How we Irish remember our dead: November traditions

via Wikimedia Commons

This article appeared in the North Clare Local this November.

November is a much-maligned month. It is many people’s least favourite time of the year (for me, this is January without contest). In recent years it has become almost completely overwhelmed by pre-Christmas build-up. And then there is its traditional association with death.

After the ghoulish delights of Hallowe’en, November opens with much more solemn reflections on death, All Saints’ Day (November 1) and All Souls’ Day (November 2). The first honours all saints, known and unknown. The second commemorates the faithful departed. There are many traditions associated with the month. One common practice involves reading the names of all those who died during the previous year at Mass.

The Irish Catholic tradition deals with death in quite a matter-of-fact way. Every radio station in Ireland notices a spike in listenership for the death notices. Long ago, the Irish were famous for wakes. The traditional wake was a merry celebration of the deceased’s life, where copious amounts of snuff and alcohol were taken, songs were sung and games were played. The church disapproved of such indignity at a solemn time, and the old-style wake has largely been replaced with a more sombre ritual. Today, members of the immediate family will sit up with the body if it reposes at home, but the games and thrills are gone. Funeral homes are increasingly used, although in remoter parts it is more common to wake the deceased at home.

No Irish funeral in the 19th century was complete with a keening woman or two. These ladies followed funerals around the locality and sat, keening, at the coffin. The word “keening” came from the Irish verb “ag caoineadh” meaning crying. This was exactly what they did, whether they knew the dead person or not (although they do sound like the type of women who knew everyone’s business).

Accepting though the Irish might be of death, this extends largely to the death of other people. There are a large number of superstitions concerning death omens, and more to ensure  that the deceased gets a safe passage to the next world.

The most common one in the latter category is the practice, which still survives, of stopping all the clocks in the house at the moment of death. This is an ancient and seemingly universal practice, and its origins are unclear. Some believe it comes from a time when it was more common to die at home; the doctor would know the exact time of death when he arrived. Others believe it was to give the family space to mourn, that they wouldn’t have to worry about how much time was passing. Another belief holds that it is to assist the departed spirit to move on; if they saw that time wasn’t passing, they would realise that they were dead.

Another belief which assists the soul of the deceased on its way is the practice of turning mirrors and pictures to the wall. It was believed that souls could become trapped in reflective surfaces, and later on haunt the home. These beliefs became entrenched in Victorian times, when people took a rather unhealthy interest in death. All black really meant all black, as ladies even carried black handkerchiefs to funerals.

Our ancestors strongly believed that you could foretell death. Hearing three knocks on the door (with nobody there) was an omen of death in the family, as well as the cry of the famous banshee. The entry of a bird into the house, especially a robin, was another bad omen. However, if there had been a recent bereavement, a visit by an animal, bird or butterfly to a home was seen as the deceased’s way of saying goodbye.

Falling in graveyard was extremely bad luck. It may mean that you will die within a year, or alternatively, you may be buried in the spot you fell.

In the west of Ireland, especially Connemara, people believed that the dead had their own society in the afterlife. The newly dead had to serve an apprenticeship, fetching and carrying for the more senior members. They also believed that the voices of the dead can be heard at night, laughing with the fairies. However, after a year and a day, each individual’s soul was silenced as they moved onto the next world.

There were also superstitions surrounding the funeral itself. Rain during a funeral procession was a good sign as it meant that the heavens were mourning the deceased. If you heard thunder after a funeral, it was the sound of the dead person arriving in heaven.

In many parts of the country, it is still customary for businesses and homes to close their doors and turn off their lights as a funeral passes. Modern as we may be in twenty-first century Ireland, we still respect our dead.

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