Spring 2012

Irish Wake Amusements

Rowdies round the coffin

Seán Ó Súilleabháin

A story in Béaloideas[1] is concerned with the experience of a migrant labourer from Kerry at a wake in Tipperary. Like myself, this spalpeen knew only of wakes which were carried on with decorum and good behaviour. The wake which he saw in Tipperary was of a different kind, however. Clods of turf were thrown in the wake-house[2], and the corpse itself was not immune from violence. The Kerryman, relating his experience, told of tears falling from the eyes of the corpse when it was struck. “A wedding should be a wedding, and a wake should be a wake,” concluded the honest spalpeen.

The Kerryman, in his day, and most of us nowadays may not like such mischievous behaviour as was carried on at wakes in olden times, but it must be stated that it was the norm, not the exception, throughout the greater part of Ireland. Unruly conduct was always the rule at the wakes of old people.[3] As already stated, this was not intended as disrespect for the corpse or for the relatives; rather was it the common traditional pattern of behaviour on such occasions. Those who were present enjoyed it, and it was stopped only if it went beyond the bounds of decorum.

As at the wake which I myself attended in Mayo over forty years ago, where potatoes were the missiles, turf-sods or portions of them (cadhráin) were equally used in this way over most of Ireland. Even persons who were no longer young took a hand in the “croosting.” Besides turf, the shanks of clay pipes were also broken off by those who did not smoke and used as missiles; the targets were usually unpopular individuals or crusty old men, who were easily angered. Whatever was ready to hand would be used: potatoes, water or anything convenient. “We’ll have a night of croosting,” the young folk would cry with joy, whenever they heard that some old person had died in the parish.

Other types of mischief were also carried on.[4] Pepper might be mixed through the tobacco which was distributed in clay pipes at wakes, or else it would be blown in through the keyhole of the door, causing all present to sneeze violently. When they tried to get out into the fresh air, they would often find that the door was tied firmly from the outside to make matters worse. Even the chimney might be blocked with grass-sods or a wet sack, and those at the wake would be half-suffocated before they could open the door.

Other mischievous acts included putting tobacco in the tea-pot, or, if it were Autumn, placing nuts in the fire (these would explode with a loud bang). Meat for the visitors was often boiled in a pot at wakes, and tricksters would look for an opportunity of stealing it and inserting an old boot or a garment into the pot instead. If the relatives of the deceased happened to be miserly and provided little food or drink for the guests, the young fellows at the wake wreaked vengeance on the stacks and ricks in the haggard before morning.

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