An uneasy history: Irish Catholicism and the Irish wake

The practice of the wake, and especially the drinking and revelry that often accompanied it, were part of an old tradition that the Church tried for several centuries to suppress.

An Irish wake depicted in a stereoscopic photograph titled "Mickie O'Hoolihan's Wake". (Copyright 1894 by Stromeyer & Wyman, published by Underwood & Underwood, Washington D.C. | Wikipedia)

March is the cruelest month, at least for an Irish Catholic. Every March, the irresistible force of Lent meets the immovable object of March 17th, St. Patrick’s Day. The traditions of fasting and feasting face off in mortal combat. Tortured souls appeal to bishops to avoid having to make a tragic choice; the deus ex machina invariably arrives in the form of a special dispensation. The Irish may argue that this could all be avoided if the Church simply proclaimed St. Patrick’s Day a solemnity, but the Italians beat them to the punch with the Feast of St. Joseph on the 19th. Wounded pride notwithstanding, everybody wins and most American Catholics end with two party days in the middle of a season of penance.

Over the centuries, such liturgical sleight-of-hand has invited criticisms from rigorists both within and outside the Church. No doubt there is some merit in these criticisms, though no doubt most of us prefer mercy to justice. Still, this season of guilty celebration is an appropriate one in which to reflect on the Church’s understanding of the many meanings of celebration. The priest celebrates the Mass in a manner far different from how most people celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. Within limits, the Church affirms both types of celebrations; however, the limits have changed over time. Yesterday’s moderation is today’s excess; behavior once acceptable may at a later time be judged blasphemous.

I would like to reflect here on these changes by looking at the history of a celebration associated with, but distinct from, St. Patrick’s Day: the Irish wake.

Survivors of past St. Patrick’s Days will no doubt be familiar with the song “Finnegan’s Wake.” The song tells the story of Tim Finnegan, an Irish brick layer who falls to his death while lugging a heavy load up a ladder after a night of heavy drinking. The next day, with Tim’s body laid out in preparation for the funeral, friends and family gather for a “wake” to the pray for the repose of his soul. After the consumption of much whiskey, mourners try to outdo each other by singing the praises of poor Tim.

This friendly competition soon turns violent. Insults lead to fist fights and all bedlam breaks loose. In the chaos, a bottle of whiskey flies across the room, landing on Tim. The magical properties of this uisce beatha or “water of life” revive the corpse, creating the effect of a resurrection from the dead. The song concludes with another rousing chorus ending with the words, “Lots of fun at Finnegan’s Wake!”

A staple of Irish ballad bands such as the Clancy Brothers and the Wolfe Tones since the 1960s, the song actually has its origins in the music halls of late-19th century New York City. Both the song and various vaudeville sketches enacting versions of the story of the song helped to connect Irish immigrants to old world ways and entertained the non-Irish in the audience simply by virtue of its broad, slapstick humor.

For the hierarchy of the Catholic Church in Ireland and the United States, the real-life practices depicted in the popular entertainment were no laughing matter. The practice of the wake, and especially the drinking and revelry that often accompanied it, were part of an old tradition of Irish “folk Catholicism” that the Church had been trying for several centuries to suppress. Protestant reformers took the medieval Church’s tolerance of immoral, blasphemous behavior at supposedly “religious” events such as wakes to be signs of the Church’s corruption: at best moral laxity, at worst a residual paganism.

The Church Fathers who gathered at Trent (1545-1563) took these criticisms very seriously and committed themselves to reforming and updating the Church in a way that would make it impervious to such criticisms. Tridentine reform proceeded at a slow, uneven pace for much of its first three centuries.

