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Monday 4 December 2023 Dublin: 4°C
Shutterstock/D. Pimborough Brack goes by many names.

The Irish For Rings, cloth and matchsticks - the secrets of the bairín breac

Oíche Shamhna (Halloween) is fast approaching, which means it’s nearly time for a slice of brack.

HALLOWEEN IS UPON us again and everywhere you look there are broomsticks and skeletons and carved pumpkins to usher in the spooky season.

In Ireland, the enthusiasm across generations for Halloween marries the old (long-standing Samhain traditions) with the new (a grassroots resistance to Christmas advertising starting earlier and earlier).

While some commentators mutter about the American traditions crowding out the older Irish ones, one custom that is holding firm is the serving of a certain cake, laden with raisins and symbolic prizes.

Some call it barnbrack, others call it barmbrack, but everyone calls it brack for short. Sure enough, this comes from its Irish name, bairín breac. However, there is a small movement who say that this is a retrofitting and the true name is aran breac.

Having said that, these meanings aren’t massively divergent: bairín means a loaf and aran means bread. Breac, however, is a word of multiple meanings in Irish.

Its most common meaning is speckled or dappled, which is surely the relevant one when referring to the currant-dotted cake served at this time of year. But there are other meanings, some of which converge with the symbolism of the items concealed within the loaf.

Fáinne – the ring

While many bakers have discontinued the other brack prizes, the inclusion of a ring is still compulsory.

The child who is served the slice with the ring will be the first at the table to marry. If, when the time came, they decided to have rings engraved upon their nuptials, one of the verbs to engrave in Irish is breacadh.

Piseán – the pea

Sometimes a stone is included instead of a pea, possibly because people kept mistaking the pea for a dodgy raisin. Finding this in your slice meant that you wouldn’t get married this year.

This ties in with another meaning of breac, which is trout or other speckled fish: Tá breac san abhainn chomh maith is a gabhadh fós.

A less worn phrase than plenty of fish in the sea, this seanfhocal states that there are fish still in the ocean that are as good as any fish yet taken out of it.

Brat – the cloak or cloth

This is generally the harbinger of poverty but in some houses it is seen as predicting that the girl who found this in her slice would become a nun.

If your baker has a meta sense of humour, they might include a tartan cloth – the Irish for tartan is breacán. Some Scottish families refer to their family’s tartan pattern as their breac.

An Méaracán agus an cnaipe – the thimble and the button

These two have largely fallen out of use but they both predict that the finder will be single. More specifically, the thimble foresees a hard path to spinsterhood and the button predicts the vain life of a bachelor.

Why are these tokens gendered and what happens if a girl gets the button or if a boy gets the thimble? I suspect such antics are among the reasons you won’t see these in many barmbracks anymore.

There are advantages and disadvantages to the single life, and sure enough another meaning of breac is defined as mixed, middling, with good and bad parts.

Cipín – better to be single than to be in an unhappy relationship

This is what the matchstick predicts. As well as meaning something with good and bad parts, breac as a prefix can mean something changing from good to bad – breacbhainne is milk turning sour.

Réal – this is the old name for a sixpence

Getting one of these in your slice would promise riches in the future. The shiny coin might attract the attention of a snag breac, which is the Irish for a magpie.

Happy Halloween, and when you slice the barmbrack, may the odds be ever in your favour.


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