The Wakes of Yesteryear

 In History

My mother tells of how when they were young they would go to the dance in the local hall and on the way home they would go to the nearest wake house to keep the family company until day break and then head off home.  We have become accustomed to the strictly private notices on the radio in recent years but this was not always the case and the wake was an important date on the social calendar of rural and urban places alike.  The people waked the dead with decency in those days.  They were occasions for merriment too and there was a Dublin witticism that told you to cheer up you were at a wake not a wedding.  Needless to say for this reason official Ireland frowned on the wakes of old.

Today there is not much activity or ritual attached to the wake because there is an air of solemnity attached to them that was not there in the traditional wake of yore.  Long ago there would be games, fun and storytelling at the wake and the people of the house would be disappointed if such things did not take place.  The emphasis was on celebration of the long life of the deceased.

Matchmaking took place too at the wake.  The doors and windows would be open so that the soul of the deceased could fly to Heaven.  When the deceased had lived a long life there used to be a good deal of fun and when the person was young then the wake would have an air of quiet sadness about it.  The behaviour at the wakes could be boisterous at time as witnessed by Sean O Suilleabhain the folklorist when he was a student at the Preparatory School in Bofield and was staying in a local house where a wake was held, the scene left such an impression on him that he later included it in his memoirs.

There used to be food and drink and tobacco at the wake and a good deal of whiskey and poteen.  They would give out tobacco and cigarettes liberally during the night and this at a time when people did not have a good deal of the world’s goods.  This writer often saw the clay pipes in the old ruins that were given out among the people during the night.  There would be bread and jam and ham and tomatoes in the upper room of the three roomed house and the women would be brought to this room for a repast with a cup of tea.  The people used to tell stories in praise of the dead to give courage and solace to the household of the deceased.

When the corpse was leaving the house there would be keening women there to lament the dead and list out their good qualities the keening was truly soulful and memorable the last time this writer heard it was in 1986 over thirty years ago in Ellaghnmore Bonniconlon as a sister mourned her brother at the gable of the house as the coffin was carried out.

The wakes changed over the years and they are quieter now.  There is no fun now and the people still talk about the deceased as well as other matters of the day.  They are declining in places and yet in other places the corpse is kept in the house for two nights before removal of the remains to the church.  There are still remnants of the old tradition there in rural parts especially among older people.

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