Wakes in Ireland

By Kathy Cunningham

Waking the dead is a very ancient custom throughout the world. In Ireland, as in some other cultures, the festive Wake continued well into the 19th century and some elements of it survived until very recently.

It is well known that the old Wake, in all its glory, was not at all like the sombre ritual that surrounds the death of somebody today. Rather, it was a meeting of merriment and festivity, intermingled with bouts of crying and keening. No doubt, it fulfilled a function for the individual and for the culture that had a profound impact on the human psyche. With the decline of the Wake, I believe we are losing out on an important process, and we’re left with “an awful absence moping through the land.”1

What is this “absence” and what actually went on at the old Wake? Let us start with a taste of the fun that went on, while our ancestors “waked” their dead. Amusement was an integral part of this rite of passage. For one thing, it helped people stay awake. This was crucial, as we will see later.

‘Divarsion’ and ‘Divilment’ at Wakes

There is no end to the hardship which would be endured by the poor in order to have full and plenty at the Wake, with lashings of whiskey, snuff and poteen. The old people amused themselves in smoking tobacco, or passing round the snuff as they prayed for the deceased. They would be given more and more drink as they told their wild yarns – not forgetting stories in praise of the deceased. The young people would retire to the barn or turf-shed, where they exhibited feats of valour and trickery and danced away the night with their sweethearts, to the rapturous music of flute or bagpipe. Whether it happened within the kitchen or in some other apart­ment, one could be sure of some ‘divarsions’ or ‘divilment’. There would be card-playing, riddles, tongue-twisters and rhymes. There could be cock-fighting or man-fighting, wrestling or brawling. Without some kind of commotion, the relatives would often express grave disappointment. A son, for example, was heard complain indignantly that not a single man had been knocked down at his mother’s funeral!2

1921: A Mayo Wake

In 1921, by pure chance, Seán Ó Suilleabháin, (from whom I have drawn heavily here)3, finds himself at a Wake near Ballina. To his amazement he notices some hilarity breaking out even while the prayers are being said: young lads crushing each other off the stools, potatoes being thrown, and water being splashed at fellows whose backs are turned. There’s no way that the culprits could be detected because the only light around is that of the candles beside the corpse.

Ó Suilleabháin is even more astonished when he realises that the chief mourners make no attempt to stop the ‘carry-on’. Nor were the games and amusements intended to show disrespect for the dead. Rather, they sprung from a deeply-rooted custom, sacred in its own way, offering enjoyment and entertainment to the company. Not so long ago, around 1959, we hear of similar games being played in Connemara at the death of an old man.4

Story Telling and Singing

Whatever about the fun and hilarity, story-telling happened everywhere in Ireland, good story-tellers being welcome at Wakes, and easy to find especially when Irish was the spoken language. The voice of a good singer, however, gave more pleasure at Irish Wakes than any other form of enter­tainment. But not all Wakes had singing as part of the festivities, especially if the deceased was young or deeply regretted, in which case the hilarity and amusements were omitted. By the end of the last century singing was beginning to die out at Wakes.

The Supernatural at Wakes

With the old Wake the supernatural world was ever present. The custom of opening the windows and doors to let the spirit of the dead depart is widely known. In parts of Ireland, after a person died, the bed is carried out to high ground, then set on fire and consumed to ashes, while the air resounds with crying and wailing. To this day, the Travelling Community in Ireland will burn the caravan where someone has died.

It was crucial that customs and traditions were strictly adhered to in the case of Waking. All of a sudden, time stood still. At the moment of death, the clock was stopped. Everything that was done from then onwards had to be done in two-s: two members of the family were sent to carry the news to neighbours, to livestock and to the bees as well. Two went to buy food and drink. The “other world” was very close at a time of death, and maybe the unquestioned companionship was an inbuilt support to alleviate the fears and desolation of the bereaved. In many places the corpse was laid on a table, and taken to the barn, or else to a very large room, perhaps to make way for the multitude expected, and to make way for the hilarity which would descend upon the place after dusk. On no account could be following be omitted: the lighted candles, the dish of snuff, and the large numbers of clay pipes filled with tobacco.

It is still the custom in North Kerry that a close relation wears some of the dead person’s clothes to Mass on three consecutive Sundays, for the sure repose of her soul. Anything was better than having the dead return to haunt a person, or worse still, to repossess the house and land! To this very day we can hear of the banshee (wailing) on the death of a relative. It looks like some of the old beliefs are still hanging around. I’m reminded of John Montague:

“Ancient Ireland, indeed!” sure “I was reared by her bedside!”5

How is it, that the games and tricks, which at any other time would be seen as indecent and improper, somehow were accepted as an integral part of the death ritual? Perhaps it was a statement of surrender, surrender to that incomprehensible and inescapable mystery of death, by the stopping of clocks and the turning of everything upside-down; and so the denied and repressed energies of the underworld are allowed break through for this limited period of time.

