Keening

From Irish Druids and Old Irish Religions, 1894

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The Keens, or lamentations for the dead, are connected with ancient and heathenish practices. Professional howlers had charge of the corpse. Rich, who wrote in 1610 of a Keen, remarked, "A stranger at the first encounter would beleeve that a quantity of hags or hellish fiendes were carrying a dead body to some infernell mansion." But some of the Death Songs have great beauty of composition. Shelah Lea's Lament is a fine example. It is thus translated from the Erse:—

"Sing the wild Keen of my country, ye whose heads bend in sorrow, in the house of the dead! Lay aside the wheel and flax, and sing not in joy, for there's a spare loft in my cabin! Oweneen, the pride of my heart, is not here! Did you not hear the cry of the Banshee crossing the lovely Kilcrumper? Or, was there a voice from the tomb, far sweeter than song, that whistled in the mountain wind, and told you that the young oak was fallen? Yes, he is gone! He has gone off in the spring of life, like the blossom of the prickly hawthorn, scattered by the merciless wind, on the cold clammy earth.—Raise the Keen, ye whose notes are well known, tell your beads, ye young women who grieve; lie down on his narrow house in mourning, and his spirit will sleep and be at rest! Plant the shamrock and wild firs near his head, that strangers may know who is fallen! Soon again will your Keen be heard on the mountain, for before the cold sod is sodded over the breast of my Oweneen, Shelah, the mother of Keeners, will be there. The voice, which before was loud and plaintive, will be still and silent, like the ancient harp of her country," &c.

Another exclaimed:—"My sunshine you were. I loved you better than the sun itself; and when I see the sun going down in the west, I think of my boy, and my black night of sorrow. Like the rising sun, he had a red glow on his cheek. He was as bright as the sun at mid-day; but a dark storm came on, and my sunshine was lost to me for ever."

No one would claim for the Keens a Christian origin. The Rev. John Wesley saw a funeral in 1750, and wrote:—"I was exceedingly shocked at the Irish howl which followed. It was not a song, but a dismal, inarticulate yell, set up at the grave by four shrill-voiced women who were hired for the purpose; but I saw not one that shed a tear, for that it seems was not in the bargain."

Mrs. Harrington, in 1818, had this account of a professional Keener, a descendant of pagan performers:—"Before she began to repeat, she usually mumbled for a short time, with her eyes closed, rocking her body backward and forward, as if keeping time to the measure of the verse. She then commenced in a kind of whining recitative; but, as she proceeded, and as the composition required it, her voice assumed a variety of deep and fine tones." Her eyes continued shut while repeating, with some variations, it may be, the ancient poem.

It is said of Curran, that he derived his earliest ideas of eloquence from the hired mourners' lamentations over the dead. Dryden refers to the ancient practice:—

"The women mix their cries, and clamour fills the fields.
The warlike wakes continued all the night,
And funeral games were played at new returning light."

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