The Irish Wake is an important part of Irish customs and culture. It is the way Irish people say their last goodbyes.
The Irish people have grown accustomed to dealing with tragedy and suffering over many centuries. Ireland's history weaves a tangled web of adversity and sorrow.
The Irish people have suffered the adverse effects of colonization, poverty and a devastating potato famine that changed the nation forever.
The Irish have learned to cope with tragedy, sorrow and death over the centuries Through practice, they have grown adept at mourning the loss of those they hold dear.
Customs and rituals have developed around the important act of saying one last final goodbye. Today, let’s explore one of the most important Irish funeral traditions - the Irish Wake.
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What is an Irish Wake?
The Irish Wake is an age-old tradition that still survives in parts of Ireland, It is widely recognised around the world as an important Irish ritual of death and grieving. This long standing funeral custom is a complex and deep rooted part of the culture and heritage of Ireland.
After a person dies in parts of Ireland, and especially in rural areas, their body is laid out in their home. Family members remain with the body until the undertaker removes the coffin to the church for the funeral service. The Irish Wake is held in the home.
In recent times in urban areas, the wake has been replaced by a visitation at a funeral home. However, in rural Ireland the Irish Wake continues as a tradition to this very day.
What Type of Social Gathering is an Irish Wake?
If you have ever attended an Irish Wake you will know that it is a bittersweet experience that combines sorrow and joy. An Irish Wake is not just about mourning. Instead it centers on the person who has passed away, and all that they meant to their loved ones during life.
Family, friends and acquaintances share stories and memories, creating an unusual, yet very distinctive atmosphere that combines both laughter and tears.
An Irish Wake is not just seen as an opportunity to grieve and process the pain of loss. It is also a celebration of a life well lived.
Food and drink are served by the family of the deceased. Mourners often raise a toast to their friend who has passed away. Those who attend enjoy a drink and music with the family.
Music and alcohol are both important in Irish culture, and an Irish Wake makes no exception. People who attend the wake come to mark this significant occasion and raise a toast to the deceased.
I hope you enjoy this collection of Irish Wake toasts shared by our good friend, Bob Hamilton from Irish Urns. You’ll find some lovely Irish blessings on the topic of loss there.
The Irish Wake - A Time For Connection
This unique combination of sadness and joy is why the Irish Wake is such an extraordinary ceremony. This atmosphere of celebration is especially likely if the deceased was elderly. A long life is marked through a little bit of merriment, reminiscing, and stories as friends, family and neighbours share memories.
The Irish Wake is a bigger social gathering than the visitation ceremonies experienced in the United States. A death notice is usually published in the local papers, or an announcement is made on local radio.
People gather in the home of the deceased to pay their last respects. Together the guests reminisce and trade stories. It can be a curiously apt setting for reuniting and strengthening bonds.
People’s emotions are often clearly on display. When dealing with grief they often reach out to others for moments of intense connection and emotional honesty. This can be extremely helpful to the grieving family. By sharing their emotions and stories, their feelings of connection with their family and friends are deepened.
They are often grateful to learn of all that their loved one meant to those around them. This experience can be truly life-affirming and reassuring. It provides support to those that are dealing with their grief.
People remain with the body all through the night. Neighbors and friends arrive late in the evening, or sometimes during the early morning hours to sit with the deceased. This allows the immediate family to sleep a little before the formal burial.
The rosary is recited, often with a priest in attendance, who also recites other prayers with the family and their guests.
The rosary is ususally recited at midnight, before the majority of mourners leave to go home. Those that remail through the night, often recite the rosary again as the sun begins to rise.
A wake can also be a joyful occasion with music and songs shared by those who mourn. A favorite song at wakes is The Parting Glass.
History of Irish Wakes
The Irish Wake has been part of Irish traditions around death for centuries. We may never know the exact origins of the Irish Wake, but there are many theories.
It is thought that the Irish Wake may have originated with the Ancient Celts. They were the predecessors of the Irish people and early inhabitants of the island of Ireland. They were very spiritual people who had a strong belief in life after death.
In the Celtic religion it was believed that when a person died, they moved onto another life in another spiritual dimension. For the Celts death was merely a new beginning. It was seen as a time when the soul moved onto a better life.
They therefore treated death as a reason for celebration and festivities therefore ensued. These ancient Celtic customs may have influenced the evolution of the traditional Irish Wake.
