What Irish novels can teach us about death

In novels such as James Joyce’s Ulysses the deathbed is also a place of birth and new life

“Death,” Walter Benjamin writes, “is the sanction of everything that the storyteller can tell. He has borrowed his authority from death.” Given Ireland’s famous association with storytelling, it is not surprising that the story of modern Ireland is punctuated by tales of death and dying, haunted by the voices of the dead.

Like other modern Western cultures Irish attitudes towards death and dying have been challenged by the decline of the communal belief systems provided by religious or ancient myths, but Ireland makes a particularly interesting study as Irish attitudes toward death and dying are shaped by a cultural and literary experience that includes Roman Catholicism, the Famine years and the rhetoric of self-sacrifice and martyrdom that characterised its struggle for independence.

If death is the limit of human life, but also the beginning of the story, how then might the fictional narratives offered by Irish novels about death and dying illuminate our understanding of Irish culture in ways that other forms cannot?

The authority granted by death, according to Benjamin, can be attributed to the transmissibility a human life gains at its end, hence the significance of the literary deathbed scene. In Irish novels like James Joyce’s Ulysses the deathbed is not simply a place of ending but of birth and new life. Thus the novel, in its portrayal of a protagonist’s life from birth to death, imposes a structure on human existence and endows it with a meaning not otherwise comprehensible.


Human life

A reader is drawn to a novel not only in the hope of “warming his shivering life with a death he reads about” as Benjamin would have it, but also in order to view human life in its entirety. Far more than simply offering a retrospective of a person’s life, novels offer an imaginative space of contact between the living and the dead, exposing old truths and generating new possibilities.

The novel is thus a fascinating medium through which to rethink changing conceptions of death in Irish culture, since the form often tries to reconcile or mediate the social structures of feeling that shape how we think about the end of life. By its very nature, death poses exceptionally acute problems for the meaning of existence, which is equally true for religious and secular societies. The novel tries to give structure and meaning to human life, and therefore it must by definition incorporate some attitude toward the meaning of life or death, even when these matters are not specifically engaged as primary plot points.

In the Irish case, matters are complicated by the fact that 19th-century Ireland experienced particularly traumatic encounters with death. The Great Famine, which resulted in the death and emigration of millions, is the starkest example. The inability of the weakened Famine victims to bury or attend to their dead undoubtedly impacted conceptions of death and dying, particularly in terms of the living dead, the undead, and increasing anxieties surrounding improper burial. This single episode left a lasting legacy that many cultural historians find continued to affect Irish society well into the 20th century. The nature of this legacy was most obviously discernible in Irish attitudes toward the exceptionally high rate of emigration that followed for decades after the Famine. These departures were marked by “American wakes” that construed emigration as a kind of social death. Such wakes continued even after the availability of air travel, indicating how strongly the wake persisted as a mode for negotiating death and departure.

One need not look very far for evidence of the enduring influence of the Irish wake in both Irish and American culture. The notion of the Irish wake as magical or fantastical is a trope that Joan Didion uses in her memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, which describes her grief following the sudden death of her husband. Didion details the medical facts of her husband’s demise but realizes that these statistics will not help her to accept his death because her grief exceeds rational thinking: “Had I been operating in my rational mind I would not have been entertaining fantasies that would not have been out of place at an Irish wake.”

Imaginative possibilities

Here Didion contrasts the rational world of medicine with the irrationality of her own grief. She can find no relief from sorrow in the facts of her husband’s death, but the idea of an Irish wake allows her to entertain fantasies of her husband’s return. Such examples suggest that even as modern medicine attempts to regulate and control death, it still occurs unexpectedly and without reason, leaving those individuals left behind with few ways of making sense of the loss. The Irish wake therefore offers the bereaved imaginative possibilities often denied by Western culture, creating a zone of contact in which living and dead, religious and secular coexist.

Part of the wide-ranging appeal of the Irish wake is its perceived wild celebration of life. Yet, despite popular portrayals as a raucous drunken party, the purpose of the Irish wake was also to foster an acceptance of mortality and to restore the social bonds that had been fractured by death. Perhaps most importantly, the wake represents a point of contact with the deceased during which time it is possible for the dead to return and mingle with the living.

Irish novels such as James Joyce’s Ulysses, Kate O’Brien’s The Ante-Room, Samuel Beckett’s Malone Dies, John McGahern’s The Barracks and Anne Enright’s The Gathering, despite their differences in styles and treatments of death, employ these ideas of liminality and exchange with the dead that characterise the traditional Irish wake. These novels allow us to think about the different ways in which the Irish novel has engaged with ideas of death and dying and to get some sense of how novelistic modes of narrating death have changed over the course of the past century.

The Irish novel has long been wrestling with the meaning of death and dying in a world where religious and secular conceptions of the nature of existence and the end of life have uneasily coexisted and mutually interrogated each other for a long time. As such, the topic of death and dying in the Irish novel is not only worthy of study but can also contribute to a much deeper understanding of larger cultural shifts. Novels such as Ulysses, Malone Dies or The Gathering do not provide answers to the meaning of life or death in Ireland, but how they narrate the end reveals something of the ways that humans conceive of mortality. In order to understand how we live, these novels suggest, we must first come to terms with how we die.
This article incorporates an adapted extract of Bridget English's Laying Out the Bones: Death and Dying in the Modern Irish Novel (Syracuse University Press)