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Wakes, Keening, and Irish Celebrations of the Dead

Updated on September 19, 2019
James Slaven profile image

James has written for various magazines, including Celtic Guide, Mythology Magazine, and Pagan Forest.

An Irish Wake (N Grogan)
An Irish Wake (N Grogan)

Ah, the glorious Irish, with their wonderful wit and joyful gloom. They aren’t the only culture by far to celebrate and grieve their dead in ostentatious fashion, but they certainly go about it in glorious ways. Join me as we take a wee bit of a stroll down a few fascinating facets of the Irish final exit.

The Wake

Some are calm and some are raucous, but they’re all for the good of those who have just lost a loved one. The Irish wake allows laughter and tears and the sharing of memories, to help the healing process start right away. Emotions are released and allowed to run free, rather than becoming bottled up, where they can get up to no good.

Wake attendees can vary quite a bit. Some are for only family and the closest of friends, while others may have scores of guests and mourners. It all depends on what the nearest relatives want, but the more people there are, the more memories there are to be cherished as their lives are remembered.

The number of mourners also affects the number of hands the loved one must shake. As the guests arrive, they make their way to those who have just lost someone to give not only their condolences, but to give a physical touch. Depending on the closeness, it could be a hug, but a handshake is very typical. It is not only for comfort, though, but an aid to the grieving process, where each handshake is a reminder that their loved one is passed and is never coming back. It may sound harsh, but it prevents flights of denial that end with an even harder crash of reality.

Naturally be food and drink, as well. It can be something as simple as tea and sandwiches, but can also involve much hardier fare, including pints and barrels of alcohol, allowing the gamut to range from a very sober affair to a very rowdy occurrence. Many rural Irish, well into the last few decades, thought their funeral would be a catastrophe if there wasn’t enough snuff, food, porter, wine, and whiskey to satisfy all comers. Although of course there can be overindulgence, but the point isn’t to get roaring drunk. Rather, it’s to have a celebration for the one that just passed away. Besides, if you can have sports and card games and all sorts of running around by the foot of the coffin, why can’t you have a pint or two?

Yes, movement is allowed. Card playing is acceptable and the playing of sports by adults and children can even be encouraged. Which mean yes, children are present. Until very recently, dying was a very public thing, where the whole village would know, and it wasn’t to be hidden. It also wasn’t some self-pious sacrosanct ritual, but one where you could touch the body as you said your farewell. Whether a quick touch, a dash of holy water, or a laying on hands while saying the rosary, the body wasn’t kept away in some sort of Victorian shame closet.

Wakes weren’t just for the dead, either, but for the dying. As someone lay on their death bed, it would not be unusual for family and friends to come over, with the same grief releasing rituals, although with perhaps a bit less rowdiness in the games and drinking and singing departments. At least until the main wake later, after the person passed.

Sitting up with the Dead

Not only was there a wake to kick start the healing process, there were specific rituals, as well, one of which was sitting up with the dead. Some consider this a type of wake, in case the person had not actual passed. It wasn’t unheard of that people would be buried alive, being mistaken for dead when instead they were just in a comatose stupor of some kind (whether these reports were true or not is a topic for another time). Hence, they would sit up with the dead and see if they would “wake.” After all, the term comes from both “to become awake” and “remain awake/hold a vigil.” One well-worn bit of folklore is that the use of pewter mugs would cause lead poisoning and a death-like comatose state, although that’s quite possibly just a myth.

The actual act of sitting up with the dead could be done by those closest to the deceased, but many times was performed by other family or close friends, with male neighbors being mentioned many times, allowing the immediate family a chance to try and sleep before the funeral the next day.

Some consider the act of sitting up with the body was to keep evil spirits away, keeping the body and the spirit’s passage safe and the evil out. Of course, there is also the simple fact that not long ago, and even recently in the more remote areas, there was no place to take the body and someone was needed to keep the insects and rodents away from it.

Keening

The anguished wail of the mna caointe, the wailing women, is something that has sadly fallen to the wayside. It started to decline in the late 1800s and became nearly extinct in the mid-1900s. Part of it was due to wanting to appear modern and respectable and not backwards. As mentioned previously, the grieving process, including keening, was not for outsiders, but as the 1900s rolled along, these outsiders were starting to intrude, behaving as if the keening women were dramatic actors there for the outsiders’ benefit.

Some also consider the falling out of favor to be caused by the Catholic Church. Whether it was because of its paganism semblances, not being able to fit it into its organized services, or just because it didn’t like being undermined or controlled by women, the frown the bishops and priests gave to this didn’t help its continuation.

It’s a pity, as it expresses the grief in a musically emotional way that we can lack in the modern world. Care would have to be taken, though, because if the singing/wailing/keening started too soon, before the body was ready, it would alert evil spirits, who would come and harm the deceased’s soul.

The keening wasn’t just to give voice to the grief, but also to help control and direct the emotions during the wake. The mna caointe would keen louder and louder as time went along, as if they were singing an anguished lullaby to the deceased, rocking them into the afterlife. Not only were there specific keening wails, but they would also cry out the Five Sorrowful Mysteries, a part of the Rosary.

Although there were professional keeners, it could also be the village women who would keen, as given in folklore writings: “Long ago when a person died the old women of the neighborhood would come into the wake house crying over the corpse and reciting the praises of the dead man or woman. This would generally be repeated from time to time until the corpse was taken to be buried.”

One of the most renowned poems in the British Isles during the 1700s was the “Lament for Art O’ Laughaire” (Caoineadh Airt Ui Laoghaire), written for her husband by Eibhlin Dubh Ni Chonaill. It is a keening and love poem written in Irish, composed mostly during his wake about his death in 1773, having been murdered by a British official. It’s said that it follows the rhythmic musicality of keening and there are modern renditions of it, both in Irish and in English translations. I prefer the lilt of the Irish, and although I cannot understand it, it’s feel and depth are quite profound.

