The Irish Wake and its Gender Roles

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When looking at the lifecycle in terms of folklore it cannot escape ones notice that many aspects of the life cycle have clearly defined gender roles. For the purpose of brevity in this essay I will focus on the death aspect of the lifecycle. I will focus on the rituals around death, namely the wake and how specific roles are gender specific, i.e. keening women (and the supernatural equivalent, the Bean Sí) and preparation of the body etc. Since the female roles are most prevalent according to death rituals I will briefly touch on the role of the Borekeen, the male master of ceremonies in relation to the games played at wakes, as well as some other male roles, to provide some balance. I will also be looking at a couple of paintings that depict wakes and also a photograph because I believe that these items show an interesting gender separation that illustrate the other points I have mentioned above.

When looking at folklore it is clearly evident that the important female roles, i.e. the Bean Feasa, Bean Bhán, Bean Chaointe and Bean Ghluine, are concerned with crisis points in the life cycle and are all insulated against the supernatural. In the case of the bean chaointe and the bean bhán, they are insulated against the malevolent power of death. We know that not all women were insulated in this fashion by the example of the the taboo for pregnant women to be present at a wake (Ó Crualaoich,1998:179)

Bean Chaointe/ keening women

The keen or lament was a central component in the rituals concerning death and from almost all the accounts passed down we can see that it was primarily a female role. The accounts of women performing laments far outweigh the number concerning men, in fact there are very few at all concerning men. In Irish Wake Amusements we get one of these rare accounts where a man composed a lament for his son (Ó Suilleabháin,1969:133). Angela Burke describes the lament or coaineadh as “a highly articulate tradition of women’s poetry” (Bourke,1988:287), a fact that is backed up by Patricia Lysaght when she says that  lamentation was a “central element of the culture of women” (Lysaght,1997:65). Lysaght goes on to say that this part of the ritual was so important that messengers would be sent great distances to find keening women, not only for people of the community but also if a stranger happened to die in the community (Lysaght,1997:67).  In effect the keener was a psychopomp  and the keen itself originally served a ritual function to help the soul travel from the world of the living into the spirit world (Ó Madagáin,2006:81). As mentioned above most accounts point to it being almost solely the domain of women. The practice eventually began to receive opposition from the clergy and accounts from synods around the 17th century onwards always mention women as keeners with the exception of the diocese of Leighlin that mentions the hiring “of men and women” (O Suilleabháin,1969:139). The synod of Armagh (1670) mentions that no member of the clergy would attend a wake at which “female keeners cried or screamed” (O Suilleabháin,1969:138). We also see similar at the Synod of Tuam (1660) and the Synod of Dublin (1670) where they mention how people were “hiring female keeners at wakes” and how they had to “bring an end to the wailing and screaming of female keeners” respectively (O Suilleabháin,1969:138). We cannot really tell with these older accounts if this was the norm, or if it was just the patriarchal nature of the church trying to stamp out the female aspect of the native tradition. We also see the male aspect trying to force itself into the funeral process in stories of clashes between the bean chaointe and the priests near the graveyard, which often erupted in violence, such as the priest attacking the keeners with a horsewhip (Ó Crualaoich,1998:154). Of course, this is not just male vs female but could also be looked at as ancestral vs popular religion. Although, that being said, many of the more modern accounts tell us exactly the same thing, that keeners were women.   Kevin Danaher tells that the keen was performed by the “old women of the place who were skilled in the art” (Danaher,1962:175).

Bean Sídhe

We can safely say from looking at the evidence that the transition of the soul/ spirit is in the hands of a human female agent but interestingly a female otherworld equivalent, the ‘banshee’, can be found in accounts throughout the country also. As the “bean sídhe” can be said to “sing” death into the community, the “bean chaointe” is seen to “sing” it out’ (Ó Crualaoich). There are a number of striking resemblances between the two that that back this theory up. We are told that the “gol” or cry was the most important constituent of the keen (Ó Madagáin,2006:84) and this bears striking resemblance to descriptions of the singular cry of the banshee.  When looking at details of the banshee’s cry we see reports such as “mournful cry”, a “wailing, piercing cry” and “pitiful” (Lysaght,1967:104).  The descriptions of this unnatural scream mirror those given of keening women and how they “shake the roof with their female crying and lamentation” (O suilleabháin,1969:134) and their “all unnatural screams” (O suilleabháin,1969:138). It is not just aural descriptions, but also physical that link these two together. Although the colour of her hair, and in some cases her age, changes, the bean sí is most often described as having long, often white, untied hair (lysaght,1967:348). This is strikingly similar to the keening women (who mostly consisted of older women and would most likely have had grey or white hair) and who wore their hair “dishevelled and unbound” (Norris: 1987:348) in a similar fashion. In many narratives of the bean sí she is not only described as crying but is also often told to be “tearing her hair” (Lysaght: 1967:104). This again is mirrored in the behaviour of her human counterpart where we are told that keeners “Beat their breasts, tear their hair and cry” (Ó Crualaoich,1998:150). The parallels between these two intrinsically connected females did not escape the keeners themselves. One informant claimed she was afraid that after death she might become a bean sí herself and described the bean sí as being “one of the oul criers” (Lysaght,1967:104). This lies in the belief that if a keener does not perform her job correctly that she is doomed to become a bean sí after death and is one of the origin myths for the bean sí.