The Imitation Games which follow give us a flavour of some outrageous Wake-behaviour. Ó Suilleabháin gives no less than 130 of such games.6

1. “Match-Making” with Frimsy Framsy

More matches were made at Wakes, we often hear, and more marriages arranged, than were ever done at weddings, or on fair days. Wake games related to match-making included “I am a poor widow that comes from Athlone”, “The silly ould man”, “Old Father Dowd”, the “White Cockade” and “We’re all a’ marching to Quebec.” Sometimes for penalties they had kissing games. The most famous (or infamous!) being Frumso Framso. The Bishop of Kildare and Loughlin condemning it in a pastoral letter of 1748, referred to it as Fronsy Fronsy. In Irish-speaking areas it was termed “Cleas an stóilín” (the stool trick).7

Here is William Carleton’s8 version of, what he calls, Frimsy Framsy!

A chair or stool is placed in the middle of the ‘flure’, and the man who manages the play, sits down upon it, and calls his sweetheart, or the prettiest girl in the house. She, accordingly, comes forward and must kiss him. He then rises up and she sits down. ‘”Come now”, he says, “fair maid – frimsy framsy, who’s your fancy?” She then calls him she likes best, and when the young man she calls comes over and kisses her, he then takes her place, and calls another girl – and so on, smacking away for a couple of hours. Well, throth, it’s no wonder that Ireland’s full of people; for I believe they do nothing but coort from the time they’re the hoith of my leg.’

2. Mock-Marriages at Wakes

“Marrying” was a very common feature of Wake-games. In South Tyrone, around 1810, we are told how a man would play the part of the priest. He would put on an old black coat, and something like a wig of long hair on his head. He would begin by sending all the younger men out of the Wake-house, and close the door. He then got the girls in the house to sit side by side. After asking one of them what man she wished to marry, he would go out and bring him in. The “priest” would then get the girl and fellow to stand side by side on the floor, and to the accompaniment of some Latin “gibberish”, he would proceed to “marry them.” The newly-married man would then sit down, his “wife” on his knee, and the “priest” would kiss her. So the game continued until all the couples were “married”.”

3. “Hearing Confessions” at Wakes

“Hearing Confessions” was another game, where a man throws a straw rope round his neck, sits in a corner to “hear confessions”, while the neighbours observe, but cannot hear. The fun was occasioned by the “priest’s” pre­tended horror at hearing the “crime”, and also by the severity of the penalty which has to be performed there and then, often highly embarrassing for the “penitent”.

The Caoineadh or Keening

Along with the fun and frivolity at Wakes, there was also a definite and clear space for mourning, often referred to as “keening”, derived from “caoineadh”, “the Irish cry.”10 This was a eulogy on the qualities of the dead person. It was a lament for her passing, and was interspersed with loud wailings and “olagons”. These were performed at intervals over the corpse, first at the Wake and later at the funeral procession, and during the burial itself. The keen could be performed by the friends and relatives of the deceased, or professional keeners could be hired to do full justice to the occasion. Keening was a highly developed art, and described in graphic terms the unbearable extent of one’s grief. It provided the bereaved with a controlled outlet for their emotions, encouraging them to express in a structured and manageable form feelings which might otherwise remain buried.”

The following is an extract from the beautiful and best known of the Caoineadhs: “The Lament for Art O’Leary”, composed in Irish and attributed to his wife, Eileen Dubh Ni Chonaill (1773):

“My steadfastly loved one …
I found you dead before me by a little low furze bush …
Your blood was streaming from you
and I did not stop to wipe it, but drank it up from my palms …
My love and dear companion …
Rise up and come home beside me …
Let me make a bed for you
With white sheets and fine patchwork quilts
Which will make you sweat, in place of the chill you have taken …
Och, my thousand frenzies that I
have lost your companionship!
My love, my secret treasure
On my heart there is grief for you
Such that the whole Province of
Munster could not ease nor all the craftsmen of Ireland”.12
 

Keening for Health

Who can fathom the loss of this mourning practice for any nation? (It has declined in other cultures also.) Such wild abandon to the rage and terror, in the face of this wreckless force called death, where can we find a place for it today? We all know how subtly and effectively our grief will be embodied if it is not expressed. We know too how the sadness and shock can gradually manifest themselves through psychic and organic illness. The keening was, perhaps, the most powerful vehicle for clearing chest and lungs of the grief that befalls one on the death of somebody close. Marie Prendergast – a Killarney women – among others, holds the view that the lung disease, T.B., which was so rampant after the Famine, was not only affected by the yeast-fungus in the potato, but also by the irreparable loss of the keening.

What was the Purpose of the Wake?

There is much surmising about the reasons for the old Wake, with its boisterousness and frivolity, with its wailing and bawling and sweet lamentations. But of one thing we’re sure, the Wake had quite a hold over the Irish people. An old man tells Ó Suilleabhain that its liveliness and merrymaking were a kind of defiant gesture to show that, unlike the corpse, the people present were still “alive and kicking”. The fun and vigour of the wake were an assur­ance of continued vitality in the face of a sudden reminder of mortality.13 No doubt, the most surprising aspect of the Irish wake was its explicit and unapologetic assertion of sexuality, which was quite at variance with the attitudes which appear generally to have prevailed in Ireland at that time.

