Top 10 Traditional Irish Easter Foods
From hot cross buns to whipping the herring, Easter in Ireland isn’t all eggs and chocolate bunnies. We look at some of the most popular Irish Easter foods and customs.
Like many other countries, Easter is an important holiday in Ireland. For many, it holds deep religious, historical, and cultural significance. For others, it’s a fun time of year filled with Easter egg hunts and daffodils.
Traditionally, Easter symbolizes the arrival of spring and the end of the cold, scarce winter months. While winter is associated with a time of deprivation, spring is a time of abundance. Crops begin to sprout, and pantries are filled with fresh produce once again.
Let’s start with a brief history of Easter in Ireland.
Easter Customs in Ireland
Easter Sunday falls on the first Sunday after the full moon (which takes place on or after the spring equinox). For this reason, it’s on a different date every year.
For instance, if the full moon occurs on a Sunday, then Easter is the following Sunday. Since the spring equinox takes place on the 20th or 21st of March, Easter Sunday falls between the 22nd of March and the 25th of April.
Lent in Ireland
Lent is one of the biggest Easter customs in Ireland. Traditionally, Lent was a time of fasting and religious reflection to commemorate the 40 days Jesus spent fasting in the desert. While Lent finished on Maundy Thursday, people in Ireland continued to fast until Holy Sunday. However, they were allowed to break their fasts on Sundays as they were feast days.
Irish people were also permitted to break their fast on Saint Patrick’s day (17th March), when they had a feast and an alcoholic drink to wet Saint Patrick’s head.
The next big event in the Easter calendar is Ash Wednesday. Taking place 46 days before Easter Sunday, it is celebrated with a special religious mass. During the mass, the priest draws the sign of the cross on the heads of attendees using ashes from the burned palms of last year’s Palm Sunday service. This marks the start of Lent.
Irish Catholics typically fasted during Lent, abstaining from meat, milk, cheese, eggs, butter, and alcohol. They would also go to mass every day during this period. However, in modern Ireland, fasting is not common. Instead, Irish people tend to give up one vice for Lent, such as cigarettes, alcohol, or sweets.
Spoilin Meith Na Hinide
An age-old custom during lent was to hang a small piece of meat on the wall or from the rafters. This acted as a symbol of temptation and a reminder that Jesus was tempted by the Devil in the desert. The meat was taken down on Easter Sunday and thrown in the fire, filling the house with a mouthwatering aroma.
Dating back to medieval times, Good Friday is steeped in traditions and rituals in Ireland. For example, it was believed to be good luck to sow grain seeds on Good Friday (never before the potato seeds were planted). This symbolized growth and rebirth.
Eggs laid on Good Friday were marked with a cross and saved until Easter Sunday, when they were boiled for breakfast. These eggs were thought to be a blessing and a sign of good luck. Over the years, this tradition evolved. People began to decorate their Good Friday eggs and give them to friends and family as gifts.
10 Iconic Irish Easter Foods You Have to Try
Of course, Easter in Ireland is about more than just food. But, it’s certainly an integral part of the celebrations. With that in mind, let’s explore some of the most delicious and traditional Irish Easter foods.
Let’s start our culinary journey 47 days before Easter Sunday, with a non-religious holiday that’s now widely celebrated in Ireland. That’s right, Shrove Tuesday.
Taking place the day before Ash Wednesday (the first day of Lent), Shrove Tuesday was traditionally the last opportunity to use up tasty ingredients before the fasting began. These ingredients included eggs, milk, butter, flour, and sugar, which, fortunately for us, are exactly what you need to make pancakes.
Pancake Tuesday is celebrated all over the world, but there are some specific Irish customs. Firstly, traditional Irish pancakes are thin and served with sugar and lemon juice. However, nowadays, it’s also common to make thick American-style pancakes with buttermilk.
Traditionally, the eldest unmarried daughter in the household flips the first pancake. If the pancake falls on the floor, her chances of getting married in the coming year are slim. While very few Irish households honor this particular tradition, most still enjoy yummy pancakes for breakfast.
2. Potted Herring in Guinness
Since meat was historically not allowed during Lent, many Irish people chose to eat fish instead. The most customary fish to eat at this time was salted herring or John Dory. Both of these fish have strong biblical connections (some say the black marks on the sides of a John Dory are the fingerprints of the apostle Peter).
As you can imagine, by Easter Sunday, the Irish had had their fill of fish. To celebrate the end of Lent and the return of meat, local butchers threw a ceremony known as Whipping the Herring Out of Town. It was essentially a funeral for the herring that had been so widely consumed over Lent.