Bean bhán

Keening was not the only aspect of death that primarily lay in the hands of women. There was a taboo against the family members to touch the body after death (Ó Crualaoich,1990:152) and this job was once again in the hands of women who were insulated against the malevolent power of death. It was carried out by the women termed bean bháin, literally meaning white women (due to the white sheets used). Sean Ó Suilleabháin tells us that the laying out of the corpse was done by a few neighbouring women who have had previous experience in doing so (O Suilleabháin,1969:13) but he gives no indication that this was even a semi-professional role like the keeners. In another source we are told that it was the oldest woman in the townland who was in charge of washing and preparing the corpse (Ó Crualaoich,1998:181). We can see these women are insulated from the supernatural forces from the fact that both the water and sheets that come in contact with the body can be used in cures. The bean bháin is able to cut triangle out of the grave cloth and dispense them as cures (Ó Crualaoich,1998:181). Women are also seen to be the ones who watch over the corpse for the duration of the wake, as the body is not to be left unattended at any point. One or two women usually stay at the side of the corpse (O Suilleabháin,1969:13). The only element of the preparation of the body that may be carried out by a man is in relation to shaving the corpse. If the person had a custom of shaving then it was carried out by another neighbour (O Suilleabháin,1969:14). Although this passage does not tell us specifically that it was a man who carried out the shaving, the wording of the passage seems to infer that it was a male neighbour. This however is not the only male role that is involved in this critical point in the life cycle.

 

Male roles

Although the more spiritual and important matters are the domain of the female at this stage in the life cycle, this under no circumstance means that the male is cast aside and ignored or considered inconsequential. There are also clearly defined gender roles that are reserved for men. At least two men were sent out for the essential supplies needed for the wake (O Suilleabháin,1969:14). These supplies consisted of the food and drink to offer to people who come to pay their last respects. It was also down to these men to get the candles (usually 12) that were lit around the body. Other supplies included the tobacco, snuff and clay pipes that were a staple at wakes. The men sent to get these supplies would also buy either a coffin or the supplies to make the coffin.

The borekeen and wake games

It was only usual in most cases for wake games to be found at wakes of someone who had passed of natural cause or in old age. Young or tragic deaths were more sombre affairs and would not have seen this behaviour to the extent the others would have. As mentioned at the beginning these games and revelry were presided over by a male master of ceremonies, the borekeen. When death caused disruption in the community, the female was the agent ushering the soul into the otherworld, i.e. presiding over death and the male was the agent presiding over life, whose job it is to “reassert the continuing of vitality and the potential for renewal in the community” (Lysaght, 1997:65). As a result they were cosmologically opposed, (Ó Crualaoich,1990:147) in essence a balance or compliment to each other. As well as having a male figure presiding over the games, many of these games and pass times were male-centred. That is not to say that they were all just involving men, as there were many matchmaking type games played that involved both sexes, but most of the recorded games seem to involve just male participants. These were often in the form of feats of strength to show physical prowess and gain acclaim (O Suilleabháin,1969:38). Story telling was also a favourite at wakes, even the more solemn ones, and we are told how these stories were more often than not told by an elderly man (O Suilleabháin,1969:14), most likely a member of the community with some renown in telling stories. Similar to keening this sort of behaviour at wakes came up against opposition by the clergy who at the synod of Cashel and Emly (1720) thought “the purpose [of the wake] is being defeated when immodest games are carried on which suppress the memory of death in the minds of those present” (O Suilleabháin,1969:149). It is interesting that the reason they condemn these activities is in fact the core reason of their purpose: a coping mechanism to deal with impact of death among them. The merrymaking scene found at these wakes made it “as though such a thing as grief were not in the world “(Norris,1987:347). This function as a coping mechanism can also be said about keening. An account by Tom Ó Flatharthan tells us how whenever his mother became distressed, following the tragic death of her child, that she would keen him to release the emotional distress (Ó Madagáin, 2006:81).

