Respect for the dead has always been a prominent feature of Irish culture. Traditions say a
very special female spirit, the bean s� (banshee) is often heard to announce by her wailing
the impending death of a member of a family.
A wide range of beliefs and practices were
concerned with the issues of death and burial and, in former times, the waking of the dead
was an important social occasion.
The practice of Waking the dead 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'. The wake of the past was an occasion for both
sadness and merriment. 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, lighted candles on a little table and 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'
was a statement rather than a question. Then came the expressions of sympathy. Every relative,
even down to the most distant inlaw was given a perfunctory handshake 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.
calling into the Wake house all day and at mid-night the Rosary was recited. 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 the ways would look on this merriment
as irreverent, or at the very least hypocritical, and consider it a contradiction of the real feelings
of expressed sympathy. But 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. 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. All over the North-West,
and possibly 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
The funeral 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.