The Irish wake is a uniquely Irish tradition that often baffles non-Irish people. It is a a tradition that has existed for centuries and still continues. It is a blend of celebration, reflection, and mourning. It allows friends and family to come together to remember and celebrate the passing of a loved person. This also helps to ease the suffering of those who remain as they have company and remembrance at the same time. The Irish wake is a lively, social event that incorporates traditional customs, songs, and toasts, as well as a healthy dose of drinking.
Irish Wake – Origins
The Irish wake dates back to ancient Celtic times and has evolved over the centuries to become the vibrant, communal event it is today. Wake comes from the Old English word “wacu”, which means “to watch” or “to keep vigil”. Medicine wasn’t as developed in past times and there were many cases of people being declared dead and they were buried, only for people to discover at a later date that the deceased were actually alive.
Traditionally, wakes were held in the family home. The deceased’s body would be laid out before being prepared for burial. Today, many wakes are held in funeral homes or community centers, but the essence of the tradition remains the same. However, many Irish families still hold the wake in their sitting/living room.
Drinking at Irish Wakes
Drinking is an integral part of the Irish wake experience, as it helps to create a convivial atmosphere and encourages guests to share stories and memories of the deceased. It is customary for the family to provide alcohol, typically whiskey, stout, or ale, and guests often bring additional beverages as well. The drinking is a way to honor the memory of the deceased and create a sense of togetherness among the mourners. However, it often does become excessive as we Irish do like a drink or ten.
Irish Wake Traditions
There are several unique customs and rituals associated with Irish wakes, each serving a specific purpose in the grieving process. Some of the most prominent traditions include:
The Keening: A haunting, melodic form of mourning, keening involves the wailing and lamenting of women, led by a professional keener or “bean chaointe.” This powerful expression of grief and loss was once a widespread practice in Ireland, but has become less common in recent times.
The Rosary: As a predominantly Catholic country, the recitation of the Rosary is an important part of the Irish wake. Friends and family members take turns praying the decades of the Rosary, seeking solace and comfort through their faith.
Washing the Body: In traditional Irish wakes, family members and close friends would wash and dress the deceased’s body as a final act of love and respect. This practice has largely been replaced by the services of professional funeral directors, but the sentiment remains the same.
The Wake House: The family home, or “wake house,” is transformed into a space for communal mourning and celebration. Furniture is often rearranged, and rooms are filled with candles and flowers, creating a serene and welcoming atmosphere for guests.
The Meal: Food plays a central role in Irish wakes, with family and friends coming together to prepare and share a meal in honor of the deceased. Traditional dishes include soda bread, colcannon, and boiled bacon, as well as a variety of cakes and pastries.
Irish Wake Toasts
Toasts are a typical part of an Irish wake. They provide an opportunity for mourners to express their love and respect for the deceased in a heartfelt and communal way. Some common Irish wake toasts include:
“Sláinte mhaith” (pronounced slawn-cha wah) – A Gaelic phrase meaning “good health,” this toast is often used to wish peace and well-being upon the deceased.
“May you be in heaven half an hour before the devil knows you’re dead” – This lighthearted toast conveys a wish for the deceased to find peace in the afterlife before any malevolent forces can interfere.
“To live in the hearts of those we leave behind is not to die” – A poignant reminder that the deceased’s memory will live on through the love and recollections of their friends and family.
“May the road rise to meet you; may the wind be always at your back; may the sun shine warm upon your face, and the rains fall soft upon your fields” – This traditional Irish blessing expresses hope for the deceased’s journey into the afterlife.
“Here’s to a long life and a merry one; a quick death and an easy one; a pretty girl and an honest one; a cold pint and another one” – A more lighthearted toast, this wish combines the joys of life with the inevitability of death, reflecting the Irish wake’s celebratory spirit.
Irish Wake Songs
Music is a central component of the Irish wake, providing an outlet for both grief and celebration. Traditional Irish wake songs are typically played on instruments such as the fiddle, tin whistle, or accordion and are characterized by their haunting melodies and poignant lyrics. Some popular Irish wake songs include:
“The Parting Glass” – “The Parting Glass” is often sung at the end of an Irish wake as a final goodbye to the deceased, making it a bittersweet farewell song,
“Danny Boy” – This iconic Irish ballad speaks of love, loss, and longing, making it a fitting choice for a wake.
“She Moved Through the Fair” – A song that tells the story of a young woman who dies before her wedding day.
“The Fields of Athenry” – A powerful ballad about love, loss, and perseverance, “The Fields of Athenry” speaks to the resilience of the Irish spirit in the face of adversity.
“The Green Fields of France” – Also known as “No Man’s Land,” this anti-war song mourns the loss of young lives in the battlefields of World War I, reminding listeners of the fragility of life and the importance of cherishing our time with loved ones.
The Irish wake is a testament to the resilience and strength of the Irish spirit. This tradition brings together friends and family in a celebration of life, love, and remembrance. Through the sharing of stories, songs, and toasts, the Irish wake provides a space for both mourning and healing, allowing the deceased’s memory to live on in the hearts of those they left behind.
The customs and rituals associated with them are not just for show, but rather, a deeply ingrained part of Irish culture. They offer solace and comfort to those grieving while ensuring that the memory of the deceased remains alive and cherished.