Until the early part of the 20th century, Irish wake and funeral rituals included both formal prayer and extemporaneous lament, along with the ritual keening of either female relatives or professional mourning women. Though contemporary life has weakened adherence to centuries-old religious custom and given way to briefer ceremonies, some traditional Irish death laments have been preserved, and some death blessing prayers are still in use.
The wake was an important part of the traditional Irish death ritual, and is still widely practiced, though not in such elaborate form as in the past. At a traditional wake, the friends and family members of the deceased would "keep vigil," or sit up with the dead body for the entire night or nights before the funeral. People would eat and drink, tell stories about the dead person, play sometimes ribald games and offer prayers for the dead. Some mourners would recite prayers over the body itself, and it was also customary for the men present to pray for the dead while smoking a pipe, and for the women to perform similar prayers while taking snuff.
A traditional Irish wake was expected to have a joyful, almost celebratory atmosphere. Nevertheless, the funeral itself was reserved for highly emotional expressions of grief by the women associated with the deceased. Female mourners would wear their hair down, tear or scratch at themselves, and shriek or wail. This wailing sound was known as the "caoin" in the Irish language, or "keen" in English, and was such an important part of the culture that families would sometimes hire keening women for the event to ensure that the dead person was paid the proper respect. Keening women also recited laments in honor of the deceased, such as the famous "Lament for Art O'Leary" from 1773, which is widely considered one of the great poems of Irish literature.
A Prayer from the Famine
Peig Sayers, a noted 20th-century Gaelic storyteller from Kerry, recounted a traditional story about the disastrous Irish potato famine of the 1840s. In this story, a woman named Bride Liath, or in English, "Gray Brigid," recites a prayer after every member of her family has died in the famine. Bride Liath's prayer assures her family members that they will feel no hunger or thirst in the afterlife, and that nothing will wake them from their sleep until Judgment Day, unless ravens turn white or other impossible things occur. The prayer is addressed to the deceased directly, rather than to God or any saint, but it expresses a strong conviction that God and the angels will look after her lost loved ones. Lamenting practices such as this eventually faded out of practice, partly due to the strong opposition of the Catholic Church to what it interpreted as a pagan tradition.
Blessing of the Dead
Although keening and poetic laments for the dead are no longer common in modern Ireland, people still hold wake vigils and recite prayers for the deceased. One such prayer, recorded in the Irish-language online archives of the Sabhail Mor Ostaig Gaelic college, is known as the "Beannacht ar na Mairbh" or "Blessing of the Dead." The Beannacht ar na Mairbh asks God to grant rest, light, peace and forgiveness to the deceased forever, and may be recited in the original Irish or in English translation.
- mrmac59/iStock/Getty Images