An Irish Halloween

Hallowe’en: A witch riding a broomstick with a black cat. C 1908 Missouri History Museum (Image Wikimedia Commons).

It’s Halloween again, a traditional celebration that goes back into the mists of time.  This is a celebration that has evolved quite significantly even in the past century and more so, in Ireland at any rate, in the past two decades.

Halloween has its origins in Ireland’s ancient Celtic past. Samhain (Sow-an) was one of the 4 major Fire Festivals of the ancient Celts. Imbolg, Bealtaine, Lughnasa and Samhain  fell on ‘cross quarter’ days – about half way between the solstices and equinoxes – and are celebrated on  February 1, May 1, July 1 and November 1.

Samhain (as with the other  Celtic pagan festivals) has been christianised and reinvented. The celebration has been de-paganized and has become Halloween – literally  meaning the eve of All Saints (Hallows) Day, which in turn is on the eve of All Souls Day (November 2nd.) . November 1 was designated the feast of All Saints by the catholic church as recently as the 9th century. Nevertheless, modern Halloween and the ancient Samhain Festival have common themes marking – then as now – the end of the growing season, the arrival of  dark days of winter and the returning of spirits from the other world.

50 years ago or so, in Donegal, in Ireland’s north-west, Halloweve, as we called it, was a fairly simple family affair, but one that was eagerly anticipated by youngsters, for it was an evening of fun and games and one when we enjoyed the fruits of autumn. It was indeed a magical evening of feasting that heralded a month of prayer and devotions for the Holy Souls (people who had died but were congregated in ‘Purgatory’ as they were not yet pure enough to enter heaven).


An Irish homemade Hallowe’en mask  at Museum of Country Life  Castlebar, Co Mayo.

As for Halloweve itself, we would each have a ‘False Face’ – a paper mache mask, that in all honesty was more ugly than scary, and we delighted in wearing them all afternoon. Unfortunately very often the elastic designed to hold it on, would break at an early stage, and they would be discarded.

Tea time was a real treat with Colcannon piled high and rivers of melted butter flowing down the sides, followed by my mother’s Barmbrack – we called this simply ‘Brack’. Shop-bought Brack contained a ring, but for children a silver threepence or sixpence was a more appropriate ‘surprise’ to find and my mother put one in both the Colcannon and the Brack. (See Recipes below)


A pot of Colcannon, waiting to be plated up and crowned with a golden knob of butter. (Image Wikimedia Commons)

After tea we would have nuts –  hazelnuts from the hedgerows and monkey nuts (peanuts) from the shop and if we were lucky we would also have a coconut. My father would drill through the ‘eyes’ and pour out the milk, giving each of us a small drink. He would then saw the coconut in half and we would be given a chunk of the chewy flesh – a real once a year treat! And in later years a box of dates was added to the mix..sticky and chewy and elegantly arranged in a very nice long box. 

peanutsPeanuts – an annual treat for Halloweve. (Image Wikimedia Commons) Every house had a nail driven into the door frame of which to hang an apple (I still have this nail on my kitchen door from my own children).

Fuji_appleApples – the key ingredient of our evening (Image Wikimedia Commons)

The apple was attached by its stalk to a long string and the trick was to get a bite from it without using hands to hold it. Apples were put into large bowls of flour,and several were floated in basins of water. In each case the apples had to be retrieved, or bitten,without using hands – the  kitchen often ended up in a wet mess, but it was great fun!  These were days before the unattractive practice of ‘trick or treat’ had crossed the Atlantic, and in days before television. Halloweve was indeed a highlight of our year and was the last great celebration before Christmas.

Hazelnuts_02Hazelnuts from the hedgerows. (Image Wikimedia Commons)

In Ireland, November 1 was a holy day, and so off we went to Church. Similarly on November 2, All Souls Day, we attended 3 masses, visited graveyards, and prayed earnestly for the release of souls from Purgatory. This continued throughout the month of November, designated the month of the Holy Souls, and we earnestly believed that our prayers helped release souls into heaven!

 Halloween Recipes.

Tea Brack.

This is not a cake, but is a bread, sliced thinly and buttered just like bread.


Buttered Brack. Image Wikimedia Commons


1 pound of fruit – Sultanas, Currants, Raisins.

1/2 pint of strong tea

12 ounces Self Raising Flour

1/2 teaspoon Mixed Spice

6 – 8 ounces of Brown Sugar

2 Eggs – beaten

A silver threepence or sixpence scalded in boiling water and then wrapped well in greaseproof paper.


Put the fruit in a saucepan with the tea. Bring to the boil, turn off heat and leave overnight.

Sieve the flour and spice, add sugar and then the soaked fruit.

Stir all ingredients together , add beaten egg, and mix well.

Put all mixture into a greased 2.5 pound loaf tin.

Push the well wrapped coin  into the mixture

Bake at 170C (325 F) for 80 – 90 minutes or until a skewer comes out clean from the centre.

Serve cold.


