Funeral Obsequies in Ancient Ireland

From A Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland 1906

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CHAPTER XXVII....continued

2. Funeral Obsequies.

There were several words for death:—és, ég, cro; all now obsolete, except perhaps ég: the word at present in use is bás [bauss], which is also an old word.

The pagan Irish, like many other ancient nations, celebrated the obsequies of distinguished persons by funeral games, as already mentioned (p. 497, supra): and in some cases the games, once instituted, continued to be carried on periodically at the burial-place, far into Christian times. On the death of ordinary persons there was simply a funeral feast, chiefly for guests, whether among pagans or Christians.

On the death of a Christian a bell was rung. The body was watched or waked for one or more nights. In case of eminent persons the watch was kept up long: St. Patrick was waked for twelve nights; Brian Boru for the same length of time in Armagh in 1014; St. Senan for eight nights; St. Columba for three at Iona. Among the pagan Irish, seven nights and days was the usual time for great persons. In Christian obsequies lights were kept burning the whole time: during St. Patrick's twelve-night wake, the old Irish writers tell us that night was made like day with the blaze of torches.

The mourners raised their voices when weeping, like the Egyptians, Jews, and Greeks of old; a practice mentioned in the most ancient writings, and continued in Ireland to the present day. This wailing was called caoi or caoine [kee, keena], commonly anglicised keen or keening—weeping aloud. The lamentation was often accompanied by words expressive of sorrow and of praise of the dead, sometimes in verse, and often extempore. This custom has also come down to modern times. A regular elegy, composed and recited at the time of death, was usually called Nuall-guba ('lamentation of sorrow': pron. Nool-gooa); but often Amra, a word usually understood as 'a eulogistic elegy.' Dallan Forgall's Amra for St. Columbkille has long been celebrated, and is one of the most difficult pieces of Irish in existence.

Among the Irish pagans it was the custom—which probably continued to Christian times—to wash the body. This Irish custom corresponded with that of the Greeks, who washed the bodies of their dead as part of the funeral obsequies: and the same custom prevailed among the Phoenicians and Romans.

The corpse was wrapped in a recholl, i.e. a shroud or winding-sheet: also called esléne [3-syll.], which is derived from es, death, and léne, a shirt: 'death-shirt.' When about to be buried, the body was placed on a fuat or bier, which was borne to the grave, sometimes by men; but if the distance was considerable, on a car, generally drawn by oxen.

St. Patrick's body was placed on a little car, which was drawn from Saul to the grave at Dun-leth-glass, now Downpatrick, by oxen. In pagan times the body was sometimes brought to the grave wrapped up in a covering of green bushy branches, commonly of birch, which, in some cases at least, was buried with the body. No doubt this branchy covering was intended to protect the body from the clay, like our wooden coffins. The pagan Irish had always a [fay] or rod, of aspen, with an ogham inscription scored on it, lying in their cemeteries for measuring the bodies and the graves. This was regarded with the utmost horror, and no one would, on any consideration, take it in his hand or touch it, except of course the person whose business it was to measure.

We know from Caesar that it was the custom among the Gauls, when celebrating funeral obsequies, to burn, with the body of the chief, his slaves, clients, and favourite animals. But this custom did not reach Ireland. Among the Irish pagans, however, cattle were sometimes sacrificed on such occasions: they were not buried with the corpse, but merely killed and eaten at the funeral feast.

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