 

Pictorial evidence

There are a number of paintings whose subject matter is based around a wake that I thought were worthy of inclusion as many of the things seen within the painting are backed up by the accounts. They provide an interesting view on the gendered aspects of the wake and should not be overlooked. I have included three examples in the appendix: The Wake by N.Grogan (hereafter fig.1), The Aran Fisherman’s Drowned Child by F.W.Burton (hereafter Fig.2) and a photograph from the National Museum Archive of a funeral (hereafter Fig.3) and also (Fig.4) which is a drawing of what looks like keening women. I feel these best illustrate the evidence given so far. An element each share is the fact the coffin or corpse is surrounded by women. This is backed up in a number of the accounts (Oscar:1987:347, Ó Crualaoich,1990:150)  and seems to have been an important aspect even up to modern times.

 

Fig.1: The Wake by N. Grogan

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When looking at this painting we see many of the elements featured in the accounts that when viewed in term of gender, are quite interesting. Near the hearth we see women crowded together practicing what looks like divination. Although not exclusively practiced by women it was certainly very common for women to do so. The game being played first and centre has a mix of boys and girls as it is not one of the feats of strength type games favoured by men and boys. To the left we see a group playing pranks (pipe exploding) and directly below them seems to be a bit of matchmaking taking place (which ties into the continuity of life in the face of death mentioned above). Moving towards the back we see what looks like a group of men involved in storytelling and drinking. Behind that we see the corpse with all the handy work of the ban bhán: the candles, sheets hung up and the corpse wrapped in a shroud. Next to the body we see it is mostly surrounded by mostly women.

 

 Fig.2: The Aran Fisherman’s Drowned Child by F.W.Burton

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Here we see a more solemn wake, absent games, because of a tragic death. We do however see the keening women in action. The exaggerated movements of the woman standing and the more reserved stance of the gentleman standing brings to mind an account where we are told “the womenfolk are more demonstrative than the men and much less reserved than the men” (O Suilleabháin,1969:38).

Fig.3: Photo

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I included this simply because it shows a number of old women, most likely keeners, surrounding the coffins. Oscar tells us how “four or five aged females” surrounded the coffin (Oscar:1987:347) and another piece tells us how “The coffin was surrounded by a prodigious number of females who wept and chanted” (Ó Crualaoich,1990:150), both accounts describing an almost identical scenario to the photo.

Fig.4

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This illustration fits in similar to Fig.2 above with the exaggerated movements and demonstrative behaviour of the women while lamenting and the men are more reserved.

The evidence provided above from both the written evidence passed down to us and also from the illustrations that the death aspect of the life cycle has clearly defined gender roles. Although there are elements of fluidity at rare occasions we see that the certain roles related to the rituals concerning death certainly favour certain genders. In the male capacity we see the borkeen and the men who fetch the supplies for the wake and in the female capacity we see the bean chaointe (and her supernatural counterpart, the bean sí) and the bean bhán all working together to help the spirit of the deceased pass into the next world and also to promote the continuity of life in the community.

Bibliography

 Bourke.A (1988), The Irish Lament and the Grieving Process, Women’s Studies International Forum, Vol.11, No.4.

Danaher.K (1962), In Ireland Long Ago, Mercier Press.

Lysaght.P (1976), Banshee Traditions in Béaloideas 1974-76, Iml.42/43, An Cumann le Béaloideas Eireann.

Lysaght.P (1988), Caoineadh os Cionn Coirp: The Lament for the Dead in Ireland, Folklore 108.

Newell.V (1987), Reviewed Works: The Banshee: The Irish Supernatural Death Messenger by Patricia Lysaght, Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, Vol.22, No.4.

Norris.L (1987), The Swanee Review: keening, Vol.95,No.4, Johns Hopkins University Press.

Ó Crualaoich.G (1990), Contest in the Cosmology and the Ritual of the Irish Merry Wake, Cosmo: The Yearbook of the Traditional Cosmology Society, Vol.6, Edinburgh University Press.

Ó Crualaoich.G (1998), The Merry Wake in: Irish Popular culture 1650-1850, Ed. Donnolly.J & Miller.K, Irish Academic Press.

Ó Madagáin.B (2006), Keening and Other Old Irish Musics,  Clo Iar-Chonnachta.

Ó Súilleabháin.S (1967), Irish Wake Amusements, Mercier Press.

Oscar (1835), The Dublin Penny Journal: The Wake, Vol.3,  No.148.

Influence from the lecture notes (Photos and paintings sourced from powerpoint slides)  of Dr Stiofán Ó Cadhla and originally handed in as a class essay for the Folklore and Gender module, Folklore and Ethnology Department, University College Cork.

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