“I was as thou art and thou yet shall be”
Cian Manning takes us on a tour of Ireland’s first Wake Museum in the heart of Waterford City.
Ireland’s oldest city, Waterford, is home to the island’s oldest urban domestic building, a 15th-century Almshouse in the Viking Triangle. It was a house established by charity, which offered accommodation for the poor, old and infirm. This building evolved over the course of 600 years into a tenement in the 19th and 20th century.
Dean John Collyn’s Almshouse was founded on All Souls’ Day, 2nd November 1478, and was later known as ‘God’s People’s House’. Occupants of the facility paid for their stay there by praying three times a night for the souls of its patrons, and for the deceased citizens of Waterford.
Collyn had established the Chantry Chapel, St. Saviours, and the almshouse, originally named the ‘Good Men’s House’, which was frequented by the poor men of the city. Such efforts were aided by the leading figures of the city, such as James Rice, who was Mayor of Waterford City on eleven occasions.
The building on Cathedral Square has been painstakingly conserved and renovated by Brian Whelan, and now houses the Irish Wake Museum, which displays the customs, traditions and superstitions concerning death.
As Ireland’s first-ever Wake Museum, it prides itself on exploring the rituals of death, but not neglecting the celebration of life. Waterford historian David Toms highlights that, “In popular representations of Irish culture, few things are more celebrated, while all at once, shrouded in mystery than our death rituals. Between removals, wakes, masses and burials, there is scope for rich tradition and variation in seeing off our dead.”
THE GREAT PLAGUE & THE CADAVER TOMB
You’ll see a representation of a cadaver tomb that resides in nearby Christchurch Cathedral. It depicts James Rice, and how he was expected to look six months after his death.
Also known as ‘transi’, these cadaver tombs were fashionable among the wealthy elites in the 15th century. The Medieval period saw an increasing preoccupation with death. This was due to the Bubonic Plague in 1347.
The ‘Black Death’ ravaged Europe, and over the course of six years, killed over one-third of Europe’s population. The tomb of James Rice and Elizabeth Broun is considered the finest example of a cadaver tomb in Ireland. Historian Clíona Purcell details, “James lies in repose, his burial shroud wrapped delicately around his emaciated and almost skeletonised corpse. Worms wriggle about his chest, a toad sits on his stomach, creatures meant to horrify the viewer and acquaint them with the realities of death.”
She wryly notes that “he is the only cadaver effigy in Ireland to retain his eyeballs, and they stare unseeing to this day”.
The monument carries a poem:
Who e’er thou art who may be passing here
O read and pause a while and shed a tear
I was as thou art and thou yet shall be
What I am now, I prithee pray for me
Continue reading in this year’s Hallowe’en Special