Garret MacEniry (6), A Tale of the Munster Peasantry (Laying out the dead and keening amongst the Irish peasantry)

Patrick Weston Joyce

Among the peasantry, as soon as the last struggle of the sufferer is over, the men retire, and the women "lay out" the corpse and arrange the room. When this is done, the female friends and relatives of the deceased gather round the bed and commence the usual wild and musical lament, in which all the women present, and—if the person be a favourite among the people—many of the men too, usually join, all swaying slowly backwards and forwards over the bed. It is I believe generally considered by those not intimately acquainted with the peasantry, that this is merely a kind of mechanical habit, and that all, with the exception of the immediate relatives of the deceased, join in the external manifestation of sorrow, while they are in reality utterly indifferent. But this assertion, if not totally unfounded, needs much qualification. It is my belief—and I have had extensive opportunity of judging—that in general persons join in the lament because they cannot help it, and that they really feel what they express.

To every human heart, however sluggishly proof against the influence of emotion, sorrow is more or less contagious; it is one of those land dispensations of Providence that helps to smooth the rugged ills of life; for it teaches or rather forces us to sympathize with our neighbour in his sufferings. Look on a wretched mother, crushed and broken-hearted, bending over the body of her son, cut down in the prime of manhood—her face a picture of hopeless misery—her whole soul one rayless blank of despair, and see if your heart will not bleed for the anguish of the poor mourner. The heart of an Irish peasant at least will. That heart, so impulsive, so keenly alive to emotion, ever gushes with sympathetic sorrow at the sight of another's grief; and the peasant women, and oftentimes the men, too, raise the wild keen, not to comply merely with a cold custom, but to give vent to the uncontrolled impulses of their own kindly hearts. The fact of their joining in the laugh, or song, or sport, of their companions immediately after, is no proof of their want of feeling; it is only an illustration of the facility with which their changeable temperaments can pass from one extreme of passion to another, according to the influences with which they are surrounded.

Garret was led mechanically from the bedside to the little kitchen, where he walked backwards and forwards; his hands clasped, his eyes fixed on vacancy, and seeming totally unconscious of what passed around him. When the necessary arrangements were completed, the women collected around the bed and began to cry, and the sudden burst of lamentation appeared to arouse him to a sense of the reality. Among the peasantry, there are many men who, no matter how near and dear the deceased relative may be, will not yield to their feelings so far as to join in this cry; for they consider that it is, or should be, beneath the firmness of a man. Garret was one of these—he did not join the mourners.

Among the children of the village there was one that had always been a special favourite with him, because he fancied that its little broken accents, and fair hair, resembled these of his lost child Mary. This child happened to be in the room with its mother at the time, and Garret took her in his arms, and sat on the corner of the table. When bending over her, and rocking himself backward and forward as if in the act of soothing her to sleep, he commenced in a voice low and softened by sorrow, to sing his favourite nurse song. It was one of these beautifully poetic effusions that gush from the parental feeling of the Irish heart; with air wild and breathing throughout a tone of touching sadness, How powerfully old memories are awakened by unexpectedly hearing some long-forgotten old tune: "we used to love in days of boyhood," those only can tell whose hearts the world has not steeled against those softer feelings of our nature. No sooner had Garret commenced to sing than all the vanished happiness of his former life presented itself vividly before his mind in quick succession; then he passed on to his present condition; he saw himself utterly desolate, the sole survivor, the last wreck of his race; the full sense of his misery rushed across his mind like the blast of the desert. His words became indistinct; the whole gradually lost the character of a song; his voice trembled, failed, and at length the old man's firmness gave way before the tide of feeling, and he burst out into a loud and long fit of weeping. The other men in the room did not attempt to stop or soothe him; for they—including even the rough Palatines who were unaccustomed to indulge their feelings so openly—were themselves deeply affected at this outbreak of sorrow.[5]


[5] I witnessed the scene described here on one occasion when I was a boy.