Thursday 22 February 2018

Odd games, lewd songs and stories all part of the Irish wake

Merrymaking, which the church frowned on, provided relief for the deceased's family, writes Anita Guidera

In the early decades of the last century, the traditional Irish wake ran the gamut from profound expressions of grief to story telling, high jinks and mischief making. The glorious send-off of departed loved ones most likely has its roots in the ancient Jewish custom of leaving the burial chamber unsealed for three days with relatives returning during that time to check for any signs of life.

As in other Celtic countries, Irish mourners adopted the custom as a way to keep vigil over their dead until the time of burial, and it evolved into an occasion of sadness and merriment.

Snuff, plug tobacco and clay pipes and a drink would be offered to callers who came to pay their respects.

The midnight Rosary was the cue for the games and storytelling to get under way.

The light relief kept those who were keeping vigil going all night and was thought to ease the suffering of the grieving family.

Games with such intriguing names as 'Riddle me Ree', 'Priest of the Parish' and 'Hide the Gulley' were reserved for the occasion.

In his book 'Irish Wake Amusements', folklore author and archivist Sean O Suilleabhain gave a detailed account of the mischiefmaking, lewd songs and obscene games that were commonplace at wakes through the centuries up until the mid-1900s.

Mixing pepper with tobacco, tying shoelaces, stitching old men's coats to chairs or even hiding under the bed of the corpse and shaking it, were among the more harmless activities that passed the time.

Contests of strength were commonplace, including lifting the corpse.

On occasion, a man would enter the corpse house dressed in straw and challenge all present to wrestle him.

In some districts, it was customary for young men who were present through the night to leave the wake house after dawn and hold athletics contests in an adjoining field.

Slapping games, which began harmlessly, almost inevitably resulted in all-out fights.

There were also nocturnal catch games and rough games, games of hide and seek, guessing and kissing games.

Other risque entertainment included imitating the sacraments, including the marrying game, where 'wives' were chosen for men, with one male member of the group acting as a 'priest'.

Hearing confessions and imposing penance was another dubious form of entertainment for our forefathers.

The merrymaking, which was severely frowned upon by the church, had its origins in pagan culture. Synods and pastoral letters attempted to stamp out the practice but often action was only taken when the wake became an occasion for scandal.

The wake officially began with neighbour women washing the body of the deceased, which was then covered in white linen adorned with black or white ribbons.

Custom dictated that crying could not begin until after the body was prepared, for fear that evil spirits would be attracted which would take the soul of the deceased.

Female keeners were often hired, and they wailed and cried and recited poetry lamenting the loss of the loved one, with the mourner at the head of the bed striking the first note or wail.

Over the course of the wake, food, tobacco, snuff and alcohol were plentiful, with poteen and whiskey the most common liquors at country wakes.

There was also time for heated discussions on the topics of the day as the drink flowed.

The tradition of wakes remains strong in the more rural parts of the west of Ireland, although funeral parlours have sprung up across the country in recent decades.

In Co Donegal, where the wake tradition still thrives, a funeral parlour opened briefly in Letterkenny in the 1990s but was closed down a short time later due to lack of demand.

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