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Wake traditions in Ireland and Church opposition to wake and associated practices

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  1. What a merry wake was
  2. Reasons why Church wanted to abolish it
  3. Conclusion

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.'[13]) 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.'[14] 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. [...]


[...] 166-7. Cited in Ó Crualaoich, "The 'Merry Wake'" (see below). Hall, Anna Maria and Samuel. Ireland: Its Scenery, Character etc. London Vol. p Cited in Witoszek and Sheeran, Talking to the Dead, p (see below). Ó Crualaoich, Gearóid. "The 'Merry Wake'". Irish Popular Culture 1650-1850. Eds. [...]


[...] Wake traditions in Ireland and Church opposition to wake and associated practices 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. [...]

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