Watching Brief – Frank McNally on the great Irish wake

Before and after

When Michael Parkinson was buried last week, according to British newspapers, his small funeral was “followed by a wake held at the local pub”.

They were using the w-word loosely, no doubt. But the implied reversal of procedure normal on this side of the Irish Sea provoked a series of letters to the London Times, seeking to correct the record.

A man named Gerard Lynch wrote that he was “bewildered” to learn that a wake had been held after the funeral.

“That was a reception,” he insisted.


“A wake is gathering of family and friends, held around the open coffin before the funeral or cremation, to keep watch and honour the dead.”

This was seconded by one Jo Burden, who reminded readers that in Ireland, funerals traditionally happened within “48 hours” of death. The wake was the vigil in between.

For dramatic illustration, she evoked a tableau in the Doagh Famine Village Museum in Donegal, where a dead man lies in bed in a dark room, mirrors covered, with mourners kneeling in prayer: “A string tied to a toe of the corpse is connected to a bell, to alert those around him should he wake "

The English are a bit weird about death, as we know. But then again, they might say the same about us. And when I described the Irish wake (minus toe-bells) to a friend in Transylvania – a place I thought would be on our side of this cultural divide – recently, just the bit about the open coffin made her shudder.

So maybe it is us, after all. In any case, the English way of doing things is the small, private family funeral with coffin closed early, followed at some point by a public commemoration.

A nine-month wait between the two is typical. Then, with death at a safe distance, the official memorial service may be an exuberant affair. As Mary Kenny said of Terry Wogan’s, for the quality of women’s hats alone, it’s like a “day at the races”.

In Ireland, by contrast, the public commemoration starts within hours of decease and, even at the funeral Mass, the quality of your sympathy is more important than that of your clothes. For returning exiles, Irish funerals are surprisingly scruffy.

A good wake can be almost exhilarating, although there may be a downside to that too, postponing the bit where you have to grieve. When my mother died in 2011, we had a 48-hour festival of tea and sandwich-making (and a few very discreetly distributed alcoholic drinks).

It was a political event in part, thanks to my brother and late father, although she had been a civilian, who did all her constituency work from a prayer book.

The crowds were relentless. There were queues down the garden path at times. And it was fun, mostly. Then came the evening after the funeral, when our family gathered in the house again before gradually scattering to their own homes.

The place was mine suddenly, or soon would be – and I somehow expected visitors that night too.

But the house was officially empty now, for the first time in a century. Nobody came. Instead, the silence of the grave descended. It was like a wake of the wake.

A wake officially ends, I suppose, when the coffin is closed. It certainly doesn’t extend to events in the pub or restaurant afterwards, whatever reporters at Michael Parkinson’s funeral thought.

But there used to be a strange custom, in Ulster at least, that marked a more formal transition from wake to funeral.

Upon leaving the house then, the coffin was first rested on two chairs outside. And when it was lifted again, the chairs had to be knocked over – sometimes even violently kicked to the ground.

This was the subject of an article in Britain’s Folklore magazine a few years ago, itself based on oral research from the 1960s, which recorded memories of it happening in most Ulster counties.

Nobody was quite sure why it was done. In Antrim, they thought it was an extension of the wake’s protective logic, to “break contact with any spirit” that might be lurking mischievously around the deceased.

In Monaghan, where the chairs were left overturned until after the funeral, it was thought to guard against another death in the family soon after.

The custom was also recorded in Scotland, where the chairs were left lying until sunset. Then they had to be lifted and washed carefully. If any of this ritual were neglected, it was believed, the ghost of the departed might return.