Irish Language Blog

Bia Fáistineachta um Shamhain: Bairín Breac (Barmbrack) agus Cál Ceannann (Colcannon) Posted by on Oct 31, 2009 in Irish Language

One could fill a volume on nósanna Oíche Shamhna (Halloween customs), and indeed, it has been done.  But I’ll wrap-up this year’s season with a discussion of some of the ways that ordinary foods can be used for divination.  If it’s been a bit of a tuile (flood) of Halloween lore lately, what can I say but “Nuair a thig cith tig bailc” (It never rains but it pours, lit. when a shower comes, a downpour comes).


Bairín Breac, lit. “speckled loaf,” is made with raisins and/or currants, hence the name.  It can be served at any time of the year.  The “barm” part of the English name is believed to be a contraction of “bairín” (loaf).  Some interpret it as related to “barm” (yeast, and source of the English adjective “barmy”), but it has always seemed to me less likely that you’d call this food “speckled yeast,” with a hybrid half-English, half-Irish name, and more likely that “speckled” would describe the loaf itself.  Unless the “breac” part (speckled) stands for the loaf itself mar shampla de shineicdicé (as an example of synecdoche). 


At this time of year, various items can be baked into the loaf, predicting the future for whoever gets them in their slice.  These could include a pingin, or these days a ceint (i.e. saibhreas [SEV-rus], wealth), fáinne for a bainis (ring, wedding), or a méaracán (thimble), indicating that a man would sew on his own buttons for at least another year.  The symbolism of a thimble for a woman seems less clear.  Status quo, is dócha.


Cál ceannann, lit. white-faced or white-topped kale or cabbage.  It seems this was originally cabbage served with butter, as opposed to without butter.  A family might have been saving their home-made butter to sell at market days, to get actual cash income.  These days, though, potatoes are an equally important ingredient, with chopped up cabbage added.  Or oinniúin or síobhais ([SHEE-uv-ish] chives), srl.  This could also be served at any time of year but for Halloween, coins or other charms would be added.  Maybe today children would expect a euro, not a ceint!


By the way, if you try these, I recommend wrapping the charms in scragall alúmanaim (aluminum or “tin” foil) before cooking.  And maybe a metal thimble, not a plastic one, if you’re baking.  I don’t know how much heat it would take to melt a plastic thimble, but I don’t intend to find out.   


At any rate, it seems that the Celts didn’t need the iconographic liathróid chriostail.  .


Nótaí: fáistineacht [FAWSH-tin-yukht], divination; thig [hig]; liathróid [LEE-uh-hrohdj, silent “t”] ball; chriostail [HRISS-til, silent “c”] of crystal 


When the letter “h” is added to “sineicdicé” for lenition, resulting in “shineicdicé,” remember the initial “s” becomes silent and the first syllable (shin-) is pronounced “hin.”

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  1. Rick Forbes:

    Barm from “bairín” (loaf)? That’s really interesting.

    Another English word that came from Irish.

    Up North (of England) they have Barm Cakes which are not cakes at all. It is some kind of round bread roll filled with salad/ham/cheese etc. so ‘loaf’ would fit there. Not sure why they are cakes though.

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