With more than 10% of U.S. residents claiming Irish ancestry, it’s no wonder that leprechauns, shamrocks, and Irish whiskey are commonly recognized cultural icons. While the “luck of the Irish” is a popular (if stereotypical) view of Irish life, the Irish wake is another well-known, end-of-life tradition from the Emerald Isle.
What is an Irish Wake?
Societies around the world all have distinct beliefs and practices when it comes to mourning their departed loved ones. In Ireland, a traditional Irish wake involves laying the body of the departed in the family home for a few days while family, friends, neighbors, acquaintances, and the community at-large would visit to pay their respects and offer support to the family.
The mood at the wakes would be a mix of somber reflections of grief intermingled with happy laughter from shared memories. Sandwiches are served to the visitors, along with tea, beer, and whiskey. Certain rituals are often practiced, e.g., placing candles around the body, reciting the Rosary, and keening (the practice of wailing women who mourn the dead). In some homes, clocks were stopped at the time of death and mirrors covered up or turned over.
The old ways of the traditional Irish wake have been passed down through the generations and still feature in some modern-day, Irish-American funeral services. An Irish-American memorial wake is a celebration of life event held after the funeral service and burial. Funeral celebrants often help to plan memorial wakes using creative ideas that mirror the old Celtic ways. The family of the departed can host the memorial in their home, in a pub or restaurant, or another facility. Guests are invited to attend and socialize with the family and the atmosphere is generally festive.
Playing the Bagpipes
Bagpipes are commonly featured in traditional Irish and Scottish ceremonies such as weddings, parades, dances, and funerals. In the US, bagpipes are often played at the funerals of police and firefighters especially in East Coast cities like Boston, New York, and Philadelphia.
This custom came to America with the great Irish migration in the 17th – mid-19th century. Many Irish migrants faced discrimination in their newly adopted home, and could only find employment in police and fire departments because these were considered dangerous jobs that nobody else wanted. When the Irish workers died on the job, the bagpipes were played at the funerals as a tribute to their ancestral heritage and as a sign of respect for the fallen heroes. Playing the bagpipes has continued on throughout the years and the tradition has also been adopted by other cultural groups.
In old-world, Irish funerals, the departed were laid to rest in the grave and soil would be shoveled over the coffin as the final goodbye. Some Irish-Americans still maintain this tradition by having native Irish dirt sprinkled on graves in recognition of their Irish roots. Aifric O'Byrne, co-founder of Handful of Home, understands this desire to connect to the ancestral land and is one of the reasons she started importing Irish soil to the US. “What we wanted to do is help Irish Americans celebrate their cultural heritage at some of the most important moments of their lives,” said O’Byrne.
Whether it’s an Irish wake, a bagpipe tune, or a piece of the “auld sod”, the authenticity of Irish funeral traditions will certainly continue to be a significant part of Irish-American end-of-life customs.
Happy St. Patrick's Day.
Christine Gatuiria is a freelance writer and the Founder of Funeral Creative.