Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Irish Wake.

Irish Wakes

Wakes of times gone by began with women washing the body of the deceased and preparing it to be laid out on a bed or a table, often in the largest room of the house. The body was covered in white linen adorned with black or white ribbons, flowers for the body of a child. Lighted candles were placed around the body. Clay pipes, tobacco and snuff were also placed in the room. Every male caller was expected to take at least a puff. The smoke kept evil spirits from finding the deceased. Usually, a pipe and tobacco were place on a table next to the body. Occasionally, a pipe was laid on the chest of the deceased male. Clocks were stopped at the time of death. Mirrors were turned around or covered and curtains closed.

Once the body was prepared, it was never left alone until after burial. Someone, usually a woman, sat in the same room until it was taken away. According to custom, crying (keening) couldn’t begin until after the body was prepared just in case the sound might attract evil spirits that would take the soul of the departed. However, once the body was properly prepared, the keening began. Often family members will give the deceased a kiss goodbye.

In ancient times it was the duty of the bard, who was attached to the family of each chief or noble, assisted by some of the household, to raise the funeral song; but as times moved on this may have been entrusted to hired mourners, who were paid according to how well they performed. However, in much more recent times it is the Caointhe, the lead keener, who would be the first to lament the deceased. Keeners, especially the Caointhe, recited poetry lamenting the loss of the loved one in addition to crying and wailing. All the women in the house joined in, especially as each new caller arrived to pay his or her respects.

No emotion was left out of the mourning process. Between the extremes of tears and laughter, heartfelt poetical lamentations and boisterous songs, there were debates. As the mourners gathered round the kitchen table, poteen or whiskey laden tea in hand, it was inevitable that discussions would begin. Often these debates turned heated as one might expect given that the most common topics concerned religion, politics or economics.

Wakes lasted through two or three nights. Food, tobacco, snuff, and liquor were plentiful. Out in the countryside, the liquor served consisted of whiskey or poteen, which is a very potent and illegal Irish homemade brew. Laughter and singing as well as crying filled the air as mourners shared humorous stories involving the deceased. In addition to this seeming merriment, games were played. While this may appear to have been disrespectful of the dead, it was not the intention. It is thought that the merrymaking aspects of these wake customs were influenced by our pagan heritage as well as the need to stay awake for such a long period of time. The church frowned upon these activities and tried hard to discourage the people from indulging in them, they even attempted to ban food and alcohol. Thankfully they were unsuccessful.

An Irish wake is a traditional funeral ritual for the person who has died and those who mourn them. It is a way of celebrating the deceased person’s life. There have been changes over the years. Most wakes are now not as formal as they used to be and most have given up the tradition of having the body displayed in their home. People may now choose to hold the wake in the pub or other public area such as a local hotel without the deceased present. You may still hear of a house wake although they are getting rarer but still parts of the tradition live on and they do help with the grieving process and in some parts of Ireland traditions are still very important.

I have been to a number of wakes in my life and I have seen how important it is for the family of the deceased to make sure that their loved one gets a good send off and the amount of visitors can indicate the social importance of the deceased. I do believe it is extremely important for us to stand by our traditions as they bind us together and help us at certain times to cope with the stresses of a modern society.


  1. To be honest I always enjoy a good wake, which sounds awful but it isn't. A wake is a celebration of a persons life. A chance for family to learn of the way the person was with other people outside of home and hear how they touched the lives of others (and vice versa). It is a time to tell funny stories and share memories. It is a much needed tradition and it would be terrible if it stopped.
    As for going to say your goodbyes to the physical remains of the person it is a personal choice. You don't have to see the body and can say your goodbyes in whatever way you see fit. For the most part the person looks as if they are sleeping, though I'll admit that if there has been a difficult passing even if the body is unharmed it can be tough for family or friends to see the person in death.
    I always feel though that the Irish (as in many other old cultures) have a lot of traditions with quite dark roots. Lots of superstitions and ritual behaviour that has its birth in times of death, famine or struggle. It is why, I think we have such a dark sense of humour but also why I find the Irish to be great people to have around during any hard times. No one can help you laugh at yourself when you are in dire straits like one of our lot. Wicked but wonderful ;)

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  3. Thank you for your comments Angie. The funny thing about some wakes is it might be the first time you get a drink out of them. It's great when you hear one of the auld ones saying "Arragh doesn't he/she look well"?????

  4. Replies
    1. Hi Maggie,

      Glad you enjoyed the post and I hope you find more posts in the archives that you will enjoy. I appreciate the feedback thank you.

      Keep smiling,