Irish Wake 101

Irish Wake 101
Growing up, we tend to think that our life experiences are like everyone else's. Then we get to school, and start socializing. The Only Child hears what life is like in a large family. We hear unfamiliar names of food. We encounter disabilities, languages, musical variety. In a perfect world, everybody thinks this is all wonderful, and we celebrate our differences as we develop community.

It amazes me to still meet people who don't know what an Irish wake is. This was brought home when I lived in a rural Norwegian community on the Canadian border. The local paper carried a framed announcement on the obituary page that an Irish Wake would be held for one of the locals, recently deceased. Evidently I was the only Irishman many of the townfolk knew, and the phone in the church office rang off the hook. I explained a Wake. Since the man had no local family, the neighbors were being invited to step in.

"In a BAR?!" Well, yes. There was no family home in town. The nearest Irish enclave was 900 miles away in Chicago. So, the local pub was the most appropriate place.

So for those readers who still don't know, or who think it's myth, here's a Primer on Irish Wakes, as defined by Chicago's Southside Irish.

Western Europe has been historically Christian, holding to the tenet of a pleasant afterlife. The Bible, the sacred book of Christianity, has many references to it. Ideally, one lives a good life, so as not to jeopardize one's entrance to said heaven. Amidst the sadness of death, there is comfort in the knowledge that the deceased is now in a better place. It's a good thing for them, hard for us. Today, a funeral is more often referred to as a Celebration of Life, and this truly captures the essence of the event.

When a Non Irish person (NI) drives through an Irish neighborhood, one may observe a home with cars parked in every available space, including yard and alley. People are seen milling about the house, garage and yard, refreshments in hand. Lively, odd music and loud voices eminate from the residence. The NI might think "Ah, someone is having a party", and drive on.

An Irish Person (Mick, but it's strongly recommended an NI not use that term) may drive by the same house, and have a very different assessment. Since people are wearing their 'every day' clothes (not their Sunday best) it's not a First Communion, Ordination or wedding. The music comes from instruments not likely found in a garage band, some of which sound like a cat's tail caught under a rocker. The loud voices are recognized as a discussion of the Chicago White Sox, the Boston Red Sox, or Notre Dame football, regardless of the geographic location of the house.

Having recognized a wake in progress, not necessarily knowing the family, the Mick will find a place to park. Rosary beads, blessed either in Rome or Lourdes, are removed from a pouch in the glove box. The Mick will enter the house without knocking (it's okay, there are at least a dozen related police officers watching the doors). Protocol dictates introducing one's self immediately to the lady of the house. So the question is posed to the first person met:"Where is Herself?"

The Mick will then be directed to where The Woman of the House (probably called Sis) is holding court, and will get in line. A hand is extended to her, as the Mick says "I'm from Saint (enter name of Catholic parish here), and was passing by. I'm sorry for your trouble. I'd like to pay my respects. Will there be a Rosary?"

There will be. Every time a related nun or priest comes in, word goes out. Activity in the house stops, and all jam close together, taking Rosaries from pockets, to recite the designated prayers at the speed of light. Unless an NI knew the words, you'd never get them from hearing them like this.

But until the Rosary is said, after meeting Herself, a relative will take the Mick to meet the relative that attends the same parish. That person will offer refreshment, because not to do so reflects poorly on the family (see John 2.1-10 in the Bible). A short survey will be taken of the Mick's sports and political leanings. Within moments, the Mick will be drawn into a conversation on one of those topics.

If an Irish person does know the deceased, the viewing is attended. In American culture, people are not laid out in the home, so friends and family gather at an Irish owned funeral home. All of the elements detailed above are present here, with the possible addition of keening - wailing and moaning sounds made to honor the dead. Since the family will be busy receiving guests at this time, professional keeners are often enlisted. The louder they are, and the longer they can keep it up, the more they get hired.

All of this together scares and horrifies any NI family holding a viewing in the same building. The Irish are a raucous people, behavior usually attributed to the ever present refreshments, but not always the case. We can get just as rowdy over ginger ale.

This treatment of death is the Irish way of giving a good send-off. The volume of people and noise relates directly to how much the deceased was loved. To sit quietly is disrespectful.

"The neighbors didn't sleep for three days, for all the carryings on. And the funeral procession blocked traffic for miles," says the Mick.

"Oh, thank you. God bless you," says Herself.

Western European and African cultures are the only ones known to treat a person's demise in this manner.


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