An Irish Wake

Asenath Nicholson
Chapter V (14) | Start of Chapter

In this family I attended a wake, the first I had seen in Ireland. An aged woman, the mother of the shopkeeper, died while I was there; ninety years had whitened her locks; she had been a useful mother, trained her children to habits of industry, and lived to see them thriving in business, and respected in the world. On her tongue had been the law of kindness, and her hands were always stretched out to the poor and needy. When I visited the house of her son, feeble as she was, she would leave her chamber, and go into the kitchen to take care that my dinner was suited to my taste. The workmen in the house were her peculiar care. From many miles round the rich and the poor assembled. "Never," said one, "when I was a slip of a boy, did I go on a mornin' to buy the loaf at her shop, but she put a bit of bread in my hand to ate on my way home." She was laid in an upper chamber, upon a bed covered with white; she was dressed in a dark brown frock, with white ruffles at the wrist; a square cloth fringed with white was on her breast, with the initials of the order of the "Blessed Virgin," to which she belonged. A neat white cap, with black ribbon, and a white handkerchief about her neck finished the dress. Curtains of white, tied with black ribbons, were about her bed; and the usual appendages of candles and consecrated clay were at the foot, with a picture of the Virgin and Child hanging over her head.

The house was large; every room was occupied, and though the attendants were gathering from neighboring parishes through the night, yet all was stillness. "In former days," whispered an aged matron, "ye would not see it so; before Father Mathew put down the whiskey, it would frighten the life of ye. A bucket of whiskey would be on the flure, with a cup in it, and not a sowl on 'em but would take the sup till their brain would be crack'd; and then the singin', the jumpin', and tearin', till the priest would be called in with his whip, and bate 'em, the divils, till they all was quiet." Here was no liquor, but cordials; a warm supper in the different rooms was prepared, and every new guest was invited to sit down and partake. Here the rich and the poor had "met together" to mingle their tears, and not an untidy garment pained the eye. The hour of burial was six in the morning. At five, a breakfast of steak, ham, and fowl was provided for the nearer friends, and those who were to accompany the corpse seven miles, where it was to be interred. The corpse was then put into a coffin of black, with the consecrated clay about it, and was placed upon the bed; the family came in, and gave her the parting kiss; one servant, who had been a laborer about the premises for years, went to the coffin, looked at her for a moment, kissed her, then covered his face with both hands, and burst into loud weeping. "Well may he cry, poor Pat!" said a servant girl, "for many a good bit has he had from her hand; and when I come to the side of her bed a few days ago, she said, 'Do take care of poor Pat, and see that he has enough to eat. I am afraid he will be neglected when I am gone.'" Poor Pat was simple. These testimonials of kindness to the poor are precious mementos of the dead, and will be held in sweet remembrance, while the memory of the oppressor shall rot.

The white linen was taken from about the bed, pinned over the heads of the old women, and tied in the middle of their backs by black ribbon; the coffin was placed upon the body of a carriage, and the two old women were seated upon it. The driver, with a band of white linen about his hat, led on the long procession. It was a Sabbath morning; the sun was rising; I thought of the sepulchre; I thought of the women that were early there; I saw the stone that was rolled away; I looked in; I saw the clean linen in which Joseph had wrapped the body: I knew the Saviour had risen, and I turned away to think of the wake at Kilkenny.

Ireland’s Welome to the Stranger is one of the best accounts of Irish social conditions, customs, quirks and habits that you could wish for. The author, Mrs Asenath Nicholson, was an American widow who travelled extensively in Ireland on the eve of the Great Famine and meticulously observed the Irish peasantry at work and play, as well as noting their living conditions and diet. The book is also available from Kindle.