October 18, 2012

Irish Wakes

The truth about the Irish wake

Merrymaking was a common part of the traditional Irish wake and was a part of the grieving process, according to an article in the Irish Independent. Pagan ritual was a huge part of it and much of the carrying-on was frowned upon by the church.  Storytelling, mischief making, and games were all part of the send-off and eased the suffering for the deceased's family.

According to the article, the custom "most likely has its roots in the ancient Jewish custom of leaving the burial chamber unsealed for three days with relatives returning during that time to check for any signs of life.  "As in other Celtic countries, Irish mourners adopted the custom as a way to keep vigil over their dead until the time of burial, and it evolved into an occasion of sadness and merriment."
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Common was hiding under the corpse’s bed and shaking it when someone walked in scaring the daylights out of them
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According to the Independent, the wake began when neighbor women washed the body of the deceased. It was then covered in white linen adorned with black or white ribbons.  "Custom dictated that crying could not begin until after the body was prepared, for fear that evil spirits would be attracted which would take the soul of the deceased.  "Female keeners were often hired, and they wailed and cried and recited poetry lamenting the loss of the loved one, with the mourner at the head of the bed striking the first note or wail."

It's a good thing I quoted so much of the Anchoress' post on Irish wakes because it's no longer online.  The grand parties of Irish wakes imperiled

Not to be missed is her Irish aunt's description of an Irish wake in Brooklyn about 1926

“For two days, every adult careened between tearful remembrances and roaring recollections. The children milled about, snatchin’ bits of food and plain’ games, stopping’ by for swift kisses (or kicks) from their parents - two people took turns ‘watching’ each hour, in the liven’ room with the body, while the rest of us were in the kitchen or on the stoops, or in the street, sending him off in style. And didn’t everyone stop by! The policeman, the milkman - for the thing went on all day and all night - the knife sharpener, the ragman, the mailman! They would all stop in and pay their respects, and have a shot of the right stuff, in his memory!

The piano played, the songs were sung - I remember a donnybrook in the front, which seemed to include all the young men, pounding’ upon each other like mortal enemies, except they seemed to enjoy the bloody noses and raw knuckles - and when it was time for prayers, they’d come in, sweaty and respectful, they’d pray then have a drink, then head back out and fight some more! Wasn’t it lively - all that lovely life in the middle of all that death!

And the keening! The sound of the women howling’ in grief…well, it didn’t seem sincere, but it had a lovely sort of sting to it - it reminded us that life is pain. And wasn’t I tired after a bit, so tired that I stood looking at the coffin and saw him move! It seemed to me his arm slid down and I went screaming’ into the kitchen telling them, ‘he’s movin’, he’s movin’, he’s not dead!’ And didn’t my uncle Francis say, ‘ah, he’s just wanting to join the party, child!’ and they all went in and apologized to himself for not spending more time with him, and brought a plate of food and laid it on his chest and put a glass in his hand.

It was mad. It was glorious. In the morning, we just stepped over the sleeping bodies on the floor or on the grass, and went out to play. When we returned, it was all on, again, until the funeral procession and the Holy Mass - at which everyone held their heads for fear they might fall off! And wasn’t it, after all, the sanest response to death I’d ever seen? When I die, I should have so grand a party!”
Posted by Jill Fallon at October 18, 2012 11:46 AM | Permalink