Halloween and Ireland: Bonfires, Barmbrack, Ancestors

At Halloween in Ireland, you can certainly find many places to dress up in costume (which is known as guising in Ireland – think disguise and you’ll get where that comes from), to take the kids for a night of fun, to get scared, to see a parade, to learn some history, to attend fairs and carnivals – all the things you’d do in the rather commercial side of this holiday in other places. Albeit there’s an Irish twist to some of it, such as the spooky goings on at the Dublin Zoo, the revelers who fill the streets of Derry, the rather more (but not entirely) serious Bram Stoker festival, the chance to be scared at just about any historic building: you get the idea.

bonfire Ireland Halloween

There are times and places where touches of older ways to mark the day and evening appear, though. Some you have to look for a bit and some may be a close (if you’re on the island of Ireland, that is) as your local market.

In the Gaelic calendar, the autumn season is known as Samhain. In older times, this gathering in at harvest time was considered the end of one year and the start of the next. The eve of Samhain, the eve of the new year, was and is known as Oiche Shamna.

One of the traditions of this turning of seasons which goes back into time even before the days of the druids has to do with bonfires – fires of the old season were doused and new fires were lit. These days, the gardai—the Irish police forces – would rather you didn’t light your own fires and encourage people to clean up material that might be taken to start a fire. You would very likely see fires springing up despite the gardai warning however. A contemporary way of marking this tradition is seen in festivals which often use fireworks instead of bonfires. These are popular parts of the celebrations in Belfast and Derry, for instance.

Some folk think fires were lit to ward off evil spirits; others say they were meant to welcome good spirits. Likewise there are two ways the jack-o-lantern gets involved in this. The grim story says a man named Jack (a blacksmith in some tales) was, for his evil ways, cursed to wander the earth, and used as his light a coal in a hollowed out turnip. If you put a lantern in your window this was meant to keep Jack away. The less scary explanation leading to jack-o-lanterns is that people wanted to take a bit of that newly kindled communal fire to the their own hearths, carried a coal home in a jack-o-lantern, and put one in the window to celebrate.

In both cases it was more likely to be a jack-o-turnip. Pumpkins are not native to Ireland, and there are those who say the American custom of carving a pumpkin and putting a light inside at Halloween arises from Irish immigrants bringing their turnip carving ways across the water – and no doubt finding with delight that pumpkins are much easier to carve than turnips. Side note: people do grow pumpkins in Ireland now, and there is often a pumpkin festival in the Cavan County town of Virginia. Still it’s not a widespread crop.

haloween ireland jack o lantern

What is widespread is barmbrack. At your local market, at high end bakeries, when you call in on a friend, you’ll find this fruited bread. It’s more like raisin bread than fruitcake, but not quite like either one. The dried fruit – usually raisins and sultanas, sometimes other fruits too—is soaked in tea and or whiskey before it’s added to the bread dough. At Halloween, other things are added too, to help tell your fortune. On biting into your slice you might find a small ring, a crown, a thimble, a rag, a dried pea – variations exist, and so do the stories that come with them. As you might think, though, the crown and the ring are the best prizes to get. You might find barmbrack on offer at other times of year, but the bread, which is often flavored with cinnamon or other winter warming spices, only holds the fortune telling bits at Halloween.

halloween Ireland barmbrack loaves

At Halloween you might also eat colcannon. This too is not exclusively served at the holiday, but it is a substantial, warming autumn to winter dish that is often made on the day or evening of Halloween. The basics are potatoes, first boiled then mashed, kale or cabbage, and butter. Everyone’s grandmother has a different recipe. There’s onion in mine; some people add bacon. Some brown the butter and add milk or cream; you may find herbs such as dill or parsley in the mix. However it is prepared, it’s really hard to go wrong with colcannon.

halloween ireland winter tree

That could be one of the reasons a dish of it may be left on the table overnight on All Hallows Eve. Some advise this is to ward off bad fairies and evil spirits. Others say it’s left for the good fairies to celebrate with, or to offer hospitality to the spirits of the ancestors.

I’ve always gone with the latter explanation. Though you may certainly find a share of both fake and real scary experiences across Ireland at Halloween, the spirits of the ancestors are usually not the scary part. The idea of their visits is more about remembering ones gone before, or having another shot at that question you always wish you’d asked grandmother – not that Halloween means she’ll answer, any more than she would in life. On the Day of the Dead in Mexico people go to family graves and have a feast. This is somewhat the subdued Irish autumn weather version of that.

Wherever you find yourself in Ireland around Halloween, You’re sure to be near both commercial and traditional ways to mark the day. As my ancestors would also be telling you: it’s All Hallows Eve, this Halloween: remember you’ve to turn up for early mass on All Saints’ – which is the next day, 1 November.

bonfire ireland halloween

A fine place to learn a bit more about Ireland and the otherworld of spirits is the episode called Away with the Fairies at The Irish Passport podcast.

For an amusing story about her Irish family’s reaction to pumpkin pie, you’ll want to take a look at Imen MacDonnell’s The Farmette Cookbook .

Julie Fowlis is a Scot, from the Western Isles of Scotland. She’s got a fine understanding of what the Celtic world knows as the thin places, when the line between here and now and what lies beyond is more permeable than usual. She brings a number of songs which touch on that mystery together in her album Alterum.

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