Oíche Shamhna

A thoroughly spooky good evening to you all, internet. I thought I’d be appropriately festive and tell you things about Hallowe’en in Ireland.

In Irish, Hallowe’en is called Oíche Shamhna (ee-ha how-na): Samhain Night or Samhain Eve. Samhain (sow-in (rhymes with how)) was the Celtic festival marking the transition from autumn to winter: the end of the harvest season, the end of the farmers’ year, and the beginning of the months of darkness. The Celts also believed that the walls between the physical world and the spirit world were weakened at this time of year, with the possibility of a portal to the underworld opening to let the spirits through.

November 1 and 2 are All Saints and All Souls Day, respectively, in the Christian calendar. This celebration of the dead and the spirit world dovetails nicely with Samhain – there’s still a certain amount of scholarly argument over whether this was deliberate. I’m in the ‘yea’ camp on this one. Sure isn’t God himself Irish?

The púca (poo-ka) is a mischievous spirit in Irish folklore – a gremlin or imp-type being – who would play merry hell with the farmers and the crops all through the harvest season. Samhain, November 1st, was also the púca’s day, and represented a sort of truce between the people and the púcaí: in return for offerings of food, the púca would stop his tricks for the day. You can see the parallels with the custom of trick-or-treating – hand over the sweets and we won’t get up to any devilment! My grandmothers still refer to trick-or-treaters as the púcaí.

Although Hallowe’en customs are often seen as American developments, the roots to most of them lie in Celtic traditions. The pumpkin jack o’lantern, for example, was originally a turnip: trick-or-treaters would carry them for light as they did the rounds of their neighbours. This is one improvement I will hand to America – carving a turnip sounds like bloody hard work. Most of the games associated with Hallowe’en are also Irish or Scottish in origin: dressing up in costumes, bobbing for apples, fortune-telling (did you ever do the one where you peel an apple and throw the peel over your shoulder? Whatever letter it forms is meant to be your future spouse’s initial. Apparently I’m marrying someone whose name starts with ‘&’).

The most traditional food for Hallowe’en in Ireland is a fruit cake called a báirín breac or barmbrack. I’ll leave you with my mother’s recipe for one here. Be aware that even though the alcohol cooks off as the cake bakes, the whiskey in this is, shall we say, a dominant flavour.

Anne’s Brack

  • 500g fruit (raisins/sultanas/cherries)
  • 250g brown sugar
  • 400ml cold tea/whiskey (I think that’s an either/or)
  • 340g flour
  • 1.5 teaspoons baking powder
  • 2 large eggs
  • grated rind of 0.5 lemon and 0.5 orange
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla essence
  • 25g walnut pieces (optional)
  • small grated nutmeg (optional)

Soak the fruit, sugar, and tea/whiskey overnight.

Heat oven to 150C.

Line cake tin with parchment.

Sieve dry ingredients and fold into the fruit mixture. Add the beaten eggs and mix well.

Pour into the tin and bake for three hours. Let cool in the tin.

Serve with a cup of tea or possibly more whiskey. I hear whiskey is restorative after a fright.

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