Traditions of the Irish Wake
“The terrible thing about dying is
that you miss your own wake”
David Allen, Irish Comedian
Traditions seem to go on forever in small rural communities. They are passed down from father to son, and from mother to daughter. The tiny community of Ferguson Falls was settled by seven Irish bachelors and their story was told and re-told through the ages, so it wouldn’t be forgotten. When these young men landed from the old country in the early days they made a pledge to help each other to succeed in the new land, and if even one of them failed to thrive they would all return to Ireland. They were Patrick Quinn, John Quinn, James Carberry, William Scanlan, Terrence Doyle, John Cullen and James Power.
Around the same time my own ancestors arrived – the Stafford and the McGarry families, from County Wexford and County Westmeath, and the Irish-Catholic community grew and prospered in this idyllic community along the Mississippi River in Drummond Township.
In those days it was unusual and even frowned-upon to marry outside of one’s religion, and so the traditions and customs brought from the old country remained firmly entrenched in these early settlers and their families and were passed down for generations. It’s not surprising that many of these practices were still taking place in the 20th century, some with pagan Celtic origins, some more religious, and some so ancient they could no longer be explained.
As a young girl I heard stories, mostly from my father, who grew up near Ferguson Falls, and also some vivid tales from some of the old timers in the area. Some of their most colourful accounts included stories about their Irish wakes.
I remember my father telling me about his uncle’s wake, held in the family home, as was the custom. He said that the wakes were another excuse for people to get drunk, maybe a little drunker than usual, and they did some things that were almost unspeakable. He recalled his deceased relative being ‘laid out’ on the dining room table and that late at night two of the intoxicated guests attempted to pour whiskey down the dead man’s throat.
Many years ago, I also heard from one of the old-timers, James ‘Jim’ Quinn, a direct descendant of one of the seven Irish bachelors, that the standard rate to dig a grave was a bottle of whiskey. The usual amount was twenty-six ounces and was split between two men, who dug the graves by hand at St. Patrick’s cemetery. He was, in fact, according to him, one of the two who dug the grave for my great uncle Jimmy Richards, and the lads were paid in the usual way, a bottle of whiskey, from my great aunt Tessie Richards, the departed’s sister.
The ‘Third Birthday’
The eldest ones used to refer to death as ‘the third birthday’. They claimed that the first birthday was the day you were born, and the second birthday was your baptism. The third birthday is the day you pass away, and should be filled with both mourning and celebration as you move from this life and enter Heaven.
Stop the Clocks
All clocks in the house are stopped at the hour of the death as a sign that the passage of time has ended for the departed. Time stands still for them, and a new period of existence begins, without time. It was believed that if time continued to move ahead that this invited their spirit to remain in the home rather than moving on. Some say it was also a way to mark the time of death. Others claimed it is done so mourners will stay as long as they please without worrying about the time.
The Open Window
Immediately after the death, the window closest to the deceased is opened for two hours. The open window allows the spirit to leave the body. No one must stand near nor block the path to the window as it might prevent the spirit from leaving, and will bring misfortune to any person who blocks it. After two hours have passed the window is closed so that the spirit doesn’t attempt to re-enter the body.
Close the Curtains
With the exception of the open window closest to the deceased, all other windows are to be closed, and the curtains should be drawn until the body is removed from the home for burial. It was thought that if a moonbeam shone through a window at night that evil spirits could come in and try to steal the deceased’s soul.
Photographs Turned Face-Down
Family photographs were turned face-down so that the people in the pictures would not be spirited away with the deceased.
Cover the Mirrors
All of the mirrors in the home were either covered with cloths, or turned backward, facing the walls. There were two reasons behind this custom – that the deceased’s spirit doesn’t see their physical body in the mirror as they leave the home, and so that their spirit doesn’t get trapped inside the looking glass.
