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Available under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial Share Alike 4.0 International Licence


6. HUMANITIES, History, Folklore studies

Publication Details

A thesis submitted to the Technological University Dublin, School of Culinary Arts and Food Technology, in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the award of M.A. in Gastronomy and Food Studies, May 2021.


This study explores food traditions in the four quarter days of the Irish calendar year. Imbolg or St. Brigid’s Day, Bealtaine, Lughnasa and Samhain mark significant moments in the agricultural calendar. Food traditions, customs and practices relating to these days are recorded in the abundant resources of the collections in the Folklore Department, University College Dublin. However, to date, with few exceptions, little food specific research has been carried out on these collections. This thesis aims to begin to fill that gap whilst highlighting many opportunities for further research. Throughout this process we witness the illumination of a rich food history where games, superstitions, divinations and a mixing of the pagan and Christian traditions are preeminent.

The research is carried out through a six-step approach which involves a review of the existing folklore literature on the topic, an explorative interview with an ethnographer and archivist on how to conduct archival data on food traditions, a structured thematic analysis of more than 150 transcripts retrieved from the Schools Collection (1937-38) of the Folklore Department of the University College Dublin, and two post-analysis interviews with folklore experts to triangulate results and interpret findings.

The analysis of the four quarter days reveals plentiful food references. St. Brigid’s Day, the awakening of spring, represents a joyous moment bidding farewell to the long winter months. Here we observe the importance of dairy, a theme that dominates Irish food history, through tales of St. Brigid’s miracles and accounts of practices to ensure a bountiful milk supply for the coming year. Bealtaine, the beginning of summer, this quarter day represents a shift from the joy of spring. The fear and trepidation surround the beginning of the growing season plays out through stories of ill luck, dairy thievery and loss. Lughnasa on the other hand sees the return of celebration as the harvest commences and the bilberries are in season, the first potatoes of the year represent ‘luck’ while accounts of hilltop celebrations are found. At Samhain however, fear is apparent again. Although the celebration of the harvest is no doubt a sanguine occasion, the coming of the dark and cold of winter is evident. Here games and divinations are found foretelling fortunes, romantic and otherwise where food plays the protagonist. While the analysis of the data sample reveals an affinity to what is found in the literature, many nuances are highlighted. These nuances reveal a rich and oftentimes neglected food culture. At the same time, the analysis testifies to the importance of archival material for the unveiling of lost traditions and food culture. This study therefore speaks to folklorists, food practitioners, historians and students of gastronomy and food studies, revealing the significance of the quarterly division of the year through the food centred customs and practices narrated by communities of early twentieth century Ireland.