I know. This is a delicate topic. And totally unfunny. But, I really want to share about it for two reasons: 1. my experience with Irish funerals is far different than my experience with American funerals and 2. If you are ever wondering if your Irish farmer boyfriend is telling the truth when he says he is going to a funeral up to 2-3 times/month it could definitely be true.

Here in the Irish countryside many things are still done the old-fashioned way and this would definitely apply to funerals. Imagine my surprise when the first visitation I attended was right in the home of the dearly departed with her laying in her own candlelit bedroom with people paying their respects at the bedside. I have to be honest and say that I was absolutely terrified.  I had never in my life been required to be intimately close with a deceased person. But, I had to shrug off my fears and go in because it was R’s amazing grandmother who was also a very special person to me. She had lived to see so many changes in Ireland and left us at the ripe age of 91.  I loved listening to her stories of gun hiding and squabbles between political parties. She also had great style and an unexpected sense of humour. She always asked me the same question when I walked into her home, “would you like a drop of Baileys?” and we’d have “drops” of Bailey’s in teeny, tiny, sweet little cordial glasses while I listened to her anecdotes and gossip and felt so wonderfully content in her presence. I remember once she was telling me about a trip she had taken to an island called Lough Derg and was describing how beautiful it was and that you had to go barefoot and walk on these rocks and then you’d stay up for 3 days and only drink broth with salt and pepper. I totally thought she was talking about some sort of natural spa experience where you’d go for really intensive 3 day cleansing detox.  It is actually a religious retreat. She thought I was mad…..but  I know she also loved that about me.  She had discussed her precise wishes regarding her funeral arrangements with her family and had it all sorted out before she left us . The family followed through as directed.

Generally speaking, up until 15 years ago, a country Irish wake would always take place in the home. It was very much a social event and open to the public.  The corpse would be dressed in a dark, neutral coloured habit or shroud and “layed out” on their bed or in a small coffin.  No embalmment techniques or fancy makeup. A prayer book might be propped under the chin to keep one’s mouth closed. Mourners would fill the room and sit beside the dead and would be there to support the others who came to sympathise.  Often, a punch made of cloves, sugar, whiskey and boiled water would be served and a barrel of stout would be on hand. Men smoked white clay pipes and sniffed snuff. This celebration would go on for 1-3 days as they never wanted the dead person to feel alone which, to my mind, is a lovely gesture. Three days of crying, laughing, eulogizing, agonizing.  Sounds pretty cathartic to me…and not such a scary idea after all. After the wake, there was the funeral mass and burial. The coffin is carried on shoulders and walked around the circumference of the graveyard before stopping at the gravesite. One month later, the “month’s mind” takes place in the local church to remember the person. Each year after there is an anniversary mass as well.

The introduction of funeral homes have taken the responsibility off of the immediate family to entertain mourners in their homes and wakes are now called “removals”. These funeral homes are very different from the what I would be accustomed to in the States….no plush carpets and rugs, ambient music, heavy drapes, displays of flowers here. In fact, very much a low-key event. The rural village funeral home is designed a bit like a garage where the a big door is opened to the street, the coffin is in the middle of the room, the family in chairs in a semi circle around the coffin. The family receives all the sympathisers who, in a single file cue, come through and shake hands with them all and walk out.  Out here it still is similar in the way that people gather from far and wide…whether you were a first cousin or a friend of a friend of a friend, you will be at the removal. It is important to be a part of the community and show your respect. This is why R goes so frequently. In America funerals are much more discreet. You might not think so right off the bat, but really, compared to Ireland they are more private and formal affairs if you will. Very rarely would you go to a funeral of someone you’d never personally met at least once.  It’s just in my American nature to feel like an interloper going to a removal of someone I didn’t know. Not to mention I don’t have enough dressy clothes anymore to keep up with them all.

I was hoping to feature Mr. McDonnell and the farm for this post, but he’s sooooooo slow and stilllllll writing his answers to all of our quirky questions. By the way, if you have a fun, funny, embarrassing…even dorky  question, please drop me a line: imen.producer@ireland.com.

Slan Abhaile,

Imen

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8 Responses to “The Irish Country Wake”

  1. I’ve been absent for some time, but now I remember why I used to love this blog.
    Thanks , I’ll try and check back more often.
    How frequently you update your web site?

  2. Donna says:

    Love your blog! I just found it and how surprising to read about lough derg. My grandad went every year for over 40 years until he died. And the funeral was just as you described and quite a shock to me walking into it after a 7 hour trip from freshman year in college in Pennsylvania. The queue was at least 3 hours , wrapping up the street. It was amazing.
    My dad is bringing my husband and brothers to Lough Derg next summer. It’s special to see the tradition re-started.
    I’m excited to follow you and hopefully start cooking more traditional irish food here in the states so my children don’t lose their roots… I was born in Cavan but been here a long time. …still miss my home country…

  3. [...] debt crisis, David J. Lynch gives a look at the nation once hailed as the Celtic Tiger. The Irish Country Wake by Imen McDonnell, Married an Irish Farmer Being married to an Irish farmer has taught Imen [...]

  4. Roll on Mr. McDonnell; we’re all looking forward to meeting him!

  5. Lisa says:

    Love the blog, as always. The Irish country wake sounds beautiful & respectful.

  6. Deirdre says:

    I have to admit that what it is I love about your blog is seeing things that just are – through fresh eyes. Sometimes you forget that while things have always been that way and will continue to be that way it’s not that way everywhere – if that makes any sense at all! Within my family I’ve had two leave from a funeral home and two from their own home. My grandmother (nan-nan) died last summer and we had somebody sit in the room with her until she was brought to the church – I thought it was a lovely thing.
    Anyway thanks for the fresh point of view as ever it’s a wonderful thing.
    D.

  7. laura says:

    Many removals still take place from people’s homes. My grandmother’s and my mother’s did. There is also a tradition of walking through the town behind the hearse to the church. Personally, I would absolutely hate to be removed from a funeral home. They are so cold. I think maybe you are surprised at how many funerals people in Ireland go to becasue you are not yet stuck forcibly with how close to each other everyone in Ireland is. The seven degrees of separation theory – in Ireland it’s more likely to be one or two. In small towns and communities this is even more true. Remember, Ireland is still a country where you can write someone’s name and address on an envelope and just put in the townland and county and your post will find its way to them. :-) We have no need for post codes in rural Ireland. :-) I grew up in a city, but my grandmother lived in a small town and was well known in it. The whole town turned out for her removal and funeral and then some. Likewise for my mother. I remember people saying to me afterwards how large the crowds had been, but she knew a lot of people, even acquaintances who had shared hospital wards with her turned out. I thought that was really touching. The death of someone you love is a very difficult period and Irish funerals (large and lovely as they are) really help a family to get through the initial few days. Whatever about the crowds present at the removal and funeral, the hidden element is all the masscards and letters you get in addition from people unable to make it. For years afterwards, people will still apologise to you if they weren’t at the removal/funeral. My father told me at the weekend about someone apologising to him for not being able to make it to my mother’s funeral and it will be her second anniversary next month. Long live the Irish funeral tradition. If you remain in Ireland for the rest of your life, a day will come when you will be so grateful for people turning out to support you in your time of need and grief and you will be glad it isn’t a small private affair.

  8. I personally think the Irish have the right idea :-)

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