The Irish at the Gates of Death: 1917

Irish bog oak mourning brooch, c. 1860, Victoria & Albert Museum

THE IRISH AT THE GATES OF DEATH

In Ireland the living are dominated by the dead to an extent unknown probably in other countries. It is a willing servitude, based upon two powerful sentiments—the constancy of Irish family affection, and their Catholic solicitude for the eternal welfare of those they love whose mortal existence has been brought to an end. Death, as the extinction of-life, as a farewell for ever to the warm^ precincts of the cheerful day, is not regarded as a matter of very great importance. No race faces death, whether on the battlefield or anywhere else, with more unconcern than the Irish, or, when lying on the bed of sickness, accepts with more resignation the doctor’s pronouncement that there is no hope. They can pass into the eternal silence with a joke on their lips. I have heard a story of a dying Irishman who, when asked by the priest, in the course of the administration of the last religious rites, whether he was prepared to renounce the devil and all his works, exclaimed, “Oh, don’t ask me to do that, your reverence. I am going to a strange country and I don’t want to make myself enemies.”

If there is any concern in the mind of the dying, it arises from some uncertainty as to what may happen in that strange country, the other world. This feeling finds expression in the quaintest and most wayward fancies. Canon Sheehan, the author of Luke Deimage, and other novels of Irish life, who was a parish priest in county Cork, relates that an old farmer after receiving the last sacrament of extreme unction said to the priest: “I want you to say a word to rise me heart for me long journey, your reverence. Will the Man above have anything agin me in His books?” This dread simile was prompted by sad experiences of the land agent’s office, arrears of rent and the fear of being thrown out of house and home. “I’m sure,” replied the priest, “Almighty God has pardoned you. You have made a good confession, and your life has been a holy and a pure one.” “And did your reverence give me a clear resate?” asked the old farmer. Here was the land agent’s office again.  “I’ve given you absolution, my poor man,” said the priest. The dying man was satisfied. Thanks, your reverence,” were his last words. Another story I have been told shows the droll forms which the same thought assumes in the minds of relations. A farmer who was dying had occasional fits of coma, or profound torpor. The doctor advised the wife, when one of those attacks came on, just to moisten the lips of the patient with a little brandy. “Doctor, dear,” cried the poor wife, with reproach in her voice, “is it to go into the presence of his Maker with the smell of spirits in his breath you’d be havin’ him?”

It is to the family that the visitation of death brings terrors and obligations. At first it has a crushing and stupefying _ effect by reason of the void it makes in the domestic circle, and, afterwards, it entails a lasting devotion to the memory of the loved one who has passed away. So long as a member of the family lives, the dead, in a sense, never dies in Ireland. They survive in the prayers that are said for them, morning and night, in the Mass on each anniversary of their death, in the weeping and wailing over their graves, years upon years after they have been laid to rest. You rarely if ever hear among the peasantry the expression “dead and gone.” Death is simply a passage from one life to another. What you do hear is, “She’s in Heaven,” “God sent for her,” or “He’s with God,” telling of the life of the dead hereafter, of their eternal companionship with angels and saints.

The custom of “waking” the dead, with the drinking, smoking, and conversation of the large company of neighbours who assemble in the house of mourning, appears incongruous and repulsive to those who are unacquainted with its remote origin or the kindly and humane motives which underlie it. The wake is a very old institution. It existed among the Egyptians, the Greeks and the Romans. Shakespeare and Scott give instances of medieval revels in honour of the dead. The custom survives in a different form, but with somewhat identical motives, among the Irish, almost alone of the ancient peoples.

“Waking” means, for one thing, “watching.” The English way of leaving the corpse shut up in a room, all alone, would be most repellent to the Irish nature. It would be regarded as a desertion of the dead. The Irish keep close company with their dead until the very last moment of the burial. The body is clothed in a shroud, made in imitation of the habits worn by certain Orders of Friars, and in the hands, crossed reverently on the breast, is placed a crucifix. The walls near the bed are hung with clean white sheets on which are pinned bunches of flowers, laurel leaves and holy pictures. Lighted candles, seven in number, are placed on a table. They are symbolical of hopes and aspirations relating to the dead. That he or she has been cleansed of the seven deadly sins—pride, covetousness, lust, gluttony, anger, envy, and sloth ; that he or she possessed the seven gifts of the Holy Ghost—wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord, and the seven principal virtues—faith, hope, charity, prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance, and that the relatives joined their sorrow with the seven dolours of Our Blessed Lady—the prophecy of Simeon that a sword of sorrow should pierce her soul; the flight into- Egypt; the loss of Jesus in the Temple ; meeting Jesus with His Cross ; the standing beneath His Cross; the receiving the Body of Jesus; and the burial of Jesus. The room is frequently sprinkled with holy water to banish any evil spirits that may be hovering round. All this is in part a survival of the public lying-in-state of the bodies of great personages, a ceremonial that, once rather common in Ireland, is now reserved for ecclesiastical dignitaries and national heroes.

