Monkey Nuts, Barmbrack and Apples
I grew up in Ireland, the home of Halloween.
I know that it seems like a quintessentially American holiday, but Halloween has its roots in the Celtic feast of Samhain. The Americans embraced and extended Halloween, adding the tradition of trick-or-treating, which in turn made its way back to Ireland.
I spent many of my childhood Halloweens trick-or-treating in the town of Tralee in County Kerry with my cousins. It’s funny, but when I think back to those times, I can’t think of any specific sweets (or “candy”, as the Americans would say). Instead I think of three other foodstuffs: monkey nuts, barmbrack, and apples.
“Monkey nuts?” you ask. Before you get too excited, thinking that perhaps you are about to hear of some previously unknown species of nut, I have to break it to you that monkey nuts are simply peanuts in the shell. I don’t know if it was an Irish phrase or a Kerry thing or just something my cousins said but I remember them always being called monkey nuts. And for some reason, they were always in plentiful supply at Halloween.
And what of this barmbrack of which I speak? That was a cakey bread that my aunt would bake. It was filled with raisins and much more besides. An inventory of the ingredients would reveal such incongruous items as a pea, a coin, a stick, a rag, and a ring. If you found one of those items in your slice of barmbrack, it prophesied your future. The rag meant that you would be poor, but the coin promised a life of riches. If you got the ring, you would be getting married soon, but if you got the pea, then your marriage prospects were bleak. Oh, and the stick: that meant you were going to beat your wife.
Apples were omnipresent at Halloween, which is unsurprising given that it was apple season. Of course we indulged in the game of bobbing for apples, but there was another game we played in Kerry called Snap Apple. In this game, an apple was suspended from a string. Holding your hands behind your back, you had to try to take a bite of the apple. It’s harder than it sounds.
I remember one of my cousins hammering a nail into the frame above the kitchen door so that we could attach the string for the apple. Even my uncle, normally a fairly dour man, didn’t seem to mind the boisterous disruption of the children playing these Halloween games.
My uncle passed away a few years ago, but my aunt tells me that she sometimes looks at the nail that’s still there above the door and smiles at the memory of those happy times.