Ireland has a rich tradition of folklore, rife with magical creatures from leprechauns, banshees and púcas to joint-eaters, changelings and more. No surprises that they take their Halloween very seriously. And, being Ireland, food is a big highlight of Halloween, and it remains a harvest festival celebrated with a feast for the family.
In Ireland, Halloween was preceded by the Celtic festival of Samhain falling on the last day of October and the start of November, when the harvest was in, food was plentiful, and a huge feast of seasonal fare played a major part in the celebrations.
Turnips, apples and apple cider, mulled wines, gourds, nuts, beef, pork, poultry, ale—the Samhain recipes concocted from the harvest brought the community together as work halted, feasting started and the Celts ate the fruits of their labour and told stories around the fire.
Traditionally, Irish foods at Halloween contain no meat, as when Samhain eventually merged with the Christian All Hallows Eve, the day before All Saints Day, to create Halloween, it was a day of preparation and fasting. With the food becoming anything vegetarian, Halloween was celebrated with the likes of potato dishes including a champ, boxty, fadge (a type of apple cake) as well as fruit, nuts, barmbrack bread, and colcannon.
Colcannon is made with potatoes mashed and mixed with chopped kale or green cabbage and onions and is a warming autumnal dish to have on Halloween night before heading out for an evening of fun and mischief. It’s traditionally cooked in a skillet pot with a large round bottom, three small legs, and two ear-like handles at the sides and is eaten by dipping each spoonful into a well of butter. Champ is another mashed potato dish from Armagh which incorporates sweet milk and chopped chives or onions and is eaten the same way as colcannon.
Yes, the Irish love their potatoes. Yet another popular dish at this time of year is the boxty pancake, where grated raw potatoes are squeezed in a cloth to remove excess water and mixed with flour, baking powder, salt, beaten egg, and sweet milk (or buttermilk) to make a pancake batter. The batter is then fried in a pan until golden on both sides. Boxty pancakes are served hot, buttered, and sprinkled with caster sugar. A similar batter is also used to make scones called farls which are baked on a griddle.
Traditionally, Irish homes were filled with the smell of baking bread, and especially barmbrack in the weeks leading up to Halloween. This dried fruit-studded bread comes from the Irish ‘bairín breac’, which literally means speckled loaf. While barmbrack is eaten all year round, it is only at Halloween that charms are added to the mix, each having a fortune-telling significance for the year ahead. The fruits can also be soaked in whiskey, tea, or both, adding a richness of flavour.
Everyone in the family gets a slice of the bread, but you have to be careful when chewing and about what you find.
- A ring signifies the finder will soon be married.
- A thimble signifies the female finder will be a spinster while a button signifies the male finder will forever be a bachelor.
- A silver coin signifies the finder will become wealthy.
- A rag signifies the finder will stumble into poverty.
- A religious medal signifies the finder will become a priest or a nun.
In north Leinster and parts of Ulster the old tradition of leaving a symbolic meal for the fairies on Halloween is still observed. A plate of champ with a spoon is set at the foot of the nearest fairy thorn (hawthorn or whitethorn) or at the gate entrance to a field on the night of Halloween and on All Souls’ Night (2nd November). Some consider this a ritual to commemorate the dead while others see it as an offering to the fairies or to púca (fairy shapeshifters) who might visit their houses.
Another tradition is to make thick oaten cakes with a hole in the centre which a string could be threaded through. Any child who came in to collect apples and nuts (nowadays “trick or treating”) would be given an oaten cake to be tied around their neck.
Apples have always been associated with Halloween, though in Ireland they should never be picked during this time because it’s believed the púca spat on them the night after Samhain. In contemporary Ireland apples are used at Halloween to make apple monsters, creepy apple bites and apple pies with ghost-white cream to fit with an endless array of children’s treats that can involve anything from black widow spider biscuits and cranberry-flavoured vampire juice to extra-devilled eggs.
Fadge is an apple potato cake popular in the northeast of Ireland. The cake batter is made of freshly boiled potatoes, a pinch of salt, melted butter, and flour. The mixture is divided into two equal parts and rolled into rounds. Layers of sliced apples are then laid on the base round before the top round is placed on top. The fadge is traditionally cooked in a pot-oven on a bed of red-hot turf. When the cake is almost ready, it is sliced around the side, the pastry lid turned back and the apples generously sprinkled with brown sugar and a knob of butter. The fadge is then returned to the oven until the sugar and butter has melted to form a sauce.
In old Ireland, after a supper of colcannon the young people would allow the peel of the apple to fall on the ground in the belief that it would show the initial letter of a sweetheart’s name, or duck for apples in a barrel or basin of water, which they do till this day.