This blog often explores remnants of Irish pagan culture that remained in the lives of rural cottage dwellers from the mid nineteenth century on. The wake was a ritual that held onto many pagan rites that the Roman Catholic Church eventually banned completely. This article will describe some of the stranger customs involved in the Irish wake from that time.
What are wakes? The ‘wake’ or ‘waking the dead’ is an ancient ritual with its roots in Judeo-Christian religion. When a person dies, for three days prior to that person’s burial their family observes and sits with the corpse to ensure it does not awaken or ‘wake’. The Irish wake has changed much over the years but remains important and still involves the local community coming together to mark the death of one of its number. Irish wakes still attract large numbers of people to the deceased’s home. This differs little from the past where prayers were said, refreshments were provided, alcohol may have been served and stories and occasional laughter were welcome. On the third day, the deceased was taken to the church for a formal Catholic funeral service, followed by burial at a cemetery. Until the nineteenth-century, wakes were similar with added cultural customs that amplified the experience and that today’s observer may find bizarre and even grotesque.
Keening: The idea of paying a professional mourner to cry over your dead relative may seem perplexing to us today but this was considered a norm at many Irish funerals in the mid nineteenth century. Keening for the dead from ‘Caoineadh na Marbh’ was a type of mournful, wailing singing, and was performed by a female ‘keener’. A good keener needed to be dramatic looking, dishevelled, with loosened hair and bare feet. As they keened they would theatrically throw their arms up, tear at their hair, and rock themselves as if in deep grief. The wailing lament praised the deceased, but also chastised them for dying. This was in opposition to Christian funerary rites where the Resurrection is emphasised and so the Church discouraged the use of keeners at wakes and funerals. Keening was not practised outside of funerary rituals because of the fear that the ritual would conjure up the spirit world, and few recordings of real keeners were made.*
Clay Pipes: A wake was seen as a time for eating well and enjoying special treats for people with an otherwise frugal way of life. Special ‘wake provisions’ were bought for the occasion from the local grocer and a feature of this long shopping list (which included alcohol and food) was the large number of clay pipes. Clay pipes were filled and left out for visitors to the ‘wake house’ to take. People would light the pipes and exclaim “lord have mercy!” and inhale the tobacco smoke, which was considered to have curative properties. Non-smokers were expected to partake of this ceremony to help mourn the deceased. Any clay pipes left over from the funeral were broken and buried outside the house.
Wake Games: ‘Wake amusements’ kept mourners themselves awake through the nights prior to the funeral. These amusements took place in another room or in a shed. Young people ‘courted’ while music played, dancing took place, and matchmaking was carried out in a party-like atmosphere. Men would challenge each other to fights; and some forms of vicious horseplay were common. Waking ‘games’, included mock weddings, mock confessions and ‘kissing games’. The latter had erotic overtones and such unashamed assertions of sexuality was totally at odds with the prevailing prudent attitudes in Ireland at the time.
The weirdest of all was the ‘play’ that sometimes took place with the corpse. In the wake house, it was not unknown for a clay pipe to be placed in the corpse’s mouth, and there are stories of the corpse being made to talk, puppet-like, by mourners, and even taken up for a dance around the room.
Reverence: However, despite these lively customs, the overriding mood at a wake was of reverence for the dead, and wake ‘games’ were not intended to show disrespect. Merriment and amusements were completely dispensed with if the deceased was young, had died tragically or was a particular loss to the family.
It has been argued that these customs evolved from more primitive times when fear of the dead was very strong; and that the wake rituals came about as a type of appeasement of the dead from pre-Christian times. The transformation of the Roman Catholic Church from the mid-nineteenth-century had major repercussions on such Irish cultural traditions. As the Church’s influence grew keeners and wake games were abandoned and increasingly wakes became more solemn occasions than those discussed here.
For more on wakes and superstitions surrounding them see my forthcoming book, available this summer: Marion McGarry Irish Cottages, History, Culture, Design (Orpen Press, 2017).
Gearoid O Crualaoich ‘The Merry Wake’ in Donnelly, J.S. and Miller, Kerby A., Irish popular Culture 1650-1850 (Irish Academic Press, 1999).
