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Irish Halloween traditions: 'A salt herring, eaten before bed, would ensure that one’s future spouse would appear in a dream'

Archivist Jonny Dillon talks us through some of Ireland’s most interesting Halloween traditions from through the years.

Jonny Dillon

AS THE DAYS get colder and the nights longer, the end of the harvest period arrives, and with it, the festival of Samhain (which falls on the 1st of November).

This date traditionally marked the first day of winter in Ireland, and the pace and rhythm of life at this time slowed to reflect this seasonal change. With the harvest having been gathered in, wood and turf collected for the the cold, dark months ahead, life turned inward again, the fields lying fallow and bare.

Celebrations to mark this period were typically held all over Ireland on the eve of the feast of Samhain, at sundown on the 31st of October: the night known as Oíche Shamhna or Halloween.

As the period marking the beginning of the dark season, Halloween garnered many supernatural associations, and for those disinclined to venture forth and face the unseen spirits traipsing the roads on this night, there was much merriment to be had at home, for a little feast was always prepared for the family at Halloween.

Since the vigil of The Feast of All Saints has for many centuries been held as a day of abstinence, traditional foods consumed at this time contain no meat, consisting instead of apple pies, dumplings, barmbrack, colcannon, stampy, punch, tea, fruit and nuts.


Halloween foods offered more than mere sustenance however, and often foretold the future of those who ate them. This can be seen most commonly in the barmbrack fruit cake into which a ring, silver coin, thimble, chip of wood, rag, or other items were mixed in the making of the cake. The ring meant marriage, while the coin indicated wealth. Those who found the thimble may have been a little less enthusiastic about their discovery, since it suggested a life of spinsterhood (with a button foretelling bachelorhood).

The rag meant poverty and the chip of wood indicated that the finder would be beaten by their spouse.

Finally, a little religious medal suggested life as a priest or nun.

A ring might similarly be placed into a bowl of colcannon around which many children sat to eat. With each child armed with a large spoon (and with a life of solitude looming into view) a flurry of potato would ensue in which colcannon flew through the air,
over hair and into eyes, with all in eager haste to find the ring.

Individuals unsatisfied by the preternatural suggestions made by either cake or potato had further recourse however to the peeling of apples. An apple, peeled in one long strip and let fall on the floor, would reveal the initials of one’s spouse-to-be.

If both fruit cake, potato and apple all failed however, a salt herring, eaten before bed, would ensure that one’s future spouse would appear in a dream that night offering a cup of water to quench the thirst of the dreamer.


Before retiring for the night (and with a life of certain doom now fully established in the mind) a feast was sometimes prepared for the ancestral dead who were understood to return at this time. The table would be set, the floor swept and a good fire would be put
down in the hearth to show welcome to the spirits of our forebears, who would duly partake of the feast laid out for them and finish up the Halloween night’s proceedings in mirth and merriment, the cares of the living a likely source of great amusement for them.

Blasta is a new food history series that begins tonight on TG4 at 8:30pm. The project, in partnership with the National Folklore Collection, explores recipes and food artefacts cherished by families & communities across Ireland that explore the history and folklore of the island over the past 150 years.

Jonny Dillon is an archivist at the National Folklore Collection, University College Dublin, one of Europe’s largest tradition archives which was inscribed in December 2017 to the UNESCO ‘Memory of the World’ Register.

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Jonny Dillon

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