Early modern transportation and communication posed logistical problems under the best of circumstances; the incessant wars of the Reformation era ensured the worst of circumstances. The situation in Ireland was perhaps even more dire than in the Catholic regions of the continent. As the rest of Europe was hunkering down into armed camps under the principle of cuius regio, eius religio—or, “the religion of the prince is the religion of the people”—the Irish remained an overwhelmingly Catholic people ruled by a Protestant, English sovereign. Outlaws in their own land, Irish Catholic bishops had few opportunities to take up the task of Tridentine reform; however, when such opportunities arose, the bishops put the Irish wake practices on their agenda.

Folklorist Seán Ó Súilleabháin, the leading authority on Irish wake traditions, locates the Tridentine assault on wakes as early as The Synod of Tuam (1614). Synod documents indicate that the bishops objected to the practice of common people imitating people of higher social standing by expressing grief through the wearing of black clothing and by accompanying wakes and funeral with lavish meals for guests. This all seemed like needless excess to the bishops, who expressed concern that such practices would impoverish subsequent generations.

To these social and economic objections, the bishops added deeper moral and spiritual concerns. The synod specifically denounced the common wake practice of indulging in “obscene songs and suggestive games.” The 1660 Synod of Tuam would repeat many of these critiques, though adding a special condemnation of the excessive lamentation, or “keening,” on the part of female mourners, some of them professionals hired for that very purpose.

In “Finnegan’s Wake,” competition among such keeners leads to a brawl; the seventeenth-century bishops were no doubt concerned with order and decorum, but perhaps even more scandalized by persistence of such pre-Christian, pagan mourning practices at a Christian funeral. Ó Súilleabháin notes the persistence of official Church prohibition of such practices well into the nineteenth century—with the persistence of denunciation reflecting a persistence of the practices themselves.

Much of our knowledge of wake traditions comes from the heroic efforts of the Irish Folklore Commission to document traditional Irish culture in the middle decades of the twentieth century. The need to document reflected the growing awareness that ancient traditions were in fact fading away in the newly independent Irish Free State/Republic, which began to experience the slow but steady march of modernization—even as it never experienced the prosperity which in other parts of the Western world was supposed to compensate for the loss of tradition. People who today expect some good humor and even a little alcohol at a wake would no doubt be shocked by the range of “merriment” to be found in the Folklore Commissions accounts of wake practices.

In his essay, “The ‘Merry Wake,’” Gearóid Ó Crualaoich notes how these accounts identify the figure of the “borekeen,” a kind of master of ceremonies charged with the task of organizing the games and pranks that common people considered proper to any decent wake. One popular game, called “brogue about,” involved the search for a hidden shoe. The men would gather around in a circle on the kitchen floor with their knees up, passing a shoe around under their knees while one person in the middle of the circle tries to guess who has the shoe; the unfortunate person in the middle might find himself whacked in the head with the shoe from behind when his back is turned.

More troubling to modern sensibilities is the pranks the borekeen would arrange involving the corpse itself. Sometimes the tricksters would secretly tie a rope around the body of the deceased only to raise it into the upright position in the middle of the night to scare those, especially women, who would be attending the corpse. This is no doubt the origin of the “resurrection” of “Finnegan’s Wake” and many of the vaudeville comedy sketches based on wake practices. For relatives of the corpse, this would not always be a laughing matter and sometimes real fights would break out. Still, Ó Crualaoich notes: “At other times a family will not mind, as such behavior is half-expected, and if given a chance, they would play the same tricks themselves.”

The Folklore Commission records also emphasize the felt duty of the family to provide some kind of feast for the wake guests. The extent of feasting would depend, of course, on the financial circumstances of the family, but contra the Synod of Tuam, the whole point was to provide more than you really could afford. This sort of excess was the food equivalent of the wild games organized by the borekeen.

In addition to food, a proper feast was expected to include the extravagances of whiskey and tobacco. A small amount of whiskey would be distributed to everyone, men and women, in the middle of the night; keening women would be given whiskey as they sing their laments. To minimize excessive drinking, priests would often insist that second night of the wake take place with the corpse in the chapel. Folk tradition invested some of these feasting traditions with ancient, even sacred origins.

