Slainte: The Irish Wake

Illustration: "His Master's Nose" by Gertrude Degenhardt

By Edythe Preet, Columnist
April / May 2007

Nearly thirty-eight years ago an exuberant friend named Eddie burst into the office where I was working as assistant to a Hollywood producer commanding, “Come with me right now. I want to introduce you to someone.” Fortunately, I was alone and it was almost five o’clock. As I closed up shop, Eddie paced agitatedly about the room singing the praises of Bill, the stranger he had ferried to meet me. I vaguely remember dashing down the stairs to the street, but first sight of my intended match is engraved on memory with the permanence of a prehistoric pictograph on a raw stone monolith.

Lounging at the wheel of a sleek sports car thrumming at the door to my building was the most devastatingly handsome, fiercely intense man I had ever laid eyes on. “Eddie, you’ve outdone yourself,” I sighed. In short order I discovered that, like me, Bill was Irish-Italian American, a classic example of the frequent early 20th c. immigrant American blood-mix. A romance blazed, but marriage was not in our cards. Over the years, Bill and I have had our share of ups and downs, drifting apart and reuniting many times. Through all the travails and triumphs of our separate lives, we have remained pals, admirers of each other’s own quirky personalities, and staunch allies.

While my path crossed but occasionally with the man who had introduced me to someone I think of as ‘soulmate,’ Bill and Eddie, bound by their mutual love of automotive design and hell-bent horsepower, continued to be close through the decades. Last week, Bill called to say that Eddie had died. Though I had intended this Sláinte to address the Irish influence on the pioneer settlements of America’s 19th c. frontier, I am compelled down another road instead: the blessedly infrequent passing of a friend. Like the mountains that stand silent sentinel to America’s development, The Greening of The West will patiently wait until next issue while I dedicate this Sláinte to that most Irish of traditions: the funerary wake.

For many cultures, death is a semi-taboo subject, a happenstance to be dealt with in only the most serious somber manner. In that the ancient Celts believed that a person’s demise was the gateway to a better world, their rituals surrounding the event resonated with joy as well as sorrow. In all but the rarest cases, it was a time to share warm anecdotes and celebrate the accomplishments of the deceased, affording much needed comfort for grieving family and friends.

Originally, a wake was held in the family home, usually in the parlor from whence comes the term ‘funeral parlor’ used to describe modern undertaking establishments. Unlike today’s society that is awash with consumerism, in past ages personal possessions and household furnishings were meager, cherished, and commonly passed down generation to generation. One item that has survived but rarely is the ‘wake table.’ Consisting of a central plank flanked by two drop-down leaves, it was used for year-round dining but when a death occurred it would have become the focal furnishing of a wake as, with its side leaves folded down, the center plank was exactly the width of a coffin, enabling respectful mourners to approach the deceased for a final farewell.

Wakes were usually held several days after death, allowing friends who lived at a distance time to make the journey to pay their respects. At the moment of death all clocks in the house were stopped and time literally stood still until after the funeral service. As those closest to the deceased were often so distraught as to be unable to sleep, and it was believed to be bad luck to leave the body unattended, vigil was kept through the night, giving rise to the term ‘wake.’

So imbedded in Irish tradition is the custom of ‘waking’ that during the 19th century, it became common to hold a wake for the brave souls who sought to escape Ireland’s Great Famines by emigrating overseas. At these ‘American Wakes’ friends and family shared one last bittersweet uproarious time with those whom they would probably never in life see again. Just as, and most likely because, birth is a province exclusive to women, with the exception of the Last Rites of the Church performed by the parish priest, so too was it women’s charge to make all preparations for the deceased’s final public viewing. While the men sat talking in subdued tones, smoking, drinking uisce beatha (whiskey – the ‘water of life’), and often playing cards (with an unused hand dealt to the deceased), the wife or mother of the deceased was exempt from duties in deference to her grief. Meanwhile, neighbors known as mna cabhartha or ‘handy women’ cleaned, dressed and presented the body, opened all windows and doors so the departed soul could take wing, covered or removed any mirrors in the house lest someone spy the specter of death plotting to seize another victim, hung immaculate white sheets kept solely for waking the dead on and about the bier, and prepared food for those who would pay their last respects.

