An Irish Keener: 1860

We next illustrate the person of a woman known in Kerry and other counties as a Keener, or paid mourner. She must be a sort of improvisatrice. The Irish language, bold, forcible, and comprehensive, full of the most striking epithets and idiomatic beauties, is peculiarly adapted for either praise or satire—its blessings are singularly touching and expressive, and its curses wonderfully strong, bitter and biting. The rapidity and ease with which both are uttered, and the epigrammatic force of each concluding stanza of the keen, generally bring tears to the eyes of the most indifferent spectator, or produce a state of terrible excitement. The dramatic effect of the scene is very powerful; the darkness of the death-chamber, illumined only by candles that glare upon the corpse—the manner of repetition or acknowledgment that runs round when the keener gives out a sentence—the deep, yet suppressed sobs of the nearer relatives—and the stormy, uncontrollable cry of the widow or bereaved husband, when allusion is made to the domestic virtues of the deceased,–all heighten the effect of the keen; but in the open air, winding round some mountain pass, when a priest, or person greatly beloved and respected, is carried to the grave, and the keen, swelled by a thousand voices, is borne upon the mountain echoes—it is then absolutely magnificent. Mr. Beauford, in a communication to the Royal Irish Academy, remarks, that “the modes of lamentation, and the expressions of grief by sounds, gestures, and ceremonies, admit of an almost infinite variety. So far as these are common to most people, they have very little to attract attention; but where they constitute a part of national character, they then become objects of no incurious speculation. The Irish,” continues that gentleman, “have been always remarkable for their funeral lamentations, and this peculiarity has been noticed by almost every traveller who visited them;” and he adds, “it has been affirmed of the Irish, that to cry was more natural to them than to any other nation; and at length the Irish cry became proverbial.”

This keen is very ancient, and there is a tradition that is origin is supernatural, as it is said to have been first sung by a chorus of invisible spirits in the air over the grave of one of the early kings of Ireland. The keener having finished a stanza of the keen, sets up the wail, in which all the mourners join. Then a momentary silence ensues, when the keener commences again, and so on—each stanza ending in the wail. The keen usually consists in an address to the corpse, asking him “why did he die?” etc. It is altogether extemporaneous; and it is sometimes astonishing to observe with what facility the keener will put the verses together, and shape her poetical images to the case of the person before her. This, of course, can only appear strongly to a person acquainted with the language, as any merit which these compositions possess is much obscured in a translation.

The lamentation is not always confined to the keener; any one present who has “the gift” of poetry may put in his or her verse, and this sometimes occurs. Thus the night wears away in alternations of lamentation and silence, the arrival of each new friend or relative of the deceased being, as already observed, the signal for renewing the keen. The intervals in the keen are not, however, always silent—they are often filled up by “small plays” on the part of the young, and on the part of the aged, or more serious, by tales of fairie and phantasie; nor is it uncommon to have the conversation varied by an argument on religion, for even in the most remote parts so large an assemblage is seldom without a few straggling Protestants. The keener is almost invariably an aged woman; or if she be comparatively young, the habits of her life make her look old. One of this cast the artist has pictured from our description.

Ballou’s Dollar Monthly Magazine, Vol. XI. No. 1 Whole No. 61, January 1860: p. 12

See this post on “The Irish Funeral Cry” for more details and historical accounts.

Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead. And visit her newest blog The Victorian Book of the Dead.

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