throughout the mixture.
- Place it in a 20-23cm buttered cake tin then cover with a damp tea towel.
- Leave in a warm place for about 20 minutes until the mixture rises up to the top of the tin.
- Bake for 50 minutes in an oven preheated to 200C.
- To make the topping: cream the butter and spices together until soft.
- Remove the barmbrack from the oven. Immediately spread spiced butter on top. Leave to cool.
More Irish food traditions
St Patrick’s Day is another big Irish tradition, and it involves wearing and eating the green! Try these St Patrick’s Day cupcakes for a fun day.
Another Irish tradition that I discovered when wandering Belfast’s St George Markets is eating seaweed from a paper packet.
Disclaimer: Thanks to Tourism Ireland for sharing the true origin of Halloween. Find out more about visiting Ireland at Tourism Ireland.