One object of the Wake, it would seem, was to comfort and placate the spirit of the deceased person by means of a last great feast at which he was present as the guest of honour. It was an attempt to heal the wound of death, and to do final justice to the deceased while he was still physically present. He had, above all, to be assured of his popularity and of his continuing presence as one of the company. This might explain why they would put cards in his hands, a pipe in his mouth, and even take himself on the floor to dance! There is also the possibility that the wake was intended as a protection of the dead person against evil spirits. There are numerous stories telling of the scarey and sudden disappearance of the corpse!

What Happened to the Irish Wake?

Of the many interweaving factors that contributed to the demise of the Wake in Ireland (and to some extent elsewhere also), let me mention just a few. There was the urbanisation and industrialisation of Irish life, the breakdown of the extended family, the decline of the Irish language, the decline of traditions generally, and the gradual introduction of the American way of death. There was the influence of the Church. As with all institutions so, too, with the wake institution. Abuses gradually crept in, leading to eventual decline. There was blood shedding. There was the problem of unwanted pregnancies, which caused much distress and often exile. It’s not too surprising then, that in 1614 a Synod in Armagh condems the singing of lewd songs and the playing of obscene games, “conduct which should not be permitted even on occasions of marriage making”.14 Yes, maybe the Church had some influence on the Wake latterly, but it is worth noting that, in spite of the many Synods and threats of excommunication, the Wake amusements continued in Armagh and elsewhere up until seventy years ago.15 Why was it necessary, even as late as 1903, for the Bishop of Armagh and Clonmacnoise to issue an order forbidding unmarried men and women to attend Wakes between sunset and sunrise?16 It would seem that the folk beliefs and customs, the rival popular culture, had a deeper hold on the Irish people than any other force at that time. With the decline of this popular culture came the decline also of the old Wake.

Then there was the famine, that “giant grief that trampled night and day”, according to Brendan Kennelly. He talks of a woman during the famine: “stiffened at the hearthstone, the woman lay nailed to her man’s breastbone” (to take the chill out of her feet before she dies). He sees this woman as “the entire people capable of spontaneous artistic expression before the famine”:

“And yet upon the sandy shore,
The woman once had danced at ebbing tide
Because she loved flute music.
That was long before
The green plant withered by an evil chance
She heard the music dwindle, and forgot the dance”.[17]

In Conclusion

But we cannot turn back the clock, nor should we attempt to bring back the old Wake. I do, however, lament the fact that our rituals today surrounding the awesome mystery of death are so empty and impoverished compared with these of bygone days. Never before has our world experienced such a rate of change, and so many dyings: dying to institutions, to roles, to jobs and to customs and beliefs. Yet, our ending and death rituals are quickly diminishing. Today, for example, we no longer wear the black, to remind ourselves and society that we have been struck by an irretrievable loss; and to give ourselves permission to storm the heavens, and to pine and grieve for at least twelve months. There was a time when both men and women wore something black: women wore all black, gradually confining it to black stockings. Men wore a black tie and a black diamond on the left sleeve. During a whole twelve months, there were no dances or weddings for the bereaved. They were excused from all public appearances, and assured of a safe space in which they could honour an uninterrupted mourning process.

There is, however, a glimmer of hope in the fact that some people are reclaiming the old custom of mourning the deceased in their own house for a few nights before the burial. (For an interesting view of the Irish Wake the reader might enjoy Brendan Kennelly’s poem “The Resurrection of Kate Finnucane”, Selected Poems.)

Kathy Cunningham is a Therapist and Co-Director of The Centre for Biodynamic and Integrative Psychotherapy in Kinvara, Co. Galway

References

1. Kennelly, Brendan. ‘My Dark Fathers’, in Selected Poems, Allen Figgis, (Riverrun) 1969 p.16.

2. Connolly, S.J. Priests and People in Pre-Famine Ireland 1780-1845. Gill and McMillan, 1982 ISBN 0 312 64411 6 p.150.

3. Ó Suilleabháin, Seán. Irish Wake Amusements, Mercier Press, 1967.

4. Ibid, P.26.

5. Montague, John. ‘Like Dolmens Round My Childhood, the old People’, in New Selected Poems. Gallery Press, p.12 ISBN 1 85 235 041 5.

6. See Irish Wake Amusements.

7. Ibid, p.94.

8. See Priests and People in Pre-Famine Ireland p.152.

9. Ó Suilleabhain, p.96.

10. See Ó Suilleabhain p.173 for an interesting quote from Professor Binchy, who suggests that the keening along with the Wake-games could be “descended from the same ultimate source as the cluiche Caointeach (game of lamentation) which took place when a great warrior died in ancient Ireland”.

11. Connolly, p.157.

12. Jackson, K.A., A Celtic Miscellany. Penguin Classics p.268.

13. Connolly, p.152.

14. Ó Suilleabháin p.146.

15. See Ó Suilleabhain for details of seventeen unsuccessful attempts by Bishops to eliminate amusements from Wakes. Dr. Plunkett of Meath, likewise, on six occasions warns of the dangers surrounding the Wake, but all to no avail.

16. Kiberd, D., Synge and the Irish Language, McMillan 1979 p.172.

17. ‘My Dark Fathers’ p.15.