In the old days people kept black-bordered funeral stationary in their homes. Shortly after the death occurred, they wrote an announcement by hand, on a full sheet, enclosed it in black-bordered envelope and pinned the notice with a thumb-tack to the outside door. A black ribbon was also hung on the door. Neighbours could stop and read the announcement and learn of the date and times of the wake and funeral. A note at the bottom of the page encouraged neighbours to spread the news. A call was placed to local printers to order formal funeral cards, which included information about the deceased, and sometimes a photo or a prayer. The Mourning cards were also known as Prayer cards or Holy cards. Local newspapers were called and orders for obituaries were placed. The Mourning cards were available at the wake and at the funeral and given as a keepsake for the mourner to bring home with them.
Traditional Mourning stationery
Mourning card – Anastasia ‘Stacy’ Richards Stafford (my grandmother) 1954
Anastasia ‘Stacy’ Richards Stafford – Mourning card – 1954
James ‘Jimmy’ Richards – Mourning card – 1951 (Jimmy, my great-uncle, was a farmer in Ferguson Falls and well-known local musician who regularly played his fiddle at the infamous Stumble Inn)
The body of the deceased was washed with Holy water, and dressed in their best clothing. There were often older women in the community who performed this task for the families, and were offered whiskey or food as payment and thanks. Men were shaved and both men and women had their hair combed and arranged nicely. Conservative dress was expected for the deceased and bright or pastel colours were not considered appropriate. The bodies were laid out on top of white sheets, usually on a long flat surface, such a dining room table. In Catholic homes rosary beads would be wound around the hand, with the crucifix laying on the person’s chest, close to their hearts. Once the body was prepared the deceased was never left alone in the room. At least one person must remain, and usually there were groups of people who remained awake through the night with the dearly departed. This custom of remaining awake is the origin of the term ‘wake’.
In some families white candles were placed all around the table where the deceased was laid out, however some families used only 4 candles placed around each of the four corners of the table. Candles were to remain lit (replaced as needed) until the body left for the funeral. It was bad luck to let one of the candles burn out and they were replaced as they burned down close to the end of the wick. The candles used at wakes were said to have healing powers, and the butts of the used candles would be saved and rubbed on burns and cuts.
Keening comes from the Gaelic word meaning ‘to cry’. Women from the neighbourhood would gather at the wake and sob. There were even professional keeners who could be hired to cry at wakes. The art of keening originates from the Irish Banshees who shrieked and screamed foretelling a death. It’s been said that every family of Irish origin has their own Banshee, and that they even traveled with families across the ocean to the new world.
John Todhunter, Ireland Calling
What to Expect
If you’re planning to attend an Irish wake, then be sure to bring a little something for the family. Food, flowers or something to drink is always welcome, and a bottle of good spirits is always appreciated.
Although there is no dress code, wearing black or somber colours is a sign of respect to the family.
After a brief viewing of the deceased, you may pay your respects to the family with a few words, like: “Sorry for your troubles.”, or “Sorry for your loss.” It is a stressful time, and it’s not as important what you say, but more that you showed respect by attending.
The time you spend at the wake can be brief, as little as fifteen or twenty minutes, if you didn’t know the deceased very well. The busiest time will be the evenings, after suppertime, between 5 p.m. and 8 p.m. Neighbours, good friends and family members will remain at the wake for four to five hours, and the closest will stay all night, at least one night, in the room where the deceased is laid out.
The Food and Drink
After the wailing is over, the more social aspects of the wake begin. Food and drink for visitors are provided by the family, and it is customary for guests to bring a bottle of spirits, or some food for the wake. Shepherd’s Pie, Irish Stew, Corned Beef and Cabbage, cold cuts, and small sandwiches are common at wakes. Tea is served in fine china cups, and whiskey, beer, and wine are the most popular drinks, although any spirits will do.