From "Hall's Ireland: it's Scenery and Character" (circa 1850s).
From "Hall's Ireland: it's Scenery and Character" (circa 1850s).

You can find some very nice recordings of keening, although there aren’t many. If you’re interested, there is a very good 30 minutes program on this topic from the BBC: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07npx1f.

And of course, we all know the similarities of keening with that of the banshee’s wail, but for more on that, check out this article: https://hubpages.com/education/Banshees-among-the-Celts

Music

As mentioned in the wake section, there is not just the keening, but other music as well, at the wake and at the funeral. There are a multitude of websites that give lists, so it would be a bit silly of me to go on about all of them here, so I’ll just mention a few.

Out of the most listed, I prefer “Fairy Tale of New York” for its genre and poignancy, and “She Moved Through the Fair” for its haunting keen and its story of a ghostly visitation by the man’s love, waiting for him on the other side. Seeing as how all of these are very personal, I’ll not mention which I find trite and which aren’t really Irish (cough Danny Boy cough – although I admit to loving this song, because my father would sing it all the time when I was a child – even his cat-in-a-tin-bucket voice couldn’t quell its haunting beauty).

If you want something with pep and humor, I’d suggest “Isn’t it Grand, Boys?” It’s typically fast paced and satirizes, another Irish cultural attribute, the funeral. It hammers the mourners, the widow, the priest, the choir boys, the casket, the drink, and so many other things. There are a multitude of versions, so find one that you enjoy. My two personal favorites are Marc Gunn’s, a more traditional version played on autoharp, and Mr. Irish Bastard’s, which is more Celtic punk style. If you want something a bit more traditional, you can’t go wrong with the 1966 recording by The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem. A close second for a wee bit of energy would be Flogging Molly’s “If I Ever Leave This World Alive.”

My overall favorite, though, is “The Parting Glass.” A song not necessarily about death, but it does work well in this situation. It used to be sung a lot at New Year’s Eve before Auld Lang Syne took over. One of the more direct lines that go with death , “I gently rise and softly call, goodnight and joy be to you all,” is reminiscent of “Death is Nothing At All” by Henry Scott-Holland (although I get the absurdity of matching an Irish funeral song with a poem by an English clergyman)

In the end, though, no pun intended, it’s a time for grieving and celebrating and rolling all of that together, so there are other songs that would fit quite well, such as “My Father’s Eyes” and “What a Wonderful World.” After all, it’s about anything that will help along the grieving process.

Miscellaneous

A few more interesting things that go along with the wake and the sitting up that I thought you’d enjoy (at least I did).

  • Smoke, such as from a pipe, will help keep evil spirits away.
  • Clocks would be stopped in the house, whether it’s so time would stop in the house out of a sign of respect or just to record the time of death. A window would be opened to help the soul depart, although I did read a few interviews where they mention the chimney; due make sure to keep the west facing windows closed, though, so the sluagh won’t come take the soul away (for more on the sluagh, go here: https://hubpages.com/education/Processions-of-the-Dead .
  • Cover the mirrors by draping a thick cloth over them (or at least turn them around), whether out of a sign of respect, to keep the soul from becoming confused, or to keep something from inside the mirror from going into the body.
  • Say the rosary at midnight, at least once if not twice.
  • Cover the coffin in black.
  • Tie a handkerchief under the chin to keep the mouth closed. Oddly, this is also a way to keep someone from coming back as a vampire in European folklore.
  • Sain the body and area. Saining is a Scottish ritual that has come into Ireland through the Ulster plantation and is used for blessings, protection, and consecrating. Celtic path witches/Wiccans use this, but others that are more familiar with it would be a better resource than I.
  • The body would be covered with a blanket interwoven with herbs and flowers – mostly to ease the smell.

Conclusion

The wake, the vigil, the keening. All of these are ways to drain out emotion and allow the grief to flow into acceptance. Some of these practices are still done to this day and others not so much, although of course they’ve all changed over time, ebbing and flowing between the traditional and the modern ways.

I find these to be much healthier than keeping it bottled in or talking to a doctor/therapist/counselor. I also find them better than listening to the platitudes of the religious, although those who share the same culture and outlook may have a better spin for my personal tastes. The important thing, of course, is the mourner finding a way to cope with their loss that isn’t harmful to themselves and those left behind.

Yes, there are many “Irish poems and sayings about death,” some Irish and some not, but I find the bulk of them to be overly trite. I’d much rather have the wake and the singing and the handshaking and the sadness and the joy and the exuberance all rolled into one. I find the wake and all the other funereal associations to be a wonderful bridge across bereavement.

And in that vein, to finish out the article, here are two of the best things I’ve seen on this topic.

One is “the greatest Irish obituary ever,” which starts with “Chris Conners died, at age 67, after trying to box his bikini clad hospice nurse just moments earlier.”

https://www.irishcentral.com/culture/craic/irishman-dies-from-stubbornness-whiskey-is-this-the-greatest-obituary-ever

The other is a wonderfully poignant video, where a friend sings “Mr. Brightside” for the deceased at a pub-wake.


Take care of yourselves. There's no point in having your own wake until it's time.

Slainte and Wassail.

Comments

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    • James Slaven profile imageAUTHOR

      James Slaven 

      3 weeks ago from Indiana, USA

      Thank you, Linda!

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 

      4 weeks ago from British Columbia, Canada

      This is an interesting article. The customs surrounding death and the ways in which different cultures deal with it are intriguing. Thank you for sharing the information.

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