The Barbaric History of the Original Barmbrack

Words: Shamim de Brún
Images: Unsplash

Words: Shamim de Brún
Images: Unsplash

Ireland is Queen of bizarre Halloween traditions: we invented jack-o-lanterns and apple bobbing. But nothing quite tops the woo-woo thrill of barmbrack, a bread that moonlights as a fortune-telling oracle.

The Irish teabrack is back to slay, and not in a zoomer way. It is here to take us out, or at least take us down a peg, like it does every year. Everyone knows the thrill of slicing into a brack hoping to be the one to get the little gold ring — a sign that you’re going to be married soon. But did you know the original brack had a bigger lineup of surprises, baked into its raisiny depths? Well dive in because the OG brack was savage!

As Gaeilge, what we know as Barmbrack goes by ‘báirín breac’ or “speckled loaf,” an ode to its fruit-studded dough. Best enjoyed with a smear of Irish butter and a good cuppa, barmbrack’s exact origins remain shrouded in mystery, but it has long been intertwined with Celtic mysticism and the celebration of Halloween. This marks the transition from autumn to winter. During this time, when the grand stretch is retreating, the boundaries between our world and the fairy realm blur, permitting fortune-telling and glimpses into the future. Or so the lore goes.

The actual loaf is a ritual in bread form, laden with dried fruits and cryptic treasures: a pea, matchstick, piece of cloth, coin, thimble, and a ring, each foretelling the future in a somewhat barbaric way.

@danielleisapayne Celtic barmbrack bread tellings #celtic #fortune #fyp #irishtradition @lordofthepaynes @ppfantastic ♬ original sound – Danielle

The Pea

Finding this in your slice means that you steadfastly will NOT be getting married this year. Not too cruel, unless of course your wedding is already booked and paid for.

This ties in with another meaning of breach; 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. As seanfhocali go, it’s pretty witch-coded.


The Cloth

The harbinger of poverty. This usually this means you are destined to end up in the poorhouse. How savage. Imagine a slice of bread telling you you’re going to have nothing but the clothes on your back by the end of the year. What do you bet that everyone who bought an NFT got this in their brack?

In some houses, it is seen as predicting that the girl who found this in her slice would become a nun. Maybe because nuns take a vow of poverty? Who knows, but can ya imagine? ‘Oh you got the cloth so you’d better get your wimple out’. Maybe Hamlet should have just given Ophelia a slice of brack?

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 die alone. Or be perpetually single. Much of a muchness really. A thimble for spinsters and a button for bachelors. Back in the day, this would have been harrowing. When your whole worth was based on your marriageability this was a hell of a future to pull out of thin air.

These days there’s less shame associated with singledom so maybe that is why they have fallen out of use. But it could also be because they all relate to the ring anyway so the extras are a bit superfluous. Or maybe people just got over it and didn’t want to get clothes in their tea.


Better to be Single Than to be in an Unhappy Relationship

If you get the matchstick you’re supposedly cursed to have a volatile relationship. It’s code for domestic violence really. So it’s easy to see how this one fell out of favour as our attitudes to domestic violence changed.

It’s possible this one relates back to, breac as a prefix. Breac can mean something changing from good to bad – breacbhainne is milk turning sour.



This just became a coin over time before getting axed. Curious that another Halloween tradition revolves around getting a coin: colcannon. Getting one of these in your slice, or mash, means you’re gonna be rich. Get that lotto ticket, because this is your year! The shiny coin might attract the attention of a snag breac, which is the Irish for a magpie.



Of course, we all know the most famous part of the brack. The little ring. You will marry your love this year, as long as you don’t swallow the tiny brass ring whole. Sure the ring was the best bit anyway. Like the toy in a box of cereal, it was a reason to eat as much of this cinnamon raisin-style bread as possible.  It’s cute, fun, and kinda wholesome as it’s always the child in the family who seems to get the fáinne.

In the late 19th century, commercial bakeries embraced barmbrack, intent on preserving the tradition. Or commodifying it. Yet, the rise of health and safety led some bakers to abandon this practice. There were pearl clutching-level fears that customers might choke on concealed trinkets. So while the ring is now mass-produced and remains concealed in its greaseproof paper the rest has fallen by the wayside in many respects. Alas.

The essence of barmbrack isn’t in its taste but in the thrill of unearthing one’s destiny. Will I be married? Will I be rich? It’s like doing the lotto but with more jeopardy. It’s like a Halloween rite that may or may not be a curse. As Donal Skehan wryly puts it, “You think you’re simply tucking into some bread, and then you end up having your future laid out for you.” And what could be scarier than that?

It’s hard to get a brack with all the bits these days, but the classic teabrack from The Cupcake Bloke is the best we’ve found.

When you slice the barmbrack, may the odds be ever in your favour.

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