When Bewley’s hid gold rings in barm bracks, and other Irish Halloweens past

From the Archive: Fairy revels, jack-o’-lanterns and the first October bank holiday

Mythology and folklore have been to the fore of many Irish Times articles on Halloween, which has sometimes made them sit a little strangely alongside the news stories of the day.

Take this article from November 1st, 1892, which explains (next to a report about US intervention in the case of Irish-Americans imprisoned after a bombing campaign in Britain): "In old Irish Folklore the Eve of All Saints was always a noted night for the revels of fairies. On this night popular superstition in Ireland declared that the 'Good People,' as the Irish peasantry call the fairies, always were especially minded to take equestrian exercise.

“Their steeds were cream-coloured ponies, and from the long-flowing manes of these fiery coursers were hung silver bells, which made sweet jingling music as the riders urged their ponies through the starry sky. These Irish fairies loved silent hills and lonely valleys, and are accredited with much love of music and children…

“The dress of the ‘Good People’ is invariably garments of rich green colour, and they have splendid hair of a ruddy golden hue. Their instruments of song being the cornpipe and the fen reed, and many are the tales told of the wonderful and entrancing stains of fairy melody to be heard at midnight...”


Although Halloween is seen as an Irish festival that was exported to the United States and then reimported to Ireland, much of what we perceive as having been added across the Atlantic actually has Irish roots. Carved pumpkins, or jack-o’-lanterns, for example, were originally carved turnips in Ireland. (A “ghost turnip” displayed at the National Museum of Ireland’s Country Life branch, at Turlough Park in Castlebar, in recent years is infinitely more sinister than a grinning pumpkin.)

Trick or treating, too, is viewed as an American import, yet as this article, from Halloween 1969, details, "Up until about 30 years ago it was still practice for men and women to change clothes and play practical jokes: to tell fortunes, and in Co Clare, to bang on a neighbour's door with half a loaf, this custom being called 'battering away hunger'. The custom of Booleying (cattle being allowed a free run in the valleys, from November 1st until March 17th when they were transferred to the mountains), when the young people returned from the mountains with the cattle there would be a celebration.

“Kitchens were swept clean to receive the souls of the dead, and if a brown butterfly flew in afterwards it was thought to be a soul. This is extremely interesting for the ancient Greeks gave the name ‘soul’ to a certain kind of butterfly, and in the Egyptian ‘Book of the Dead’ there is a drawing showing the soul in butterfly form rejoining the body.”

That article, by Theodora FitzGibbon, also featured recipes for some festive treats, including potato and apple cake, colcannon and barm brack. "Barm brack is perhaps the most general Halloween specialty," FitzGibbon wrote. "Barm is the old word for yeast, and brack comes from brec, meaning speckled (with fruit)." She added a bit of family history to contextualise her own baking: "Soak the following fruit and sugar overnight in 3 cups milkless tea. When whiskey was considerably cheaper my grandmother used whiskey which made her bracks very popular with the gentlemen."

In the late 1970s, reports about Halloween focused on the government’s decision to give people the day off work. The move was instigated by the Labour Party TD Michael O’Leary, who as minister for labour decided that the last Monday in October should be a new public holiday. The decision caused a bit of a kerfuffle; some cabinet colleagues were unimpressed by O’Leary’s decision.

Nell McCafferty reported that, on the inaugural Halloween bank holiday, in 1977, O'Leary (who died in 2006, when he drowned in a swimming pool in France) spent the day walking by Poolbeg Lighthouse in Dublin, and then reading Lenin in Zurich, by Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

Back to brack: advertisements for barm brack have appeared in The Irish Times since 1864, including from O'Callaghan and Co, which had outlets on Grafton Street, Sackville Street (now O'Connell Street) and Aungier Street in Dublin. "The Cake of Progress", one of its ads ran in 1870. "A Rich, Delicious, and Economical Tea Cake, designed by us".

And on October 24th, 1985, a report about barm brack brought news of an amazing game by Bewley's, which stashed gold rings in 10 of its 30,000 loaves. "So chew carefully."