The Night of the Big Portion
By Edythe Preet, Contributor
February / March 2004
In Ireland, the last night of the year was called Oiche na Cada Moire, The Night of the Big Portion. It was common practice to have a big supper that night to ensure a full cupboard and plenty to eat in the twelve months to come. Of course, the custom dated back to a time when crop success meant the difference between feast and famine. Spells and incantations were invoked to protect the household from danger.
Women prepared large barm brack cakes. In many cases, the man of the house would take three bites out of the cake and dash the rest of it against their cottage door saying as he did: “We warn famine to retire from tonight to this night twelve months.” In County Limerick the whole cake was knocked against the door three times for the same reason. In County Cork, after the cake was consumed the last crumbs were thrown at the door and windows to prove that no one inside was hungry.
New Year’s Day was known as La na gCeapairi, The Day of Buttered Bread. As another talisman against hunger, neighbors went from house to house exchanging slices of fresh bread slathered with sweet creamy butter. Buttered bread sandwiches were also placed outside the door for wayfaring fairies.
In Northern Ireland, a Scottish New Year’s tradition took root when England sought to suppress the Ulster counties by “planting” loyal Scotsmen there during the seventeenth century. Called “First Footing” it signified that the first person to cross over the threshold would predict the household’s luck for the upcoming year. Hopefully, the visitor would be a dark haired man who brought with him a lump of coal, a coin and a piece of bread, symbols of warmth, wealth and food. For his good wishes, he was treated to a glass of hot whiskey punch and a slice of lucky barm brack cake.
Since eating well on New Year’s Day was synonymous with having a full cupboard for the next twelve months, the year’s first meal was very important. Even today, many Irish families sit down to a grand version of what is known as an “Irish Breakfast.” It consists of fried eggs, rashers of bacon, sausages, black and white savory puddings, plus grilled tomatoes, potatoes and mushrooms! In the North, this opious breakfast is called “Ulster Fry” and it’s always accompanied by Soda Farls which are split in half and lathered with butter and tangy orange marmalade, or fried on the pan in hot bacon drippings. ♦