The Irish have a rich and long cultural tradition in relation to matters surrounding death. When faced with loss, historically we have developed a host of both physical and symbolic practices. They help us understand loss. They allow us to create meaning in the face of familial demise.
In this sense, there is a perception that we Irish, ‘do death well’. Much of these practices date back for centuries. Our folklore history boasts reams of stories, ranging from healings at Holy Wells, pagan burial rites to the cry of the keening women.
When we think of these practices, we think of Christianity, and its almost naturalistic association with our cultural heritage. But not so. When we look at the evidence, we see that the Catholic Church in Ireland, only recently took the cultural and social reins of our death rites and beliefs.
So before the eighteenth century, death in Ireland was not a so much a Catholic affair. Yes the Church had a role to play, but it was more a cultural ingredient like many others. Up to this period, there was, much like today, a mix’n’match approach to post death practice. After death, the deceased were granted pride of place within the family home. From the two to three nights following death, locals and loved ones attended the famous Irish Wake.
Neighbours and friends drank, ate and all too often engaged in a wild host of sexual activities, often to the horror of Church officials. Wake games were popular and widespread. But the horrors of the Irish Famine (1845-1849) worked to change all that. After losing millions to starvation and emigration, the Irish, a weary people, began to accept the teachings of the Church and surrender their traditional methods of understanding to its influence. From this period onward, death in Ireland was very much a Catholic affair.
Things continued on like this for much for of the late nineteenth century and indeed the following twentieth century to come. Professor Tom Inglis characterised this period as, 1870-1970, ‘the long nineteenth century of Irish Catholicism’ (Inglis, 1998). Throughout this period, an Irish person lived by the rules of the Church and as a reward, they were assured a place in the clouds. God awaits them with a smile and a welcoming embrace. Importantly for Irish families, so too did their deceased who had gone before them.
The Late Twentieth Century
However things are not as they were. The late twentieth century saw the unprecedented development of the Irish economy, and with it the emergence of Irish modernisation and subsequent secularisation. Referencing the popular musical stylings of REM, we are in many ways ‘Losing our Religion’. These trends saw the declining influence of the Church’s moral values, along with the Church’s teaching and ability frame death. Many now create their own meaning when facing loss, and in doing so develop new rituals to mark the moment of passing. But where do we now get our ideas about the divine, about the hereafter? And how do with ritualise such events?
For many, the Irish, world media has a big part to play. Although death has come to be understood and practiced differently, the problem of death remains. Here we look to create personalised meaning from a host of sources, whether that be Catholic dogmas and rites of passage on one hand, or ways found on radio, print, news and screen on the other. So it’s a bit of Catholicism here, a bit of reincarnation there. Some Eastern beliefs here, more Humanist belief in personal oblivion there. This also seems to be the case with reference to commemoration.
Where once we prayed for the souls of our dead within the Church, now we talk about our loss on the popular realm of social media. Far from Masses for the Dead, Facebook has become an important cyber book of condolence (Myers, 2016). All we can say for sure is that while the Church still has an important part to play, particularly in the case of post-death rites, (funerals for example), Irish people have moved from a singular Catholic perspective on death and expanded their reach and understandings to include beliefs and practices sourced within the realm of the media, the fictional, the eastern beliefs in eternal cycles and, for many none at all.
For the Church, winter has been a long time coming and though it is not fully here, there is a definite chill in the air. Ireland is fast becoming a society where it is becoming too cold outside for angels to fly.
As for the future, we must wait with bated breath. But for now, when death knocks on our collective and personal door, we greet it with host of traditions. We welcome or avoid it in a multitude of ways. In this manner, to paraphrase Walter (1994) we do it our way. Much like throughout the eighteenth century and before, we increasingly source our meanings from our personally derived beliefs. Perhaps we might say in this regard, we have gone, or are on route, back to the future.
About Dr Myers
Dr Kevin Myers is a writer and a sociologist. His research interests include examining issues surrounding culture, religion, meaning, death, dying and bereavement. He is particularly interested in the role of culture in bridging the gap between individuals and knowledge of death and loss.
- Inglis, T. (1998) Moral Monopoly: The Rise and Fall of the Catholic Church in Ireland. Dublin: UCD Press.
- Myers, K. (November 2016). ‘Keeping the Dead Alive: Death and Use of Social Media in Contemporary Ireland’. In: Ryan, S. eds. Death and the Irish: A Miscellany. Dublin: Wordwell Ltd
- Walter, T. (1994) The Revival of Death. London: Routledge