Kevin Danaher, Irish Customs and Beliefs (Mercier Press, 2004 ed.).
*A recording of an actual keener is available for visitors to hear at the National Museum of Country Life, Castlebar, Co. Mayo.
Recommended: ‘Songs for the Dead’ the Keening Tradition in Ireland (documentary BBC Radio 4, 2016) http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07npx1f
The conversion of the Pagan people of Ireland to Christianity began in the 5th century. The success of the missionaries is owed to their combining old Pagan practices with new Christian ones to assist people familiarise with the new religion. This article explores the combining of the Ancient Celtic festival of Imbolc with St Brigid's Day in Ireland and the customs and artifacts that remain today.
Christian events mirrored those important ones on the Pagan calendar: St Brigid’s Day coincided with Imbolc; St John’s Eve on 23 June was at midsummer; the Feast of Our Lady on 1 May was at the same time as Bealtaine and Garland Sunday, the last Sunday in July, is connected with Lughnasa. In Ireland there was a greater emphasis on Catholic female saints because in Pagan worship female goddesses were of equal significance with the male. As a consequence of this we still see a firm devotional following for Our Lady in Ireland and to St Brigid: Until the mid-twentieth century Mary and Brigid were the most popular names for Catholic girls.
A ‘dual’ festival with the focus on a female deity is the feast of St Brigid, falling on 1 February which is also the time of Imbolc. St Brigid a conventional Christian saint from Co. Kildare (noted for her cloak) shares her name with Brigid, an Ancient Pagan goddess, both associated with fertility, health and good fortune. Imbolc is an old festival that heralds the start of Spring and celebrates the lambing season (it translates to ‘in the belly’). In Ireland the worst weather occurred between November and February so St. Brigid’s Day signalled better weather and longer days. To rural farmers it meant new life on the farm and a return to the growing season.
Traditions on St Brigid’s eve include visiting holy wells dedicated to St. Brigid to collect holy water. It was believed to be more potent if collected on her feast day, and was sprinkled on objects, people and animals to offer them her protection.
Some left a piece of cloth outside for the night of St Brigid’s Eve. The belief was that it would be touched by St. Brigid, and bestowed with her power. This was known as the brat bríde and was worn within clothing or applied to the sick to promote healing.
In some parts of Ireland ‘Biddy Boys’ went from house to house with a straw effigy of the saint, dressed in white, collecting for a party in her honour. Sometimes included in their procession was a ‘St Brigid’s girdle’ a belt for the occupants of the house to pass through to ensure health for the coming year. Irish emigrants took such traditions with them to their new homes. Here is a wonderful description of one riotous procession by Irish emigrants in 1830s London:
“[They] scandalised the local shopkeepers by marching their pagan corn dolly effigy up [Kensington] High St and thrusting her in through shop doorways, sending refined customers for the smelling salts. Police chose not to confront the mob, but arrested the dummy and locked her in a cell until a woman turned up asking to collect her sister’s dress adorning the Celtic goddess” .
On St. Brigid’s Eve, crosses were made from soft rushes by the family which offered St. Brigid’s protection for the household, farm and land. The tradition remains today with Irish schoolchildren making the crosses and which are sometimes hung in Irish classrooms, homes, even cars. The most popular style is the four armed cross and design variations occurred in different regions. Three-legged crosses were made for buildings which contained animals, so that they too would be protected by St. Brigid (see illustration below).
The design of the Brigid’s cross has ancient origins. It has similarities with the swastika, an ancient motif that features on some European Celtic carvings. In addition, the central pattern bears similarities to the lozenge shape seen carved on many stone monuments erected by the first prehistoric farmers in Ireland. This central feature underlines its female and fertility characteristics also seen in Irish carved-stone Sheela-na-Gigs from the early medieval period (see illustration).
. Martin Hedges, ‘The worst slum in London’ Posted on July 25, 2016, https://actonbooks.com/2016/07/25/kensington-jennings-rents-rookery/ accessed on 20/01/17.
Pen and ink illustrations by the author.