Women also played a key role during the wake itself, ‘keening’ vocal expression of the communal grief. While keening is usually equated with inarticulate wailing, it is often a sad song, a favorite perhaps of the deceased, or a lament composed on the spot extolling the departed’s virtue or circumstance of death. One such is Caoineadh Airt Ui Laoghaire. The late 18th c. epic poem tells of the life and tragic demise of Art O’ Laoghaire who was murdered by Abraham Morris at Carraig an Ime, County Cork on May 4, 1793. Composed extemporaneously at Art’s wake by his pregnant wife Eibhlin Dubh Ni Chonaill, the 390-line keening is one of the greatest love poems of the Irish language, one of its greatest laments, and one of the finest compositions to have survived from Irish oral literature.

Consisting of five parts, the Caoineadh recounts the heroic life of the handsome, feisty, Catholic O’Laoghaire, his persecution by Cork County’s Protestant sheriff Morris, and the dastardly ambush and murder of the dashing young Corkman. The entire story, including an account of the trial, acquittal, and commendation for gallantry of his murderers, can be read here. Dramatized by playwright Tom McIntyre, Caoineadh Airt Ui Laoghaire won Ireland’s Stewart Parker Trust Award for the best Irish debut stage play in 1999.

The memorial that is planned for my old pal Eddie will take place in his favorite watering hole, a haunt of the rich and famous on the Sunset Strip. Think: trendy LA-version of an Irish ‘local’ – a neighborhood pub where friends meet regularly to converse, laugh, commiserate, and raise a pint or two to times that are and times that were.

We who knew and loved Eddie will tell stories, laugh a lot, and maybe cry about our experiences with this larger than life guy. I will not keen to melody but I will likely quote the following few inspirational lines I still remember from a poem Eddie wrote entitled “Success” that he shared with me in the spring of 1969.

“The road to success has many a bend, and none of us know just how it will end. Some will settle for watching the clock, and they’ll get ahead as fast as a rock. Others will lose themselves in drink, but the booze will make them unable to think. A few will succumb to the lure of crime, and you know they’ll one day be serving time. I wish I could tell you how it should read, but I can’t, so keep pushing and you’ll surely succeed.” Sláinte!


(Note: Plenty of whiskey, poteen and stout were poured at a wake. This designer cocktail has no connection to the tradition except in name, but it’s tasty.)
2 ounces Irish whiskey
1 ounce Irish Mist 1 ounce Bailey’s Irish Cream
Shake with ice and strain into a snifter. Makes one serving.


2 3/4 cups mashed potato 1 cup flour 1/2 teaspoon salt 1 teaspoon baking power 1 tablespoon butter 1 cup oat flakes Bacon fat for frying Extra oatflakes Mix dry ingredients and cut in butter until mixture is grainy. Quickly mix in mashed potato (can be warm). Divide in two parts, and kneed 1/2 cup of oat flakes into each, and roll into two balls. Sprinkle extra oat flakes on a pastry cloth, place one ball of dough at a time on the pastry cloth and roll each one into a circle 1/4 inch thick. Divide each into farls or quarters. Heat griddle to smoking hot, grease with bacon fat, grill farls 2-3 minutes on each side until golden. As oats will brown darker than the farls, make sure they do not burn. Makes 8 farls. Serve with butter and a selection of Irish cheeses.

Recipes courtesy of Conrad Bladey, author of The Wake Which Knows No Sleeping (ISBN 0-9702386-4-9). Hutman Productions, PO Box 268, Linthicum Md. 21090. $16.88 including postage. ♦


One Response to “Slainte: The Irish Wake”

  1. Kathleen says:

    Would you know how late into the 20th c. Irish at-home wakes were still held in Chicago? My dad recalls his father’s in 1936 as being at the fag end of a tradition, but I believe that I went to an at-home wake of an elderly woman when I was very young—in, perhaps, 1949 or 1950. Is that possible? Thanks.

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