The Irish people are at all times addicted to companionship, to association with their fellows, and the desire for it is strongest perhaps when death has visited them nearly. We know that we are mortal and ephemeral; that nothing is more certain than that death will come. Every day almost we are reminded that death is the common fate of all in reading our newspapers and meeting with funerals in the streets. Yet there is always an element of the terrible and incomprehensible in the sight of one that is near and dear to us, one, as we know from long experience, capable of the most loving thoughts and deeds in our regard, lying there inert, deaf to familiar voices, unconscious for ever of the joys and tenderness of domestic life. A chill runs down one’s spine, as though the icy coldness of death emanated from the remains and penetrated subtly into one’s frame, and we seek for consolation and support in the sociability of the living. And the neighbours, ever quick in showing sympathy, crowd in to ease the sting of death, to cheer up the spirits of the bereaved, to distract them for a while from the crushing thought of their irreparable loss.

First entering the room where1 the corpse lies the visitors kneel and say a prayer for the eternal salvation of the departed soul. Afterwards in the kitchen, snuff, pipes and tobacco, whisky and stout are served to the company. The dead person is in his house for the last time, and, as host for the last time, dispenses hospitality. What he would do, but can do no longer, those who love him best do for him. Memories of his kindliness and good nature are revived by the neighbours. “’Tis he that had the bright smile and cheery word whenever you met him, and no matter what you might want of him, sure you had only to say the word to get it with a heart and a half.” Stories are told by the elders, and politics discussed; forfeits may be played by the young of both sexes, or, more likely, riddles given for solution. But the Irish are most reverent in the presence of sorrow and nothing unseemly is permitted in these efforts to give relief to the relatives from cares that weigh heavily on their spirits. Manifestations of grief are not entirely suppressed, but they are confined to the chamber of death. In some parts of Ireland it is believed that the soul of the dead person is detained on earth by tears and lamentations, and that not until the sorrow of the relations is appeased can it turn contentedly to face the eternal judgment. To a young widow who was sobbing by the death-bed of her husband, I heard the remonstrance addressed—”Don’t be crying that way, asthore; or you’ll keep him from his rest.”

Here and there throughout the country where waking has been abused by excessive indulgence in drink, the authorities of the Catholic Church have tried to abolish it altogether. It is therefore not so common as it used to be, especially in the towns and the larger villages. Religious services have been substituted for the ancient observances. The body is removed from the house to the parish church, where it remains for the night in its coffin resting on a bier near to the high Altar ; and in the morning the Mass for the Dead is said before its removal for interment. There could hardly be a more notable example of the influence of the Church. The Irish are slow to adopt new ideas. They are among the most conservative people in the world in their adhesion to traditional habits and customs. Especially do they resent any innovation which touches their dead. It is their deep and reverential respect for the Church, rather than their instinct as to what is right and proper, that induces them to part from their dead for a night. They bow their heads in submission, but so heavy lies the immemorial past upon them that in their hearts they doubt whether in doing so they are quite loyal to their dead.

In the case of the keen (Gaelic caoine) or funeral lamentation— one of the eeriest death chants to be heard from the crushed heart of sorrowing humanity—the Irish also adhere to a custom held sacred by their remotest ancestors. It has come down to us from the Pagan era. Walker, in his Historical Memoirs of the Irish Bards, says the object originally was to propitiate the gods by proclaiming the genealogy, rank, possessions and virtues of the dead person. Spirits whose requiem was not thus sung were liable to be condemned eternally to a state of unrest. Geraldus Cambrensis, the Welsh writer who visited Ireland in the twelfth century, describes this funeral song or wail as it was practised in Christian times. Its purpose then was to sound the praises of the dead without regard to any supernatural or religious motive. The keeners, in the course of their chanting, put a number of questions, as if with a view to discovering why it was the person lamented had died. If a man, whether his wife was faithful to him, his sons dutiful, or good hunters or warriors? If a woman, whether her daughters were fair or chaste? If a young man, whether he had been crossed in love, or if the blue-eyed maidens had treated him with scorn? The keen of the twentieth century differs very little in form or spirit from the keen of the twelfth century. The cries of lamentation usually take the form of questions which are asked in a half-singing, half-reciting and sobbing voice. “Mo cushla machree (pulse of my heart), why did you die from me? Wasn’t it you that was the best of husbands and fathers, giving joy to all that knew you, and wouldn’t those that love you go through fire and water to save a hair of your head from being hurt?” The piercing wail of a mother for a favourite son is most heartrending to hear.

“Ah, Michael, me ville astore (my ten thousand treasures), sure your like was not to be found on all the broad acres of Ireland, and your death has cast a shadow on the country that no sun will ever disperse.” In towns the keen is cried in the room where the corpse is being waked before the start of the funeral. In rural districts, where the journey to the graveyard is often long, the keen breaks out at intervals, and then the whole countryside rings with the weirdest lamentation.