They would parade through the streets with a dead herring on a stick, and everyone took turns whipping it with a broom. When they reached the nearest river or lake, they tossed the fish into the water. This ceremony went on well into the 20th century.
Being an island, Ireland has an abundance of delicious fresh fish. So, there are plenty of options if you want to reignite this tradition. Many Irish chefs have come up with their own fresh takes on the classic salted Irish herring. For example, marinating potted herring fillets in Guinness.
To make this tasty twist on an old staple, first wash and roll herring fillets. Next, place them in a baking dish with 600ml of draft Guinness and 5fl oz of vinegar. Add onions, salt, pepper, cloves, brown sugar, bay leaves, and peppercorns. Finally, cover with foil or baking parchment and bake for around 20 minutes. Serve with creamy Irish potatoes for a hearty meal that’s steeped in history.
3. Hot Cross Buns
Let’s travel back to medieval times with our next culinary delight. The humble hot cross bun was originally baked to commemorate the crucifixion of Christ. In fact, all bread baked on Good Friday was (and still is) marked with a cross.
Hot cross buns are sweet buns made with spices that represent the spices used to embalm Christ after his death. They are decorated with a cross on the top, made using flour paste. Legend has it that hot cross buns baked on Good Friday won’t turn mouldy for a full year. We have to admit, though, they never stick around long enough in our pantries to confirm this.
To bake homemade hot cross buns, first dissolve yeast in lukewarm milk and cooled melted butter. Combine flour, mixed spices, salt, and caster sugar in a bowl and slowly add the liquid yeast and an egg. Add dried fruit and use a food mixer to gently mix the dough until it is springy to the touch.
Next, roll the dough into circles and place them on a lined baking tray. Use a paste of thick flour and water to draw a cross on each bun. Leave the buns in a warm place to rise. Once risen, bake until the buns turn golden. Remove them from the oven and brush with honey or golden syrup. Enjoy with a healthy smear of butter.
4. Roasted eggs
This is another traditional Irish Easter food that hasn’t stood the test of time. Cluideog was a popular Easter Sunday custom in Ireland. Children used to sing and dance for their families and neighbours in exchange for a raw egg. They would then roast the eggs over a fire in a local field and keep the shells to decorate the May Bush on May Day. In Ireland, people celebrate the arrival of summer on May Day, also known as Bealtaine.
If you want to recreate this traditional Irish breakfast, baked Irish eggs are a good alternative. Start by finely chopping celery, potato and carrot and placing them in a pot. Cover with water. Bring to the boil and simmer for five minutes before transferring the vegetables to an ovenproof bowl.
Next, slice mushrooms, garlic, and spring onions and fry in butter until soft. Layer them over the vegetables in the bowl and add slices of tomato. Bring milk, cornflour, and some of the vegetable cooking water to the boil, stirring constantly. Season and pour over the vegetable mix.
Bake the mixture for 15 minutes, then use a spoon to make a dent for each egg. Crack the eggs into the dents, sprinkle with grated cheese, and bake for another 5 minutes until the eggs are set. Eat immediately for a tantalizing Easter morning breakfast that will fuel you for the day.
5. Potato and Leek Soup
Leek soup is a classic starter during any Irish Easter Sunday feast. Warming, hearty, and packed with flavor, it’s the perfect way to kick off a day of feasting. Making your own Irish potato and leek soup is easy and affordable. Plus, it’s guaranteed to be a hit at the dinner table.
Start by melting Irish butter in a large soup pot and sautéing leeks, onion, and potato for around 5 minutes. Then, add stock to the pan and simmer. Reduce the heat and cover for around 15 minutes or until the vegetables soften.
Finally, use a food processor to blend the soup until it’s smooth. Season with salt and pepper and a drizzle of cream before serving. Best served with a slice of fresh Irish brown bread.
6. Roast Spring Lamb
An old tradition that’s still followed today is to go to mass on Easter Sunday. Following the mass, Irish people return home for the Easter Sunday feast.
Customary Easter Sunday dishes included leek soup, corned beef, boiled bacon, and baked ham. These would be served with cabbage and potatoes. However, nowadays, the most common meal on Easter Sunday is roast spring lamb.
To make a stunning Easter roast, you’ll need a leg of lamb without the bone. Score the meat and push garlic cloves and springs of rosemary into the incisions. Next, rub the lamb with Irish butter and some salt and pepper. Finally, roast your lamb, making sure to spoon the juices over it every half an hour to keep it moist. Serve with roast vegetables, creamy mashed potato, gravy, and mint sauce.