Raise a Glass
It’s customary during the wake to raise your glass and toast the deceased. You might begin the toast by telling a little story about your friendship, or something amusing that happened, that the two of you shared. Some of the most popular Irish toasts at a wake: “May he rest in peace.”, “Gone, but not forgotten.”, “No one spread more love in a lifetime.”, “To absent friends.”, “To our friend who has gone on before us.”
The Smoking of the Pipe
A long-standing tradition is the custom of smoking from clay pipes. These small pipes were filled with tobacco for visitors to the wake house to take. Visitors lit the pipe and took a draw, exclaiming “Lord have mercy on their soul”. Non-smokers were also expected to partake of the ritual and in some cases snuff was also taken. After the funeral, the family broke the wake-pipes in two and buried them outside.
It wouldn’t be a proper Irish wake without telling stories or reciting poems about the dearly departed. Fond memories are shared and become more animated and exaggerated as the whiskey flows throughout the days and evenings. There are stories of the school years from former classmates, and stories of the departed’s years of work, and about their profession. Family stories and memories are shared with guests, with highlights of a life well-lived, and special anecdotes of their days on the Earth. Fiddles and flutes are played and songs are sung, jigs are danced, and stories continue throughout the days and evenings.
At midnight, the Rosary is said, concluding with: “Pray for us now, and at the hour of our death.” The neighbours, friends, and other guests leave the home, with only those closest to the departed remaining.
Some family members and dearest friends will stay all night in the room with the deceased. The stories and the drinking will continue overnight, and a new group will relieve them in the morning so they can get some rest. It is usual to wake for two to three nights before the funeral.
On the third day of the wake, the body is placed in a coffin and carried out of the home, always feet first, in order to prevent the spirit from looking back and beckoning another member of the family to join them.
Once the departed has been carried from the home, the mirrors are uncovered, the curtains pulled back, and the photographs are displayed again.
Exactly six pallbearers carry the coffin, and there should be 6 handles on the casket, three on each side, in remembrance of the Holy Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. It isn’t always the case these days, but that is the Irish tradition. It is also thought to be bad luck to go home the same route as the one used by the funeral procession.
The funeral is usually held in church, and after that everyone proceeds to the cemetery. A short graveside service will be conducted by the priest.
Rain is a Blessing
Rain the day of the funeral is a sign of a blessing, and if you hear a thunder-clap it means that the deceased has arrived in heaven.
After the funeral, everyone will be invited back to the house, to a bar, or community location for some food and drinks to toast to the deceased and honour their memory together for one last time.
Many of the traditions of the Irish wake live on today, depending on where you live. Some customs have been adapted for modern times, and some of the old ways passed down through families, are strictly followed, as they were in days gone by.
“Grant them eternal rest, O Lord,
and may the souls of the faithful departed,
through the mercy of God, rest in peace.
St. Patrick’s Church, Ferguson Falls, Ontario, Canada, est. 1856.
“But since it fell into my lot
That I should rise and you should not
I’ll gently rise and softly call
Good night and joy be to you all
So fill to me the parting glass
And drink a health whate’er befalls
Then gently rise and softly call
Good night and joy be to you all.”
“The Parting Glass”, written by Trad / David Anthony Downes
Sources for “Irish Wakes”
Delaney, Mary Murray. Of Irish Ways. Dillon Press, Inc, 1973
Staffords Funerals, website, Dublin, Ireland
Bourke.A (1988), The Irish Lament and the Grieving Process, Women’s Studies International Forum, Vol.11, No.4
Danaher.K (1962), In Ireland Long Ago, Mercier Press.
Lysaght.P (1988), Caoineadh os Cionn Coirp: The Lament for the Dead in Ireland, Folklore 108.
About the Author:
Arlene Stafford-Wilson was raised on a small farm in Bathurst (Tay Valley) Township. Her Stafford and McGarry ancestors left southern Ireland, and arrived in Lanark County in 1816. She also descends from the McKittrick, Waters, Doyle, Carroll, and O’Keefe families, also from southern Ireland.