The essential elements of the Irish wake are simple–the body of the deceased and mourners to grieve. Since it was once rare in Ireland for anyone to die in a hospital, death occurred more naturally at home. Lacking the financial means for expensive funeral preparations (or the American invention of the neighborhood funeral parlor), the Irish washed and dressed the bodies of loved ones at home. It was common practice for the deceased to be laid out in his own bed, dressed in his shroud or in the distinctive lay habit of a religious order. Beside the body, candles of blessed beeswax would illuminate a crucifix and give a soft yellow glow to the room.
Rosary beads, often worn from a lifetime of devotion, were wrapped around the fingers of the deceased. With none of today’s more common cosmetic touches, the face of the corpse often reflected a more stark expression. As the wake began, assorted relations, neighbors, and members of the clergy made their way along the country lanes and boreens to the home of the deceased to sit in faith and friendship, supported by prayer, broad talk, high humor, and the comfort of laughter.
Amid the familiar surroundings of farmhouse or cottage, the remains of the dead were viewed, condolences offered (“Sorry for your troubles!”), and the appropriate prayers–rosaries and litanies–were said. Since visitors often came great distances, food was provided and drink taken–lashes of spirits (poteen and porter) as well as strong pots of tea.
Mingled with the mumbling mantra of devotions were mixed the wide talk and old stories that were compass points of family lore and tribal roots. Beside the warmth of a pungent turf fire and beneath the wafting tobacco-stained air, the melancholic realism of the Irish character demonstrated a cherished devotion for the dead.
Traditions and customs in Ireland often changed from one community to the next. The use of keeners–professional women mourners hired to wail and sob for the dead –is one tradition that has long since disappeared. But old-timers in some of the more remote regions of the country can still recall the keener’s mournful bale. Their chilling cries were as distinctive as the somber black cloaks they wore.
Out of this traditional Irish tribal reverence, our more contemporary observances have their roots. Although the traditional Irish wake faced inevitable changes in urban America, its essential character remained intact.
More than 80 years ago, a Chicago policeman named T.J. O’Donnell provided a marvelous image of the Irish wake in “Bring Out the Lace Curtains.” In it, O’Donnell refers to Thomas McInerney & Sons, a funeral parlor that began serving Canaryville, the large Irish community in Chicago’s south side, in 1873.
Bring out the lace curtains and call McInerney; I’m nearing the end of my
life’s pleasant journey.
Send quick for the priest, just tell him I’m dying My last minutes on earth
so swiftly are flying.
Tell dear Father Dorney I’m meeting my Maker (He’s losing his old
collection up taker)
Then pull down the shades and light up the candles Call in the O’Briens,
the Caseys and Randalls
The Murphys, the Burkes, the Bradys and all Tell them your darlin’ has
answered God’s call.
Call Schultz the fat Butcher and order meat, Let watchers who sit through
the night have a treat.
There’s good Mrs. Smith who is sure to bring cake, Please ask her advice in
conducting my wake.
Bring out the lace curtains and call McInerney I’m nearing the end of my
life’s pleasant journey.
So natural and important were traditions like the wake that they were easily transported wherever the Irish went. In America, in the neighborhoods and parishes of rish pre-eminence, the social importance of such big gatherings like the wake helped to keep intact the bonds of blood and politics from home. They helped the Irish immigrant community to display its loyalties and religious pride. They maintained the intricate threads of family connections and served as a binding force with neighbors and relations. Wakes might be gatherings of Kerry folk or Sligo friends, or Clan na Gael fraternal bonds–geographic by village, townland, or county. When children became assimilated into the new culture and the old ways were threatened, the wake was a timely, convenient event to stabilize the threads of tribe and kin.
In America, the gatherings developed their own energy and enhanced social power. Some of the conveniences of American living and the prosperity that many immigrants found provided a great opportunity for expanding the ensuing hospitality that went along with the protocols of the Irish wake. Undoubtedly, there were times when all of the ingredients were present for spontaneous combustion.
A humorous song from the turn of the century, entitled “Steve O’Donnell’s Wake,” provides some interesting clues as to the celebratory character that became associated with the Irish wake in the U.S. To the familiar religious and cultural layers of significance was added the political dimension to which the Irish quickly acclimated themselves. Within the working-class immigrant community, which struggled in difficult and often dangerous occupations, the wake remained a treasured social outing, an important part of community life, as sacred and obligatory as Sunday Mass. Here, the song’s amusing chorus catalogs the record of attendance of those present for Mr. O’Donnell’s wake, as well as the high quality of the hospitality provided:
There were fighters and biters and Irish dynamiters, There was beer, gin,
whiskey, wine, and cake. There were men of high position, There were Irish
politicians, And they all got drunk at Stew’ O’Donnell’s wake.
Perhaps the boisterous and curious festive character of the Irish way of death appeared foreign and at times frightening to the more staid members of American culture.
Undoubtedly, the regal excess of Irish devotions might be justly criticized in some instances. But with an almost medieval fatalism, the Irish have always challenged
the eternal good-byes attached to the parting of death. The poetic character of the Irish is too romantic and too mystical not to greet death with its own peculiar
irony. The twin perspectives of ancient roots, both pagan and Christian, each account for manners and loyalties that make the Irish seem almost madcap and help to
trace the way in which they see death–or better yet, revel in death. It is they that help to fashion this most mystical of farewells.
Today, assimilation, economic success, and social ascendancy have each helped to curtail some of the ancient connections and graceful obligations. I still attend many wakes only after being reminded by my sister, “They were at your mother’s wake.”
Not long ago a very successful Irish-American businessman died in Chicago. His adult children stood beside his casket greeting mourners, who were waiting in line for the opportunity to say a prayer and offer sympathies to the family. The deceased’s eldest daughter, who had flown in for the wake from her home in Palm Springs, spotted a familiar face from the old neighborhood. After greeting her friend she asked, “Margaret, how’s your sister Eileen?” Looking somewhat perplexed, Margaret said, “Didn’t you know? Eileen’s dead.” This was big news to the deceased’s daughter, who was genuinely saddened. “Oh my God,” she said. “No one ever told me,” she noted apologetically. “I miss so much news living in California.” About 20 minutes later the deceased’s daughter was startled to discover none other than Eileen walking into the wake. She immediately sought out her friend and asked of her, “Margaret, how in the name of God could you have told me Eileen was dead? I just saw her and she looked fine.”
“Well,” said Margaret rather sheepishly, “I’d rather have you think my sister was dead than she’d miss your father’s wake.”
With wide irony, in death the Irish are always at their best, reverencing still the arcane protocols and loyalties, touching the heart of darkness with a common civility as ancient as the wet soil from which we sprang. Perhaps in the faithful obligations of such loyalty to others, demonstrated in the Irish wake, we ensure a t of loyalty for ourselves. For as writer Myles na gCopaleen once said, “I do not believe that there will ever be the like of me again.”