Foreigners often see Ireland as a deeply Catholic country. Yet when dealing with their traditional customs, the Irish can prove to be very disobedient to the orders of the Church. One of the best examples is probably that of the 'merry wake': the Church tried for hundreds of years to forbid this very special kind of funeral vigil or at least some of the practices associated with it, but all these attempts were unsuccessful, so deeply established was the habit in people's lives. Let us see what a merry wake was and for what reasons the Church wanted so much to abolish it.
The wake was one of the most important rural Irish nósanna (customs). As Witoszek and Sheeran put it, it used to be a common practice all over Northern Europe, but it 'seems to have been appropriated as a tribal ritual in Ireland as nowhere else.' It derived from pagan rituals and survived as recently as ninety years ago and even less in some areas. It is often referred to as the 'merry wake' because it consisted in three nights of partying in honor of a deceased person and actually of keeping vigil over his or her corpse. Merry wakes only happened in the case of what Gearóid Ó Crualaoich calls 'timely' deaths, that is to say the 'deaths at advanced ages of elderly community members who had lived a full life and whose demise was understood as the will of God' by opposition to young people's sudden or accidental 'untimely' deaths that were very rarely objects of merry-making as they were considered a greater loss for the community.
[...] so that it can be hoisted into an upright position in the middle of night.') Games and music were prohibited as well. Seán Ó Súilleabháin relates that 'the Synod [of Armagh (1614)] declared that the pious feelings of devout people were outraged by the singing of lewd songs and the playing of obscene games by silly fellows, conduct which would not be permissible even on occasions of merrymaking.' More than one century later, in the Archdiocese of Dublin, 'those who sang smutty songs or played unchristian games [at wakes . [...]
[...] Ó Súilleabháin, Irish Wake Amusements, p (1730) ibid., p ibid., p ibid., p G. Ó Crualaoich, "The 'Merry Wake', p S. Ó Súilleabháin, Irish Wake Amusements, p Diocese of Waterford and Lismore (1676), ibid., p Synod of Armagh (1614), ibid., p Synod of Meath (1686), ibid., p Diocese of Waterford and Lismore (1676), ibid., p Diocese of Waterford and Lismore (1676) S. Ó Súilleabháin, Irish Wake Amusements, p Synod of Armagh (August 23, 1670), ibid., p ibid., p ibid., p ibid., p. 157. [...]
[...] Ó Crualaoich, "The 'Merry Wake'", p G. Ó Crualaoich, "The 'Merry Wake', p (with a reference to T. Crofton Crocker, see above) A. M. and S. Hall, Ireland: Its Scenery, Character etc., London p Cited in N. Witoszek and P. Sheeran, Talking to the Dead, p S. Ó Súilleabháin, Irish Wake Amusements, p Synod of Tuam (January, 1660). ibid., p Synod of Armagh (October 1660). [...]
[...] After the prayers, shaking hands and rosary, the mna caointe keened that is to say, they sang a lament in praise of the dead. Then the merry- making actually started. It consisted mainly in playing games of each and every sort (Seán Ó Súilleabháin collected one hundred and thirty different wake games), story-telling, eating and drinking, playing music, singing and dancing. Many of these games and songs were at least irreverent, if not obscene. They very often mocked civil and religious authorities, under the control of the borekeen, an old man 'well known in each district as an organizer and director of the pranks and games of the wake assembly.' The amount of drinking, especially of poitín and thus of drunkenness was often amazing at wakes, so that an old joke says, 'What's the difference between an Irish wedding and an Irish wake? [...]
[...] J. S. Donnelly Jr., Kerby A. Miller. Dublin: Irish Academic Press Ó Súilleabháin, Seán. Irish Wake Amusements. Dublin: The Mercier Press (Irish) (English translation by the author). Witoszek, Nina and Pat Sheeran. Talking to the Dead: A Study of Irish Funerary Traditions. Amsterdam: Rodopi pp. [...]
using our reader.