By Patrick O’Sullivan

I remember an old country kitchen, an old-fashioned wall clock beating out time on the wall, the orange of the flames dancing in the hearth: the peaty smell of the turf with an incense all of its own.

The woman of the house was telling of a dream she had had a few nights earlier, a dream about one of her relatives who had passed away. There was no sense of unease in her voice, rather a sense of reassurance and hope. She had said a prayer and lit a candle for the deceased in the interval for it was widely believed that to dream of someone in this way was their way of asking for a prayer.

It was a lovely tradition, so that it was no great wonder, I suppose, that such dreams were recalled and recounted so often. Another popular belief held that the spirits of the dead came back to visit their old homes, either on All Saints Eve, October 31, or All Souls Eve, November 1.

It was not uncommon in some parts to leave the door unlatched on All Soul’s Eve and a bowl of spring water on the table. A good fire was also put down, all of this by way of welcome for the visiting spirits. I remember the saying of the Rosary, each of us kneeling at a chair of our own, the picture of the Sacred Heart looking down from its place of honour on a side wall.

At the end of each decade, there was a short prayer which asked God ‘to lead all souls into heaven, especially those in most need of His mercy’.
These sentiments had a particular resonance in November, of course, when much of the focus was on those who had passed away. One of the prayers in my prayer book in those days was Psalm 129 known as De Profundis, which was printed in both Latin and English, and which ends with a prayer for the dead ‘Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine. Et lux perpetua luceat eis.’ Eternal rest give to them O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them.’

There was also the tradition that when someone passed away, a relative or friend should wear their clothes to Mass the following Sunday. In the case of a man, a brother or grown up son would wear his best suit; in the case of a woman, a sister or grown-up daughter would wear her best dress and coat.

There were a great many litanies at the time, one of the most popular being the Litany of the Blessed Virgin which was regularly included in the Rosary prayers. Another litany was dedicated to the faithful departed and while some of it was fairly austere in tone, there was one part that always struck a chord with me.

This was the prayer for the unremembered: ‘That Thou would be pleased to have mercy on those of whom no special remembrance is made on earth.’ I like the idea of remembering the unremembered for it meant that they would not be forgotten after all.

Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own