Bás in Éirinn: May You Die in Ireland
This week, Anna Walsh (Institute of Irish Studies, Liverpool) discusses how Irish literature and funerary customs suggest a society obsessed with death.
Leeds’ Irish migrant population is ageing. The last substantial wave of chain migration to the city from Ireland took place in the latter half of the twentieth century, and most of these migrants are now of retirement age. Interviews with these migrants reflect the stage they have reached in their lives: the interviews have very much been a reflective evaluative process, looking back at their lives and the events that have shaped them. What has also become apparent is their awareness of the proximity of death; they have mostly all lost parents and other loved ones, and are now dealing with the loss of friends and peers and sometimes even children, and their own chronic and sometimes terminal illnesses.
In their study of Irish funerary traditions, Talking to the Dead, Witoszek and Sheeran develop a hypothesis that Ireland, particularly its pre-Celtic Tiger version before the 1990s, had cultivated a cultural mythology, building on a colonial victim status, whereby death – and particularly a valiant death – was seen as a triumph.
Witoszek and Sheeran problematize the postcolonial Field Day approach to Irish identity which they suggest overestimates the role of Anglo-Irishness in creating/ reimagining cultural traditions, and propose an alternative view:
‘The discourse that really galvanised the nation was based not so much on Revivalist fictions, and not even on Republican rhetorics, but… on vernacular narratives of death’[i]
Death is an integral part of how the Irish talk about life. It infiltrates its fiction – even if not just the event, the waiting for it. It dominates conversations – between older Irish people, and in their conversations with their children – it is commonly mentioned in stand-up comedy the extent to which Irish parents delight in telling you about the latest deaths in the community. Such a level of cultural and social engagement explains the commonality of death notices on the radio, which are still a key feature of Irish local radio stations. Material cultures around death in Ireland are significant too, many relate to elements of religion, such as religious ephemera on gravestones or placed on graves.
As the comedian Dave Allen famously explained to an English audience, “The terrible thing about dying over there is that you miss your own wake. It’s the best day of your life. You’ve paid for everything and you can’t join in.” Indeed some of the traditional practices around death in Ireland, such as waking the dead, have recently had a resurgence. Sordid accounts of Irish wakes in England at the turn of the twentieth century include fights breaking out, and one refers to an unfortunate corpse being set alight by a discarded cigarette. Julie-Marie Strange cautions, however, that these accounts should be taken with a pinch of salt as: ‘It is difficult to read reports of the wake, formulated overwhelmingly from the English Protestant professional perspective, as anything but an exercise in prejudice against the poor Catholic Irish’.[ii] Public health officials did discourage wakes in order to lessen the risk of infectious disease, but they were also dissuaded by local officials and the Catholic Church as they were seen as raucous and superstitious events which perpetuated the stereotype of the Irish immigrant.
Death is not solely a contemporary obsession. Irish folklore contains many myths around death and dying. There were some interesting folk beliefs from the 19th century: Galway fishermen would say that a blast of air from the sea was a sign of a drowning somewhere, while up in Connemara, a dog’s howl outside could presage the death of a loved one, depending on the direction the dog was facing.[iii] In Mayo, extension-building could not take place on the west side of a cottage lest one of its occupants be dead within the year.[iv] One of the most famous of these death myths involves the bean-sighe, an apparition of a woman who appears at the house as a harbinger of death, not unlike the grim reaper. The banshee is one of the most frightening of the folk tales, and this is shown to good effect in a film full of well-worn Irish stereotypes, Darby McGill and the Little People, where the banshee’s appearance has now terrified generations of children in Ireland and in America.
An interviewee whose ideas on the end of life process are enlightening is Gerald, who has had a chaotic life. He referred consistently to the role of fate, suggesting that he had always been destined for an itinerant existence, and that he had acquiesced to this fate at quite an early age.
Gerald’s ideas on the subject of death show a lot about what he deems important. He said:
I’m a controlled drinker now. I manage to keep clean and pay my rent, and keep my head above the water. I’m no longer destitute. I’ve saved some money for a funeral and a burial plot – there’s a story of the alcoholic who could not afford a funeral – I’ll make sure that doesn’t happen to me. I won’t have a pauper’s grave.
Gerald has struggled financially, and to conform to what he suggested was the mainstream’ white shirt’ mentality of Irish migrants in Leeds. However, there is a curious performativity in his attitude to death and his desire to be recognised and buried in the same way as his compatriots who had shunned him in his life. His wish to avoid a pauper funeral, Laqueur suggests, is because it condemns the dead to ‘dying bereft of the final signs of communal membership.’[v] This illustrates the importance of death rituals, a ‘proper send-off’ and a type of respectability to migrants regardless of social status.
Unlike others, Gerald’s memories were an unvarnished and sometimes brutal appraisal of his past behaviour. There was no evidence of the prestige-enhancing shift seen with others who had come to believe that their ideas and values had always placed them on the right side of history, when contemporary evidence may have suggested otherwise.
Irish literature and funerary customs suggest a country and a people who are not just at ease with death but obsessed by it. However, a look at the ways in which Irish migrants talk about death, as well as surveys on public attitudes such as those conducted by Weafer, who suggests that 44% of a representative sample of Irish people surveyed were uncomfortable talking about death – and only 6% think they talk about death too much – suggests that this does not mean they find the grief, or the use of emotional language around death, any easier.[vi] Death customs are certainly different from the UK in Ireland, from the short time between the death and the funeral to the community elements of funerals and the re-emergence of wakes. However, elements of these wakes and funerary traditions, for example the open coffin, are effectively re-imaginings of old ways – particularly for those who died in hospital or who were put in chapels of rest, where the body would be kept in cold storage. Mary Kenny suggests the Irish approach to death is comforting as it means Irish people can talk more openly about it; indeed it is a favourite topic not just for Irish writers, but for many older Irish people, regardless of where they live now.[vii]
I discussed Irish literature with Gerald, and he had little time for many of the writers of the Irish canon, saying Joyce was ‘miserable and spent twenty years staring at a wall writing about nothing’. His response to Beckett’s existentialist death opus ‘Waiting for Godot – he never turns up, does he?’ illustrates perfectly the trope of the older Irish person scanning the death notices and attending increasing numbers of funerals, waiting for an omen from the Connemara dog, or the banshee, or Godot himself.
[i] Sheeran, N. W. P. F. (1998). Talking to the Dead: A Study of Irish Funerary Traditions Amsterdam, Rodopi.
[ii] Strange, J.-M. (2005). Death, Grief and Poverty in Britain, 1870–1914. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
[iii] Mooney, J. (1888). “The Funeral Customs of Ireland.” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 25(128): 243-296.
[iv] Evans, E. E. (1967). Irish Folk Ways. London, Routledge.
[v] Laqueur, T. (2015). A Cultural History of Mortal Remains. Princeton, Princeton University Press.
[vi] Weafer, J. ‘Irish attitudes to death, dying and bereavement 2004-2014’, Irish Hospice Foundation.
[vii] Kenny, M. (2014). The rest of the world can learn from Irish funeral traditions. Irish Independent. Dublin, Independent Newspapers.
Anna Walsh is studying for a PhD about twentieth century Irish migration to Yorkshire in the Institute of Irish Studies at the University of Liverpool, having previously studied at the University of Leeds. Her research interests include migration, folklore, oral history and material culture. She is on Twitter as @annaannawalsh