Lifting the lid on Irish wakes


In the days when wakes went on for several days, things could get a bit boring without a few practical jokes or a fun game of ‘lifting the corpse’, writes BRIAN O'CONNELL.

EVER BEEN TO a funeral where wrestling matches took place beside the recently deceased? Or how about tests of strength that involved “lifting the corpse”, games where the body was stolen or tampered with, to card playing?

A new exhibition which has opened in UCC’s Lewis Glucksman Gallery attempts to lift the lid on Ireland’s age-old burial practices, with descriptions exposing the grim realities of 1,000 years of merry wakes and funeral rituals.

Entitled Grin & Bear It, the exhibition is a collaboration between the Lewis Glucksman Gallery and the National Folklore Commission, who have been collecting descriptions of “wake games” for the past century.

Many of these burial rites continued until the later half of the 20th century, until dying out in Ireland. But it is likely that “wake games” could once again attract popular appeal with an increase in home wakes.

According to Ríonach Uí Ógáin, director of the National Folklore Collection in UCD, wake games were predominantly a rural phenomenon and existed in Ireland up until the 1950s.

“There were different types of games, from card playing to riddles and tongue twisters, to things like contests of strength, horseplay and rough games. They were also organised fights at wakes, catch and hide and seek, and guessing games. And they were all played while the body lay in the person’s home.”

Uí Ógáin says the whole notion or function of wake games might be contradictory to us in modern times, when protocol determines a certain level of social sternness.

“We’re not inclined to have games at a wake when the corpse is there. But I suppose part of it is that the wakes would have gone on for a number of days and people were looking for ways to occupy themselves and to stay awake.”

WHEN THE NATIONAL Folklore Collection began putting together customs and beliefs in the early part of the last century, part of their focus was on birth, marriage and death rites. Some of those interviewed from the 1930s onwards had direct personal memories of wake games taking place (see panel).

It is believed that the Irish had been amusing themselves at burials for the best part of a millennium, although such customs were not uniquely Irish and also took place in many other European countries. Perhaps, though, the point is there’s no other country able to celebrate the grim reality of death quite like the Irish.

“The belief was that the corpse shouldn’t be left alone, and so there was a constant stream of visitors coming and going,” explains Uí Ógáin. “Therefore a game would be taking place in different parts of the house or room, with prayers such as the rosary being recited, usually in the room with the corpse.”

In one description, a game called “lifting the corpse” involved a stout man lying on the floor and attempting to lift a body representative of the corpse.

Other games involved feats of dexterity or searches for items hidden in the dark. “While we hear that wakes are making a comeback,” says Uí Ógáin, “it’s more to do with lighted candles and prayers. I’m not sure the wrestling and the rest of the amusements have yet to make such a comeback!”

Keith Massey, a funeral director with Rom Massey and Sons undertakers in Dublin, confirms there has been a resurgence in wakes in people’s homes in the last decade.

“Wakes at home have always been there. Out of every 20 funerals 10 years ago, two would have been at home, 10 in the funeral parlour and perhaps eight held in the hospital mortuary. In the last few years, that ratio has gone to four or five out of every 20 funerals now being held at home.”

The reasons for a return towards burials in the home are a desire for a more personalised service, combined with modern embalming techniques which allow the body to be preserved for longer, he says.

Massey says a wake takes away the mystery of death. “With modern techniques the body will be fine for several days, and you can leave the heat on and it won’t have an impact. I think with a wake at home the whole family can get accustomed to the body and there is not as much drama.

“I often went to a house where children were playing hide and seek around a coffin. The presence of the body had become natural, and it helps people accept death.”

MORE HOME WAKES bring with them logistical problems, which may not have existed in previous decades. “Not every home can take a wake,” says Massey. “If you live in a flat on the sixth floor of an apartment block, it’s not easy bringing a coffin up so many stairs and some lifts aren’t big enough. It’s very awkward, although we have had them. It depends a lot on how long and deep the lift is. The coffin can be brought up the flights of stairs, but if there are others in the apartment block, it’s not nice to look at.”

Many people will now choose to divide their time between the funeral home and the home, and make arrangements for the corpse to spend a night or part of the day in each.

Despite the greater appetite for home wakes, Massey says it’s unlikely wake games and amusements will begin reappearing at funerals.

“The idea of wake games doesn’t come into it as much nowadays. They were into them years ago when people were up all night for a few days. They would have been a feature of rural life though certainly. Most rural bars had a wake room, which was like a lounge area, where the coffin was kept. People used to go in and have a few jars and stay half the night and then the carry-on would start. In terms of tradition though, things like covering mirrors, stopping clocks and having games at the wake, in my view, all went out with the Indians.”

Played to rest: "Twas more like a wedding than a wake with all the fun"

A descriptions of a wake game taken from the National Folklore Collection:

“I remember to be at a wake in Enniskean one night, an’ such a wake as that was. Twas more like a wedding than a ‘wake’ with all the fun that was there. We laughed enough at an old fellow that rambled in late in the night: he couldn’t find any ‘sate’ to ‘set’ on, so he went off an’ stretched on top o’ the coop.

“He wasn’t long stretched when he was sound asleep for himself. The ‘fine boys’ were watching him to play some tricks on him. An’ what did they do only tie him to the coop with cords. The poor fellow was snoring away ‘til coming on morning. He woke up an’ tried to turn himself, but finding himself tied he got a fright for he didn’t know where he was after waking out of his sleep. He made one leap to come off the coop, an’ brought coop and himself down about the house. There was noise then though.

“Hens were flying about an’ cackling an’ the fellow under the coop, roaring to take it off him. There wasn’t wan in the house could go near him with laughing. He cracked the cords, struggling, an’ it was some time before the hens were settled down again.

“The same night, there was another old man fell asleep near the fire. He was stretched on the flat of his back on a bundle of straw. He had a fine big whisker. The ‘fine boys’ were planning some trick to play on him.

“What did they do, but get a razor, soap and water an’ shave him while he was asleep. The old man woke up, he didn’t take any notice of the laughing around him. He struck off for home, coming on morning but the lads followed him to see would he frighten his wife.”

Collected in 1937-8 by Diarmuid Ó Cruadhlaoich from William Stanley, railway porter, in Cappa, Bandon, Co Cork.

Grin & Bear Itruns at the Lewis Glucksman Gallery, University College Cork, until July 5.