It was common to provide tobacco in the form of clay pipes, loaded into a bodhrán (a hand drum) and distributed among the guests. Why tobacco at a wake? Some said that tobacco was the plant that grew over Christ’s tomb after the resurrection; others said that the Virgin Mary smoked the first pipe she was mourning her son’s passion and death.

These examples merely scratch the surface of a rich body of traditions that once structured the way that a Catholic community honored souls and assisted them in their passage to the next world. Given the weakness of the institutional Church in Ireland during the post-Reformation era of the Penal Laws, these folk traditions were in many instances the only way Irish Catholic communities could honor the dead and affirm life in the absence of more conventional sacramental ministrations.

The trajectory of Tridentine reform was to move away from these folk traditions and refocus the spiritual energies of the faithful toward a formal funeral Mass. This became a real possibility following Catholic Emancipation in 1829, and as the historian Emmet Larkin noted long ago, the “devotional revolution” of nineteenth-century Ireland generally succeeded in cleansing Irish Catholic life of these folk traditions, particularly for the Irish who lived in cities, perhaps even more so for those who lived in American cities.

Priests are undoubtedly more important than borekeens, but perhaps borekeens served some purpose deeper than mere diversion. Irish Church leaders thundered against folk Catholicism for four hundred years and the Irish people remained more or less Catholic despite their attachment to irreverent folk traditions of merriment. The purified, post-folk, “modern” Catholicism that shaped Irish Catholic life from the middle of the nineteenth to the middle of the twentieth century did not last anywhere near as long as its predecessor.

Just something to consider the next time we try to make sense of a St. Patrick’s Day Parade in the middle of Lent.


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About Dr. Christopher Shannon 19 Articles
Dr. Christopher Shannon is a member of the History Department at Christendom College, where he interprets the narrative of Christian history from its foundations in the Old Testament and its heroic beginnings in the Church of the Martyrs, down through the ages to the challenges of the post-modern world. His books include Conspicuous Criticism: Tradition, the Individual, and Culture in Modern American Social Thought (Johns Hopkins, 1996), Bowery to Broadway: The American Irish in Classic Hollywood Cinema (University of Scranton Press, 2010), and with Christopher O. Blum, The Past as Pilgrimage: Narrative, Tradition and the Renewal of Catholic History (Christendom Press, 2014). His book American Pilgrimage: A Historical Journey through Catholic Life in a New World will be published in 2022 by Ignatius Press.

7 Comments

  1. Thank you! I am going to pass this along to the gentlemen of Off The Menu podcast, and regret that I cannot pass it along to an old Irish boyfriend! Iwill also seek out the author’s books! Ta very much!

  2. Tuesday the last was the anniversary of the murder of Julius Caesar, today is St. Patrick’s Day. I have sworn off red meat and booze for Lent but today I’m gonna have corned beef & cabbage + beer, tomorrow back to the grindstone.

    Today I wear my green “Irish Catholic” ballcap because I am.

    Tomorrow – back to the grindstone.

  3. Quote “Perhaps we can serve as his ministers by telling a story or two over a pint or two of Guinness and leave it up to the grace of the Almighty to bring the real St. Patrick, that fearless priest of fiery faith, back to work among the lackluster pagans of this age”

    Eight years old, “ Grandar” where doe’s one find the Leprechaun’s gold
    The black Leprechaun holds the key, come over here and sit upon my knee
    I keep him in this bottle, he wears a mushroom cap and he is very, very black
    But you told me that he was green and that I would find him in the woods with the fairy Queen.
    That’s true son that’s the story that I told a wish he will give you or his pot of gold
    I caught him by the Shannon when I was a lad and put him in this bottle that belonged to my old dad
    I did not take his gold, so he promised to comfort me until I was old
    My black brother in this bottle will come and stay; you can take a little taste of him every day
    A glad heart is better than gold, take this magic drink and you will never feel old
    And now every night, just after tea, he keeps his promise and visits me
    “Can I have a taste of the black Leprechaun”?
    You cannot be an Irishman until you know his form
    He will warm your heart from dusk to dawn, but you may feel a little cold when he leaves you later in the morn

    “Fetch my glass from the shelf upon the wall”.