If you’re a fan of Irish food, you have probably heard of Barmbrack, or bairín breac. This sweet bread is filled with sultanas and raisins and is traditionally baked on Halloween. However, it also has a deep connection with the Easter celebrations in Ireland.
There’s an ancient Irish custom that on Easter Sunday, people took part in a dance competition, the winner taking a cake. The cake, typically a barmbrack, was placed pride of place on a piece of fine Irish linen. The winner was the last person left dancing.
Although this Easter tradition fell by the wayside sometime in the 20th century, many Irish people still enjoy a slice of barmbrack with some creamy Irish butter after their Easter roast.
To whip up a tasty barmbrack this Easter, start by soaking your dried fruit and brewing some extra strong Irish tea. Next, mix together flour, baking powder, and spices. In a separate bowl, whisk your eggs and set aside. Once your tea has cooled, stir in the vanilla extract and mix with the dried ingredients. After that, fold in the whisked eggs and set aside. Finally, bake until cooked through. Serve with a nice cup of tea and some good company.
8. Simnel Cake
So you’ve enjoyed a hearty Easter roast, and now you’re ready for something sweet. That means it’s time to get out the simnel cake. Simnel cake is a light fruit cake and an Irish staple.
The fruit cake is sheathed in marzipan and has a layer of almond paste or marzipan in the middle. It’s topped with 11 marzipan balls to represent each of Jesus’s true apostles (minus Judas).
Simnel cake is a gorgeously moist cake that is perfect with a steaming cup of tea around the fire. To make your own, first add dried fruit to a bowl with orange juice, zest, and 2 tbsp water. Heat until the liquid absorbs. Next, roll out a third of the marzipan and use a cake tin to cut out a circle. Butter and line the cake tin.
Now beat butter and light brown sugar together until creamy, and add eggs, flour, baking powder, almonds, mixed spice, vanilla, and some lemon zest. Combine well before mixing in the soaked dried fruit and some glacé cherries. Pour half the mixture into the cake tin and top with the marzipan circle. Then, add the rest of the cake mix and bake for several hours.
Once cooled, brush the top of the cake with apricot jam and cover it with marzipan. Roll the leftover marzipan into 11 balls, brush with beaten egg, and place them on the top of the cake. Finish by placing it under a hot grill to lightly caramelize. Enjoy with a nice cup of tea.
9. Chocolate Eggs
By far, the most popular Easter tradition in modern Ireland is the giving of chocolate Easter eggs. Eggs are usually exchanged after lunch on Easter Sunday, with Irish residents consuming an average of 17.5 million Easter eggs each year.
In Ireland, it’s said that the Easter bunny brings eggs for the children, hiding them around the house and garden. Children must then hunt for the eggs. This is actually a German tradition, but it has been wholeheartedly embraced by Irish families all over the island.
Rather than store-bought eggs, why not make your own homemade take on an Irish favorite, Cadbury’s cream eggs?
Simply melt chocolate into an egg shape mold and pop them in the fridge to set. Once set, fill the eggs with your filling of choice (white chocolate and mango jam will give that egg look). Finally, seal the eggs with some melted chocolate and pop them back in the fridge to set.
10. Boozy Irish Cocktail
This is a modern take on an old Irish tradition. Since it was customary to give up alcohol during Lent, Easter was a time to indulge in an old favorite. While fasting for Lent has become less common in Ireland, many people still choose to give up their favorite tipple for 40 days. So, Easter Sunday symbolizes the end of this period of abstention.
And what better way to indulge yourself than with a super-sweet Irish cocktail? This not-so-traditional cocktail is made from some Irish favorites.
Simply blend a healthy glug of Bailey’s Irish cream, vodka, milk, and Nutella until smooth and creamy. Next, pop a mini chocolate Easter egg on the bottom of a cocktail glass and pour over the creamy mix. Serve immediately for a scrumptiously sweet and indulgent after-dinner treat.
Easter is a much-loved and celebrated holiday across Ireland. Steeped in religious and historical meaning, it’s a perfect mix of traditions old and new. While Easter is now mainly associated with chocolate eggs, there’s a host of common Irish Easter foods to savor.
Whether you prefer sweet or salty, you won’t be disappointed with Ireland’s culinary offerings. Combining world-class ingredients, simplicity, and a twist of innovation, the Emerald isle is full of wonders for foodies from every walk of life.
As we say in Ireland, céad míle fáilte (a hundred thousand welcomes).
Related: 15 Most Popular Irish Desserts
Related: Most Popular Irish Homemade Cookies