RÓNÁN GEARÓID O DOMHNAILL looks at some of the traditions associated with Irish wakes, funerals and burials
People were deeply superstitious in times gone by and nowhere was this more obvious than at funerals and wakes. The old Irish families, those with ‘O’ and ‘Mac’ in their names, had a banshee attached to them, whose wail foretold a death within the family and belief in this persisted into the 1970s.
Another form of death messenger who collected the souls of the dead was the cóiste bodhar, the silent coach, driven by a headless coachman called a dullahan, whose whip was a human spinal cord.
Omens of death were also present in nature. Four magpies together signalled death, as indeed did a robin knocking on your window or entering the house. It was believed that cats could interfere with the souls of the dead and there were never let into a wake house. If they did jump over the corpse, the cat would be killed the next day.
The mirrors in the house of the deceased were turned around or covered, in case the soul of the deceased became trapped inside. Clocks were stopped at the time of death as many would ask what time the death occurred. Once the person died, the windows were opened to let the deceased soul out. The window remained open, albeit with the curtains closed, until the corpse was removed for burial.
The corpse was first washed by the women a few hours after death and laid out in a brown woollen habit for males, and a blue one for females and placed on the bed in white sheets. The coffin was often made of straw. The room was lit by candles, holy water shaken over the corpse and the full rosary recited.
In some places there was a table used specially for the corpse, the so-called wake table. There is an example of one at Glenveagh Castle in Donegal. The eyes were closed in case the deceased chose someone to go with them and pennies were placed over the eyelids to keep them down.