What is an Irish Wake? Undiscovered History and Customs of an Ancient Mourning Tradition

What is an Irish Wake? Find out more about a communal celebration and consolation that is full of ancient tradition.In this article, we will look at the history and customs of the Irish Wake, and what to expect if you’re hosting or attending your own Irish Wake.

An Irish Wake is a tradition of “waking the dead”, stemming from folktales of people mourning over their dead, and the deceased waking up. It is unclear what the origins of an Irish Wake are, but it is believed the Wake draws on various sources such as paganism, Christianity, and Jewish traditions.

What is an Irish Wake?

An Irish Wake allows the family of the deceased to properly mourn in the company of extended family, neighbors, and friends. It also ensures that the deceased have their rites fulfilled, and gives them a chance to wake up before being taken to the church for burial.

What is the History of the Irish Wake?

Historians are unsure of the true origins of the Irish Wake, believing it to be from one of three origins: paganism roots, the Jewish traditions of leaving the burial chamber open, or lead poisoning in pewter tanks.

Paganism played a heavy role in traditional Irish views, being incorporated into much of the rituals of the Irish Wake which the Church disliked.

There is also the possibility that the Wake tradition originated from ancient Jewish customs of keeping the sepulcher, or burial chamber, open for three days before sealing it. This ensured the body was truly passed away.

The last possibility, unlikely in its origins, is lead poisoning from the pewter tanks which held beer or other alcoholic brews. Due to the high level of lead in the pewter mugs, fervent drinkers would fall into an unconscious state that resembled death, waking up hours or days later.

What are the First Steps in an Irish Wake?

Referring to CleticLifeIntl, the priest is called to recite prayers over the dead and anoint them with Holy Oils. Then, the body is placed in a viewing room, usually somewhere in the deceased’s home, washed, and dressed in a linen shroud. A window would also be opened.

Why is a Window Opened During an Irish Wake?

The window is opened immediately after a person dies to allow the soul to leave and make its way to Heaven. It is considered a misfortune and a bad deed to block the window at any time, as this might block the soul on its way out. After two or three hours, the window is closed again.

What are Some of the Customs for the Deceased During an Irish Wake?

The undertaker is called to make a coffin for the deceased. Candles are placed at the head and foot of the coffin, and the deceased is placed in the coffin and is never left alone the entire Wake. Curtains are drawn shut, clocks are stopped at the hour of death, and a sheet is also drawn over all mirrors as a sign of respect.

What is Keening at an Irish Wake?

Keening, usually done by the women of the immediate family, includes sobbing, wailing, and reciting prayers and poetry. 

What Would Happen at an Irish Wake After Preparations and Keening?

Invitations would be sent out to nearby family and neighbors, and the entire community would gather at the house, and the merriment and shared sorrow would begin. Everyone would come to view the body, eat, drink, and share stories that celebrated the life of the deceased.

What to wear to an Irish Wake?

It is custom to wear black to a Wake, and since these are multi-day affairs, you would wear black to the home wake, the funeral burial, and Mass. It is important, especially at Mass, to dress conservatively.

What to Bring to an Irish Wake?

Neighbors and extended family would traditionally bring small things from their homes, such as homemade cakes or buns. If they’re close to the family of the deceased, they may help with hosting, such as preparing food, drinks, and minding children.

What would be Served at an Irish Wake?

The family of the deceased would offer every person in the room a plate of snuff and a pipe full of tobacco. This was necessary as it was believed the smoke would ward off evil spirits. They would also offer tea, sandwiches, and beer. Stronger drinks, such as whiskey, would be offered later in the evening.

What Happens When a Neighbor or Extended Family Enters the Home During an Irish Wake?

According to IrishUrns, they are typically greeted by a member of the deceased’s family and led to where the body is. At this time it’s appropriate to offer condolences and view the body, perhaps recite a prayer or a poem over the deceased, and then step to the side so other mourners can have a chance to pay their respects.

They can then sit in a chair and talk with the company present, will likely be offered food, drink, or a pipe, and can stay anywhere from 10 minutes to several hours depending on how well they know the family.

What Kind of Activities Would be Included at an Irish Wake?

The activities of the night would revolve heavily on storytelling, everyone sharing stories about the deceased. Everyone would also be gathering to console the deceased’s family. Late in the night, games, music, and dancing would help pass the time.

When Would the Mourners Sleep During an Irish Wake?

The body would never be left alone, so close relatives or family friends would take over for the deceased’s family to let them sleep.

What Would Happen in the Morning After an Irish Wake?

The body would be received by the priest at the Church, where more prayers would be recited. On the next morning after, the deceased would have a formal funeral, with Mass being celebrated for the repose of the deceased’s soul.

After the funeral, the funeral party would retire to a pub or home, where the merriment would continue.

Conclusion

An Irish Wake marries both the grief at losing someone you love and the joy of enjoying others’ company while sharing tales of the deceased. The customs and traditions behind an Irish Wake can be confusing at first glance, but with a little knowledge, you will come to find that this ancient mourning tradition is very human at the heart—and that’s what matters.