    Say something about strong and stout, while pouring Blacky gentle out
    Careful now he’s a lively little chap
    Two spoons of sugar, Blacky nearly lost his cap
    I began to feel happy, then rather warm, finding the magic of the black Leprechaun.

    The drinking of Alcohol in Irish culture has been the ruin of many good men including priests down through the ages and abuse of alcohol is no laughing matter.
    That said Ireland was known as the poorest country in Europe for centuries, living conditions were harsh (Potato famine, British rule, etc), it could be said that humour is a strong trait embedded within Irish culture, if the people did not laugh at adversity, they would have surely cried continually, we see this reality in the custom of having a Wake, where eating and drinking and laughter often take place.

    As Christians, we should take comfort from Trust in the Lord but we have to acknowledge that not everyone is a Puritan (As in not making merry at Christmas time, etc) including many of those valiant Catholic priests who left Ireland’s shores and contributed so much to the Missionaries in distant lands.

    kevin your brother
    In Christ

  4. “After the consumption of much whiskey, mourners try to outdo each other by singing the praises of poor Tim” (Dr Shannon). Finally, it seems I’ve discovered the origins of the endless, maudlin eulogies common to Catholic funeral Mass that was thankfully prohibited by the USCCB. One of their few worthy achievements.
    That aside, the Irish priests were the friendliest, joyful [also notable for ad hoc vocal performance after a few] among the ethnic groups of VA chaplains attending the Military Archdiocesan yearly dinner. Which I dearly miss.

  5. The custom of getting drunk on what ought to be an occasion for
    ‘tenderness , compassion , closeness ‘ – ? related to misuse of biblical verse ,
    of drinking as a means to deal with grief , as would have been in the case of Noah who comes to experience the effects of The Flood ..
    Another article dealing with similar topic -https://www.ncregister.com/blog/biblical-and-catholic-teaching-on-the-use-of-alcohol

    Low Magnesium ( potassium too , B vit . etc ; too ) due to poor diet making it more difficult to break free from addictions ; serving drinks to keep addicted family members at funerals from causing problems could have been the excuse for the custom .

    ? Serving Magnesium supplements as chewables / powdered drinks etc : as the healthier alternatives .

    Bl.Mother was sent to Rwanda to prepare them by meditating on her sorrows , to bring healing into the sorrow that was to come into their lands .
    All such grief brought to The Lord through His Mother as in the meditation of The Passion – The Church has ever advocated the blessings from same ..

    The Stations of The Cross devotion ,practiced by the Bl.Mother herself in her last days at Ephesus , said to be a devotion AFIK , that is not well accepted in some of The East – being seen as belonging to ‘The West ‘.

    Another good related meditation –
    http://www.preghiereagesuemaria.it/DV-inglese/THE%20HOURS%20OF%20THE%20PASSION%20FINAL%20EDITION%202014.pdf

    The focus on the tenderness , compassion that all yearn for – as well understood by the Holy Father , exhorting us to be more open to same as the remedy for much , to let The Spirit fill us with the New Wine of His transforming Love –

    Angelus address for 2/14, also the Feasts of Patron Sts for the Slavic people

    https://angelusnews.com/news/vatican/pope-francis-remember-the-closeness-compassion-and-tenderness-of-god/

    Blessings !

  6. Happy belated St. Patrick’s Day to Irish World Catholic day readers around the entire world. Let us pray and Hope that Pope Francis has the luck of the Irish when he Consecrates Russia to the Immaculate Heart of Mary with all the bishops of the entire world as he has requested very early this morning in Rome. Our Lady of Fatima pray for this very special and important request you made to those three shepherd children in 1917 in Fatima Portugal. PRAY! PRAY! PRAY!

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