The coffin is lined is white and the body is usually draped in white linen. Some people drape the body with white or black ribbons.
The term ‘wake’ is linked to the practice of loved ones keeping watch or vigil over a body until the time of burial. It was believed that no roaming spirits would interfere with the soul or body of the deceased if someone always stayed present in the room.
The origins of the Irish Wake have also been explained through an old piece of folklore. Before the age of glasses, pewter tanks and cups containing lead were used to hold drinks. Lead poisoning occurred frequently. .
Lead poisoning can cause a catatonic state in drinkers. This closely resembles death. After poisoning this lifeless state could pass a few days later. Attendees at a wake were there to ensure that a person was actually dead.
If the person was only in a state of deep sleep, the family hoped the noise and merriment would reawaken them. In years gone by, before the days of advanced medical techniques, wakes could last for days. People would stand watch over a body for many days and wait hopefully for a reawakening.
Whatever the origins of the Irish Wake may be, the tradition remains a prominent feature of Irish funerals to this very day.
Clocks and Other Wake Traditions
Clocks were stopped immediately at the time of death. This custom is linked to the belief that time on earth has stopped for the person who has died. By stopping the clocks in a home, the deceased is allowed to move on without being rushed.
It was also believed that if a clock was kept going the deceased could get distracted and forget to move on to Heaven.
Mirrors were covered with a sheet or a shroud. Sometimes they were turned to face the wall. This was done so that the soul of the deceased could travel to heaven safely and without distraction.
Mirrors were believed to be gateways to other realms, and there was a fear a soul could slip away with the faeries.
The curtains throughout the house were drawn closed, except for one. The curtains on the window next to where the body was laid out would be left open to allow a pathway to heaven for the soul.
Keening women used to come to old Irish wakes to mourn the loss of their neighbor. These women "keened" or cryed for the deceased.
The word keen comes from the Irish word "caoinadh" (phonetically pronounced as kween-ah) meaning to cry.
Keening is an important way to express grief in the Irish tradition. It is a poetic and prayerful lament that expresses the pain of a great loss.
Snuff at a Wake
Lighted candles were placed all around the body. Clay pipes of tobacco were smoked by male attendees as they stood guard over the body. Guests were encouraged to take a puff of the pipe.
The smoke was believed to be a deterrent to wandering demons and evil spirits who might be coming in search of the soul of the deceased.
In an age when doctors were not readily available, incidents occured where people were thought to be dead, who were not really so. To ensure the person had truly died the wake was held in their home.
There was a custom of passing snuff around at a wake. The box of snuff was often left open right beside the face of the corpse. If the person was not fully dead, it was thought that a sniff of the snuff might revive them.
There also is an old simile where something is described as being “like snuff at a wake.” This means that the thing in question was very plentiful.
An Old Tradition In The Balance
The Irish Wake is a significant rite of passage and traditional ceremony. It is a relic from a time that in many ways no longer exists. It is a custom I hope will be preserved as an important part of our Irish heritage.
The Irish Wake tradition may not be as prevalent as in years gone by, especially in the cities. As Ireland continues to modernize, let us hope that the important traditional ways of the past are not completely abandoned and replaced.
Thankfully, in most areas outside of cities, the Irish Wake is a custom which is still revered and upheld by many. It is an opportunity to mourn a great loss, while at the same time celebrating the life of a loved one. It is a uniquely heartfelt and sincere last goodbye.
Mourning and celebration are uniquely intertwined in a time-honoured way, known only to the Irish.
About Irish Urns and Irish Trees
A big thank you to the good folks at Irish Urns and Irish Trees who contributed this guest post to Irish American Mom. I hope it helped you better understand the tradition of the wake, with its roots in Irish Christianity and Paganism.
Irish Urns and Irish Trees is a joint business dedicated to bringing comfort and peace to people during difficult times.
Irish Urns offers a range of high-quality artisan urns which have been handcrafted and exquisitely decorated with Celtic designs. The heart and beauty of Irish history and culture is evident in all our urns.
For November we are running a special giveaway for a unique Irish urn. You can take a look at some of the beautiful ceramic vases/urns created by Irish Urns and enter for a chance to win a unique piece of your own.
Irish Trees offers a unique and intimate service, planting native Irish trees in honour of a loved one. All trees are planted on 10 acres of beautiful lakeside land, located in North Co. Dublin. Initially, we only planted memorial trees for those who had passed. However, due to demand, we now also plant trees for a number of other occasions such as birthdays, weddings, anniversaries and the birth of a child.
