The Irish Fairy Legend Behind the World-Famous Song, Danny Boy

The Old Irish Soda Bread Blessing

A chara,

Thank you so much to all the 4,197 new subscribers since Sunday! I am speechless. Welcome to Old Irish Recipes. I have a special newsletter for you. I would also like to give a shout out to the O’Kane fam craft shop in Bantry, Cork. This is run by my aunt Chris and cousin Colleen and that is baby Seamus soothed in his basket. Colleen has brought all her four children to work with her and in her own words there has been many, many baby baskets.

In today’s newsletter there is:

  • The old Irish soda bread blessing

  • 3 buttermilk and 3 soda bread recipes

  • My favourite; The Irish Sidhe (Fairy) Legend Behind the World-Famous Song, Danny Boy

  • Thank you for your encouragement message

The Old Irish Soda Bread Blessing

The Irish soda bread blessing is about keeping “the wolf away from the door”, meaning to avoid hardship and to always have food, shelter, clothing and security. The full blessing is a mix of both religious and pagan beliefs. First you make the mark of the cross on the circular bread and then bless it with holy water or blessed well water, in order to bring the blessing of the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit onto the bread, so that none would be wasted. Some say that the cross is to let the fae (fairies) out, but this is a misunderstanding from what I have been told. Instead, once the bread is baked, a slice is cut and left outside as an offering to the fae, who are respectfully known as the Sidhe (pronounced “shee”).

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This slice is not brought back into the house. In this way, the family are asking for God’s blessing and abundance, while also not upsetting the Sidhe. It is important to know at this point that Irish folklore tells us calling them “fairies” greatly upsets them. If disrespected their wrath is feared, however when treated with great respect they are known to bring incredible luck. You will see some of this luck shared in the legend behind the world-famous song, Danny Boy below.

Buttermilk and Soda Bread Recipes

If you are looking for your family soda bread recipe, I have included three old recipes for you here. Recipes were often measured out by eye and ear but if you don’t have a written one passed down, you can use these to establish your own family soda bread recipe for future generations.

If your family emigrated before 1836 your family soda bread is more likely to have raisins in it. That is because prior to 1836 soda bread was not eaten in Ireland. It became popular after the famine when ingredients were available again. The Irish took it to America, where the recipe was blended with currant cake to make a fancier, special occasion bread, using ingredients that were more readily available. Over time, soda bread with raisins has since become very popular in Ireland and is served with butter and jam.

To put this into context, a famous French chef named Alexis Soyer came to Ireland during the famine to help feed the starving. He is reported to have said that during the height of the famine, he saw a woman without shoes or stockings go into a baker shop at Malahide, Dublin and buy two loafs, one white soda bread and one brown soda bread. She carried the white soda bread in her arm and hid the brown soda bread under her cloak. It was actually common for guests to receive apologies if they visited a house that had no white soda bread on offer and had to make do with brown soda. Brown soda bread is delicious. At a friend’s child’s communion last year, the priest innocently asked the congregation, “Do Irish mothers still make homemade brown bread?” There was a deafening silence. Soda bread in Ireland is still a hot topic it seems.

You cannot make Irish soda bread without buttermilk. This is the liquid leftover after churning butter from cream. If buttermilk or yeast is not available locally you can use the older recipes below.

1. Recipe for Homemade Buttermilk

Add half a teaspoon of either lemon juice or vinegar to one pint of milk and then leave it in a warm place for fifteen minutes.

2. Old Irish Recipe for Homemade Buttermilk

  • 1 oz. yeast

  • 1 oz. sugar

  • 4 pts. water

  • 1 pt. milk

Cream the yeast and sugar together. Warm the water slightly and mix it together with the milk. Now gradually stir the milk and water until the milk smells slightly sour. Strain the liquid through muslin cloth and collect in a bottle for use as buttermilk.

3. Very Old Irish Recipe for Homemade Buttermilk

  • 1 oz. sugar

  • 4 pts. water

  • 1 pt. milk

Warm the water slightly and mix it together with the milk. Now gradually stir the milk and water with a wooden spoon in a steady, clockwise, rhythmic pattern, while walking around a garden or field and as close to the trees and bushes as you can for fifteen minutes. Add the sugar and leave in a warm place until the milk begins to sour. Strain the liquid through muslin cloth and collect in a bottle for use as buttermilk.

1. Brown Soda Bread – Arán sóid donn

8 oz. white flour

8 oz. wholemeal flour

1 tsp. bread soda (Bread soda is just another term used for baking soda or bicarbonate of soda)

3 tsp. baking powder

2 tsp. salt

1 egg, beaten

1 pt. buttermilk or sour milk.

Milk or beaten egg for glaze (optional)

See method under white soda bread below.

