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The Irish Wake: Its Origins and Traditions

The Irish Wake: Its Origins and Traditions

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An essay for the 2011 Undergraduate Awards Competition by Avril Crotty. Originally submitted for Irish Folk Studies and Traditions at Cork Institute of Technology, with lecturer Johnny McCarthy in the category of Celtic & Irish Studies
An essay for the 2011 Undergraduate Awards Competition by Avril Crotty. Originally submitted for Irish Folk Studies and Traditions at Cork Institute of Technology, with lecturer Johnny McCarthy in the category of Celtic & Irish Studies

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Published by: Undergraduate Awards on Aug 29, 2012
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10/27/2013

 
The Irish Wake:Its Origins and Traditions
 
Introduction
As a young Irish adult living in today’s society, it is fair to say that Ihave seen and been to many removals in my lifetime. Some of people I have known well, others mere acquaintances. These havealways been very solemn and often upsetting occasions and in myopinion, mark death’s finality. They are occasions that areoverlooked by whichever religion the deceased was a part of but asan Irish citizen I have only been present at ones overseen by theCatholic Church.Needless to say, I often found that removals were such depressingaffairs that when my own grandmother passed away, I was notlooking forward to that experience. Therefore, imagine my surprisewhen, shortly after the day my grandmother passed away, I wasinformed that we would be having a wake for her. I was not toofamiliar with this term so when I asked my mother about it she toldme that it would be a rosary for my grandmother. This made moresense to me as it tied in with the other two events, the removal andthe funeral, each an event overseen by the Church. And as mygrandmother’s house began to fill with children and grandchildren,cousins, aunts and uncles, we all gathered around her bed, bowedour heads and prayed solemnly. This solemn atmosphere lasted foronly thirty minutes after the priest had left the house, then someonediscovered the guitar, a bottle of whiskey was opened and whatbegan was one of the strangest parties (or sessions, for that’s whatit was too) I have ever been a part of. And after asking one of myolder aunts, whether such carry-on was appropriate, she replied,you have clearly never been to a wake before!Clearly I haven’t.So I was glad of the opportunity to go and discover what exactlydefines a wake and why is it that the Irish wake has become knownaround the world and remains so popular today. What follows is, Ihope, a good understanding of this unique tradition us Irish havekept alive over centuries and have bestowed unto the world.
 
The Wake
 The Oxford Dictionary defines a wake as
“a watch, or vigil by the body of a dead person , sometimesaccompanied by ritual observances” 
1
 This makes it clear that the wake has been around for many a year,if not century. But where does it come from? The word “wake” evolved from the Indo-European root “wog” or“weg” which literally meant “to be active”, or in other words, to beawake. And like many of our customs and beliefs, the wake camefrom the ideas, customs and beliefs of our ancestors. This is how alot of the traditions that are still in use today came about as many of them were invented as a way of safeguarding human life andinterests and became a way of explaining the unknown in a societythat was primal in all its features. And one of the biggest unknownsthat our ancestors had to deal with was death and what happenedwhen we died. The first attitude in early human society when someone died wasthat of pity. They felt pity for the family, for the friends, a feelingthat many of us may still bestow on those who die today. But what Ifound strange was that they also felt pity that the property was leftbehind. They could not understand why the deceased could notbring all of their possessions with them when they passed on.However, this sense of pity soon turned into a sense of fear, fear of the dead returning should someone take either their possessions, orin particular their property and taking their revenge. Thus, the wakewas invented. It was a chance for the living to show goodwill to thedeceased and to sympathize with him/her and their misfortune andit was hoped that this would placate any hatred the deceased mayhave towards the living. They hoped to do this by throwing a goodsend-off party and having a good farewell in the deceased person’s
1
http://oxforddictionaries.com/definition/wake?rskey=OkS1mb&result=1#m_en_gb0935660, Oxford Dictionary,Definition of a Wake, accessed on 28
th
December 2010

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