Their aim is to reconnect people to their Irish roots, no matter where they may be in the world.
Slán agus beannacht,
(Goodbye and blessings)
Mairéad -Irish American Mom
Pronunciation - slawn ah-gus ban-ock-th
Mairéad - rhymes with parade
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Mary Dineen Stegemiller
This post was absolutely beautiful, very comforting, and inspiring.
Fair play to you for choosing a subject that is seldom talked about
and certainly should be. Thank you so much, God Bless You.
Irish American Mom
Hi Mary - Thank you for your support. Few people like to talk about death, but for the beginning of November, a month of remembrance in Ireland, I thought it would be perfect timing to talk about this important part of Irish culture. Thanks for taking the time to read this post.
All the best,
Thank you for this very important and wonderful way of holding an Irish Wake. For many years I had wondered why a family member was waked In my grandparents living room. Being a little kid I had no questions about it, but as years went on I thought about it a lot. But by then all those who were there at that time were gone.
One time I asked why do people have wakes in the funeral home now? I was told it's the law to do so. Now I'm asking, is it?
Believe me I much would rather have it in my home when the time comes.
I like the information you gave us and it helped me to think about it for myself since my family isn't as large as it use to be.
Irish American Mom
Hi Eleanor - I'm so happy that you found this post interesting and that it helped explain some of the family traditions you experienced as a child. I believe funeral requirements and laws vary from state to state in America, but I believe a wake at home is possible in most states, but I'm not certain. Thank you for stopping by to check out this post and that you found it thought provoking.
All the best,
Thanks again, Mairéad, for your storytelling. And thanks to those who came before us leaving their legacies in the Irish Wake. Truly more of a celebration of a life well lived than full of grief. We celebrated my Mom's birthday with cake and Jameson's on my Dad's bed, where he died the next day. Memories, stories, tears, and laughter ... a definition of us Irish!
Irish American Mom
Hi Pat - Thank you for checking out this post about the Irish Wake, an important part of our Irish traditions. Lovely to hear your Dad experienced a little of his own wake before he passed on. How precious that you got to enjoy your Mom's birthday together as a family just before he left this world. Tears and laughter are often intertwined in Irish celebrations.
All the best,
Very interesting. Thanks for sharing.
Irish American Mom
Hi Denise - Thanks for checking out this post about the Irish Wake. I'm so glad you found it interesting.
I love the idea of an Irish wake full of stories , love, tears and laughter in the home of the deceased, much more personal than the traditional American wake held in a funeral home. When my Dad passed I was thrilled when the hospice nurse asked if it would be ok to open a window for his soul to pass through. Even though our family has been in the US for 2 generations I felt it was a strong tie to our Irish roots and the Old ways .
Irish American Mom
Hi Karen - How lovely that your Dad's nurse opened the window when he passed and continued this age old Irish tradition. When my father-in-law passed away in Donegal in 2018, his wake lasted for 2 days. Our neighbors were wonderful bringing an incredible supply of sandwiches and cakes and making never ending cups of tea. It is a beautiful tradition that I hope will continue for many years to come.
All the best,
I really enjoyed this, thank you. My grandparents all had two evenings of wakes before the funeral was held. What a lovely tradition you reminded us of. Perfect for this month of November when we remember our beloved dead.
Your note in my inbox is always a great Sunday surprise.
Irish American Mom
Hi Mary Ann - Lovely to hear your grandparents passings were marked by celebrating their lives through an Irish Wake. I'm glad this week's updates were able to remind readers of this lovely tradition of remembrance during the month of November. I'm so glad you enjoy my Sunday updates. Thank you for all of your support.
I thought this post on Irish wakes was quite interesting. I think celebrating
ones life and talking with the family and sharing stories is such a wonderful
tradition. I would like to have an Irish wake so my family and friends can
comfort each other and share their feelings and have a toast together.
What a wonderful send off. Along with some Irish music too. Thanks Mairead for sharing this heartfelt article.
Irish American Mom
Hi Colleen - I'm so glad you appreciated this little look at the age old tradition of wakes in Ireland. Even as a child, I was taken to many wakes, especially in County Cork where my parents are from. It is a wonderful part of our heritage and a beautiful way to embrace and share our grief, along with our joys and good memories. Thanks so much for stopping by to check out this post.
All the best,