Home > History > An Irish Wake
he Wake of the past was one of the anomalies of the time - it was an occasion for both sadness and merriment. For readers who may not be conversant with the practice of Waking the dead a word of explanation would not be amiss. It used to be the custom in most Celtic countries in Europe for mourners to keep watch or vigil over their dead until they were buried - this was called a "Wake". Ireland appears to be the only country where the custom has survived as strong as it is, although it must be said that it is losing favour here too and the funeral parlour seems to be replacing the home as the venue for the traditional waking.
More families too are beginning to wake their dead in private. Maybe in time the traditional public funeral which is seen as an expression of sympathy for the bereaved family will also have disappeared.There was always a certain unwritten ritual that sympathisers observed when calling to the Wake house. First there was a visit to the room where the corpse was laid out to say a prayer and pass the usual compliments about how well he/she looked even in death. A quick look around took in the crucifix and lighted candles on a little table; the well laundered linen on the bed. In some families bed linen was kept specifically for this purpose and even though it might be a hundred years old it could be as white as the driven snow. In nearly every area there was a woman or two who washed and laid out the dead. They too came in for a word of compliment before leaving the room. "Didn"t Cassie make a great job of laying him out. What would the place do without her"; it was a statement rather than a question.
Then came the expressions of sympathy. Every relative - even down to the most distant in-law was given a perfunctory hand-shake and a muttered "Sorry for your trouble". The real sympathy was reserved for the spouse or immediate family. The caller was invited to sit down. If no seat was available some one would be sure to get up and offer one glad of the opportunity to get slipping out unobserved.Neighbours who had come in to help would go around offering snuff, plug tobacco and clay pipes. There was always a "wee wan" for the men or a small port for the ladies. In more recent times these were replaced by tea, cake and sandwiches. People kept calling into the Wake house all day and at mid-night the Rosary was recited. There was always someone in every area who was reputed to be "as good as any clergyman at giving out the Rosary" and he would be waiting there ready for his cue to start. With a reputation to maintain he saw to it that the "Trimmings" were not overlooked either.After the prayers all except those who were sitting up all night soon dispersed. Supper was served and the women usually went to the corpse room while the men remained in the kitchen.
It was at this stage that the games and storytelling got under way. No doubt a stranger unaccustomed to our ways would look on this merriment as irreverent, or at the very least hypocritical, and consider it a contradiction of our real feelings of expressed sympathy. Far from it. This light relief had a certain therapeutic value for the grieving family while at the same time helping those who were keeping vigil to pass the night and so it was an accepted part of Waking the dead. I recall one Wake I attended in this area and when the women had gone to the corpse room for the night the spouse of the deceased invited us to move into the parlour which had been set aside "for the games". The Maoris of New Zealand have a somewhat similar way of waking their dead.There were certain games that were reserved for Wakes only; like "Hide the Gulley" "Priest of the Parish" and "Riddle me Ree". In the West of Ireland musicians used to play at Wakes, and caoiners (professional criers) were employed to display affected grief.
The latter practices never penetrated to these parts. All over the North-West, and I expect it was the same throughout the whole country, all servile work and entertainment ceased in a townland when someone died there. Up to about forty years ago dances would not be held in Donegal Town if there was a death in the vicinity and if they had already been arranged they were cancelled or postponed.The funeral always gave people who were unable to attend the Wake an opportunity to express their sympathy by attending Mass and, when the practice of giving Offerings was in existence, by walking up to the collection table and handing their two shilling piece or half crown - the usual offering - to a teller who called out the amount and the name of contributor. The name was mentally noted by the mourners who looked on this as a debt that must be paid back when a death took place in the contributor"s family circle. The paying of Offerings, suspended about 35 years ago, had its origin in a practice that existed in penal days of giving a small offering to the priest when he came to bury the dead. The priest who would have been on the run from the English would not have had an income to support him and depended on small stipends like these from the people.