To have “a grand buryin’ with all the neighbours at it” is the last thing the Irish peasant desires of this world. A farmer who married a penniless girl was asked why he made so poor a match. “My wife,” he answered, “has thirty brothers, uncles and cousins, and if I was to die to-morrow her faction could give me as long a funeral as the King of England.” It is an object of solicitude long before the end is felt approaching. During a visit to the remote parts of Donegal I was told so great was the difficulty of getting a coffin made that many people gave the only carpenter in the district sheaves of oats or a sack of potatoes annually by way of a retaining fee for this service when they died. I remember a curious case that came for decision before a bench of magistrates in my native city of Limerick. An undertaker was asked by an old maid to make her coffin, and his proposal “to complete the job” for £4 was thought by her to be reasonable enough. When the coffin was finished the undertaker brought it to the woman’s house and received £2 as part payment; but being unable to obtain the balance he was reluctantly obliged to summon her. The defence set up by the woman was that the undertaker was not only to supply the coffin, but bury her respectable for the £4, and as he had not yet fulfilled the latter part of the agreement she submitted that he was not entitled to be paid the remaining £2. The case, which caused much laughter in court, was dismissed. Then the old maid turned to the undertaker and said, “As soon as you perform your part of the contract, I’ll not be behindhand in completing mine.” Wandering beggars, lone creatures who have no one belonging to them, who tramp the countryside for a living, carrying all their worldly goods on their back, are known to stint themselves of food in order to add an odd penny or sixpence, now and then, to the sum of money, kept in a secret hiding-place in their clothing, and intended to pay the expenses of the burial. An old fellow of this class who, feeling ill, sought refuge in a workhouse and died there, had a piece of paper, with his little hoard—the slow accumulations of many a hard year—on which he had written: This is to bury me. Bury me decent, or I’ll haunt you.” Thus all through life he was providing against what he would have thought the last misfortune and final disgrace—a pauper’s coffin, and a grave in the “yellow hole,” as the workhouse pit is called. Some years ago it was the custom of the poorer classes, when they were unable to afford a coffin, to make the corpse beg for it. The body was laid on a board outside the door on a Sunday with a plate to receive the coppers of the people on their way to Mass. Sometimes imposture was practised. On one occasion a woman placed a sixpence on the plate and began to take up five pennies.

“Arrah, ma’am,”: cried the supposed corpse, “be generous wance in yer life and don’t mind the change.”

Ireland is noted for its big funerals. The whole parish, and sometimes the countryside, turns out to pay the last tribute of respect. It is the rule also in rural districts for strangers who meet with a funeral to turn back and accompany it for some distance at least. “Who is it that’s dead?” they will ask, and when they are told they will add, “Well, well, may the journey thrive with him,” “God rest his soul,” or “Wisha, God be with him, whoever he is.” Burials are so well attended that they have come to convey the idea of the largest possible numbers. A man out for a day’s shooting asked a lad whether he had seen any rabbits on his way.  “Yes, sir, whole funerals of them,” was the reply. Comedy often follows closely on the heels of tragedy in all circumstances of life and death in Ireland. At any rate family pride in a large funeral softens bereavement. Condolences take that form on the way to the grave. “If your father could only sit up in his coffin, and see the grand funeral he’s havin’, wouldn’t he be mightily pleased?” “Well, oughtn’t you to be consoled and made proud by so fine a funeral?”

Vanity and ostentation are very prevalent in Ireland, and most so, perhaps, among the poorer classes. It is a point of honour to have a fine funeral. But a funeral is fine by reason of the numbers of unhired cars and unhired mourners attending it. These manifestations of neighbourly sympathy and respect give to funerals in Ireland an unostentatious dignity. There is an entire absence, even in the cities, of that hired ornate ceremonial of the great hearse and horses with plumes, and mutes in tall hats and frock coats and wreaths of flowers, that make burials so extravagantly expensive to the poor in England.

Another reason why, apart from neighbourliness, funerals are so well attended is that they afford opportunities for revisiting family graves. When the coffin is committed to earth and the prayers are said, the mourners disperse through the graveyard, and soon from all quarters are heard the wildest bursts of grief. The rain may be falling pitilessly, and the graveyard engulfed in a dense humid atmosphere. But the wet and the mud are unnoticed, discomforts accepted as a matter of course. Moved by the overpowering impulse of their revived affection and sorrow for those that are no more, the mourners fling themselves prostrate on the ground, passionately kissing the mounds and flagstones, pressing closer and closer to get as near as possible to their long-buried but still darling dead, babbling almost incoherently expressions of the fondest love. Then they sit back on their haunches, and raise the keen, swaying their body to and fro, clapping their hands in time with the rhythm of their lamentations, and weeping the bitterest tears of affliction.

It is a scene in which Irish history, life and character are epitomized: the dust of saints, the ruined abbey, the broken cross; the crowded dead; hemlock, and deadly nightshade; weeping and wailing; the love that always endures; and, casting a tender light over it all, the hope of a glorious resurrection

The Occult Review January 1917: pp. 37-43

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 hauntedohiobooks.com. 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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