2. White Soda Bread – Bán arán sóide

16 oz. white flour

1 tsp. bread soda (Bread soda is just another term used for baking soda or bicarbonate of soda)

3 tsp. baking powder

2 tsp. salt

1 egg, beaten

1 pt. buttermilk or sour milk.

Milk or beaten egg for glaze (optional)

For both brown or white soda bread, you will need to twice sift the flour, bread soda, baking powder and salt to incorporate plenty of air. Don’t skip this double sift first step. Make a well and mix in both the buttermilk, beaten egg and stir. Mix all the ingredients together until you get a moldable, soft but not wet dough. Knead on a floured surface with the lightest touch for less than a minute and then form the dough into a flat round shape. Place on a greased baking sheet. Now with a knife you are going to mark it with a cross from end to end and carry out the blessing that I have written below. Bake in a preheated oven at 190°C for 35 to 40 minutes. Brush the top or a beaten egg or milk if you want to add a glaze.

3. White Soda Bread (with less salt) – Arán sóide

12 oz. plain flour

½ tsp. salt

½ tsp. bread soda (Bread soda is just another term used for baking soda or bicarbonate of soda)

½ tsp cream of tartar

½ pt. buttermilk

Mix all the dry ingredients together and sieve twice to add plenty of air. This double sifting is not a step to be missed. Make a well in the center of the flour and add enough buttermilk to get a moldable, soft but not wet dough. Knead on a floured surface with the lightest touch for less than a minute and then form the dough into a flat round shape and place on a greased baking sheet. Again with a knife you are going to mark it with a cross from end to end and carry out the blessing that I have written below. Bake in a hot oven, about 230°C for twenty minutes and then reduce the temperature down to 200°C for a final further twenty minutes.

I hope you enjoy these! Now rather than chatting to you about St. Patrick or leprechauns, I hope you don’t mind if I share a beautiful legend that began at the time of St. Patrick that tells about a gift of music from the Sidhe (Irish fairies) below.

The Irish Sidhe (Fairy) Legend Behind the World-Famous Song, Danny Boy

In the time of St. Patrick and as early as the 5th century, an Irish family called the O’Cahan clan, (known today as the Ó Catháin, O’Kanes, Kanes, Cain’s and McCain’s), were found throughout Coleraine and Limavady in Northern Ireland. By 1100AD, the seat of the O'Cahan Clan, Dungiven Priory was founded, overlooking the River Roe. Within it lies the tomb of Cooey-na-Gall, an ancient Chieftain of the O'Cahan clan. A few feet away, lies a healing wart well and a fairy rag tree.

The O’Cahan became strong and influential, but in 1608, the last of the influential lords, Domhnaill (Danny) O’Cathain, (also known as Donnell Ballagh O'Cahan) was captured and held in the Tower of London until his death in 1626. The time of the O’Cahan’s was over.

Before resigning their lands and castles to London, the O’Cahan chieftain, a great harper and composer named Ruaidhrí Dall Ó Catháin (also known as Rory Dall O’Cahan) did what all O’Kane’s do well. He threw one last great party at his remaining castle to celebrate all that had gone before them and to commiserate all that was ahead of them. As the party began to die down into the early hours, Rory became overcome with grief and drink. He slipped out quietly to sit at the bank of the River Roe and fell asleep.

Local Limavady legend says he awoke surrounded by a soft mist from the river. As he looked out across the river, he realised he was surrounded by the Sidhe (fairies). They began playing the most beautiful, haunting music. The lamenting music echoed his unmatched despair at the ruination of his family, future and the fall of one of Ireland’s oldest kingdoms. Returning to the party, he picked up his harp and replayed the music by ear, swearing that it had come from the Sidhe. The song became known as O’Cahan’s lament.

Down through the following 240 years it began to be played less and less by pipers, fiddlers and harpists, almost forgotten, until in 1851, Limavady schoolteacher and Irish folksong collector Jane Ross heard blind fiddler Jimmy McCurry playing the haunting melody outside her house on Main Street during a fair. She couldn’t help but take note of the pain and sadness of the music against the upbeat fair atmosphere. She invited him in and paid him two shillings for permission to write down the music. She sent the music to a magazine which published the tune as The Londonderry Air.

While many lyrics were written for it throughout the 19th century, it was only in 1910 that Englishman, Frederick Weatherly wrote the ballad Danny Boy which fit the music so effortlessly. The song began to spread across the world. Elvis Presley once called it “music written by the angels,” and it was played at his funeral.

Today the song Danny Boy is believed to be among the three most performed songs in the world, alongside “Happy Birthday to You” and “White Christmas”.

In Limavady it is said, that only music as emotive as this, composed in a moment of utter sorrow, having almost become lost to time, that has entranced the world and finally, which has circled back to be named the same name as Limavady’s last imprisoned lord, Domhnaill (Danny) O’Cathain, could only have come from the fairies.

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Slán go fóill,

Róisín

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