This recipe is taken from my mother’s old cookery book – Full and Plenty by Maura Laverty

The recipe in the book is preceded by this old song

”Did you ever eat Colcannon when ’twas made with yellow cream
and the kale and praties blended like the picture in a dream?
Did you ever take a forkful, and dip it in the lake
of the heather-flavoured butter that your mother used to make?

Oh, you did;  yes, you did. So did he and so did I

And the more I think about it, sure the more I want to cry

Ah, God be with the happy times, when troubles we had not

And our mothers made colcannon in the little three-legged pot”

The recipe is simplicity itself and as with many Irish recipes, there are no quantities given.

2013-10-25 20.00.30

Hot Colcannon with a lake of butter ….(Image thesilvervoice)

Cooked potatoes

Milk brought to the boil with a tablespoon of minced onion

Shredded or finely chooped cooked Curly Kale or Savoy Cabbage

Salt and Pepper

Mash the boiled potatoes or put through a sieve or ricer

Beat in a knob of butter and then add enough of the milk  and onion, a tablespoon at a time,  to make the mixture light and fluffy.

Add to the potato mixture one half its bulk of finely chopped cooked kale. Beat well and reheat thoroughly.

Add the well scalded and wrapped silver coin to the mixture.

Make each serving into a volcano shaped mound, put a hole in the centre and add a knob of butter and allow it to melt. Yum!

Happy Halloween!



Filed under Celebrations in Ireland, Ireland, Irish Cooking, Irish Traditions, My Oral History, Oral History

28 responses to “An Irish Halloween

  1. Definitely making these! Thankyou so much for sharing 🙂

  2. Kerry O'Gorman

    So interesting where these rituals come from. My dad called the potato dish “champ” from his mums home of Belfast. Thanks for the brack recipe…will give it a go.

  3. I knew there was a very good reason as to why I didn’t yet finish my post on Halloween… that you would post one far more interesting. Love the recipes, can’t wait to make Brack…

  4. Oh, what delightful rituals… love them!!!
    Brack, by another name, came to me in a recipe from a friend when I was first married and she named in “tea cake”… Delish!!! must start baking it again. Need to shoot down to the shop to get some cabbage to go with the “taties” that are always in my cupboard… that will be for tea tonight 😆 Thanks for another fantastic post, Angela.

    • Some do indeed call this tea brack. I have another recipe in my mother’s old cookbook in which brack is made with yeast, but there was no yeast where we lived! (Brack comes from the Irish word meaning ‘speckled’) Enjoy your Halloweve tea 🙂

  5. Wonderful post, SV! Brought me right back to Hallowe`en in the west of Ireland very many moons ago. Yes, we played the apple on the nail game along with bobbing for apples and bobbing for money too! Great craic!

  6. We used to carve a turnip 🙂 great post

    • Ho Lorna. Did you? Turnips were so hard(compared to a Pumpkin), it must have taken great effort to carve! I think I may have seen one or two when I was growing up. Every area had its own customs and traditions. Thanks for dropping by!

  7. Great memorirs and traditions Angela. I had completely forgotten November’s prayers for those in “transit”.

    • Thanks Pauleen – deserving of a post in itself – we used do ‘visits’ to churches and graveyards to get plenary or partial indulgences for them. We went into church/graveyard, said the prayers,, went out and came back in again..this went on for as long as we wanted throughout the month. Still here now for the month, there will be candles/lanterns lighting on graves. A nice remembrance,whatever about the indulgences!

  8. I will definitely make the Colcannon. My husband will love it.
    I personally hate bobbing for apples. But we still make kids do it at Halloween parties in the U.S. A little Halloween torture, if you ask me. We’ve also strung them up and let kids try to get a bite from one as the apples swing from their strings. A little more hygenic, but no easier, tat’s for sure!

    • Hope you enjoy the colcannon! I like to serve it as a side or accompaniment to another dish, but wow it is great by itself with the streams of meted butter flowing down! Yes health and safety were not key issues back then and when I think about it our water was very precious as it had to be drawn from the well on a daily basis, but it WAS great fun! .

  9. Lovely article and reminiscences SV. I recall that (in Cork anyway) somewhere in the brack was a piece of wood, a sort of a consolation prize if you didn’t get the sixpence.
    I guess shop-bought brack wouldn’t have these surprises these days what with the busybodies telling us that everyone would choke on them.
    Hilarious comment piece by Ian O’Doherty in the Indo today – an eye surgeon saying that apple bobbing is ‘best avoided’ – give me strength.

  10. Inspiring post – very well done… 🙂 🙂

  11. Silver Voice, I enjoyed reading about your celebration of Halloweve in Ireland and the reminder of the history of Halloween. I must try the recipe for Brack – thank you for including the recipe.

  12. Thank you for the recipes, history and the memories

  13. WordsFallFromMyEyes

    I know I have Irish heritage but oh, I know nothing (except for Angela’s Ashes and Billy Elliott). Sigh, you make me want to be there. Just delicious.

  14. Thanks for sharing such wonderful memories with us. So different from today. I was surprised to see the level of focus on Halloween in Scotland and England.

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