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An American Wake

The 1840’s saw the first postage stamp, the start of the covered wagon trains to California, the publishing of Jane Eyre, the invention of the telegram and the rubber band.

In Ireland, by the middle of the 1840’s a potato blight called Phytophthora infestans had started to wrap its deadly fingers around the staple crop of the Irish people. Soon after, those dependant on the crop started to starve and perish in droves.

Not long after that, as matters worsened, waves of emigration began from Ireland towards the US. The journey was long – often taking months – expensive, and one way.

To those left at home it was almost akin to losing a family member to death. They were sure they’d not see them again. The only solace to be found was in the funerary tradition familiar to every Irish community; the wake.

Growing up, I had assumed this was something every society did to some extent. It was quite a surprise to discover it isn’t.
It’s a gentle, caring and dark practise whereby the desceased is not left on their own the night prior to their funeral. The community comes together to “Wake” the person, often in their own house with the coffin open and set on the sturdiest table in the best room.
Food is served, drink taken, the room containing the dearly departed is filled with candles and flowers and people mill in and out, embracing, speaking in hushed tones, touching their lost love’s face, praying and speaking of them with kindness and honesty in small groups.
Stories will be told, jokes will be repeated, tea, sandwiches, hankies and biscuits will be liberally handed out. Sometimes, as the night grows longer, music or song might make an appearance; traditional balads or a favoured pop song will be sung with gusto.

It is a cleansing ritual as old as time to us here in Ireland.

But as the island emptied of its eldest sons and daughters in the 19th century, a new form of this tradition emerged; The American Wake.
All the hallmarks of a regular wake were present with one stark exception – the dearly departed was alive and present.

They would be embraced by their community, given little gifts to protect and help them on their journey, they’d be told tales of those who had gone before them to give them courage, they’d be given advice, reminded that they are loved. They’d wrap their arms tightly around their parents and younger siblings, promising all the while to start sending money back for the next eldest’s ticket as soon as they could.

There would be tears, songs, hushed goodbyes, keening and long farewells and as hard as these wakes could be, they no doubt helped everyone involved to get through the pain of separation.

I have family all over the US today, and while their American Wakes would have happened to a less dramtic extent – and before I was born – I do still understand the gulf that that distance can bring to a family. My aunts and uncles “coming home” from America was a thing that’d happen every half decade or so.

As a child I remember how odd it was that my father’s siblings in the US spoke with a New York, Californian, New Jersey and Michigander twang. My American cousins seemed so impossibly cool with their graphic tracksuits, walkmans and cosmetics.

And every time the American contingent flew back across the Atlantic to their proms and cliques and high schools I witnessed and participated in a reduced American Wake. After all, we wouldn’t see them again for years and years. Who knew if we’d ever see them again at all? This could be the last time. Sometimes, it was.

And this feeling is something I’ve been dwelling on lately.

Since Covid-19 forced me into lockdown in February, my nephew has learnt to talk and drink from a cup, my niece is speaking in full, articulate sentences, my family dog has passed away, my mother has been ill. I’m only down the road – an hour’s walk at most – but I may as well be in America for all the contact I have had.

It’s odd to look back on history, half a year since I last touched any of them, and wonder if all this distance would be easier to process if we’d had a wake for me first.

11 thoughts on “An American Wake

  1. Oh Aoibhe!!You have expressed this so beautifully. It really does feel like we’re in the middle of a wake for our loved ones and for ourselves. Hope you’re all doing ok

    1. Taking it as it comes, Nicola
      Writing this really helped today, though. I find it’s always best to talk.
      I hope you’re doing ok too.

  2. Have you been to America yet? A lovely essay on Irish and American history. I hope you can travel locally and farther soon. I know that we wish to travel across the pond again, but are also stuck due to Covid. 5 years ago at this time of year, I was walking Hadrian’s Wall. I miss the UK. I can’t wait until this is all over and I can come walking another part of your amazing country again. Sigh… You are not alone in your feelings.

    1. Hi, Teri! I am so glad my post resonated with you. It really is a tough time for all of us, but I’m thrilled you have memories of travelling around Britain to help through the confinement.

      I’ve been up to Hadian’s Wall myself when I was at art college over in England. It truly is a spectacular part of that country and it’s so interesting to see such a stark example of Roman influence still present and accessible on the Island of Britain.

      That said, I’m not in the UK at all. I’m in Ireland and it’s exclusively here that we had “American Wakes”. We haven’t been part of the UK since 1921 when the Anglo-Irish treaty was signed and ended a fight for Irish independence that can legitimately be traced back as far as the middle of the 16th Century. Much like the US, India, etc, we decided we’d be better off governing ourselves and eventually, most of the island of Ireland succeeded in that aim.

      We’ve a lot of offer in Ireland too – from 5,000 year old neolithic passage tombs to Iron Age ring forts, Norman castles, Viking towns and early Christian monastic settlements. No Romans, though. We like to think they were as afraid of us at they were of the Scots!
      We run the gamut historically over here from peace-makers and artists to warriors and leaders and I do hope you get to visit us next time you fly across the pond.

      Oh, and I haven’t even mentioned our yarn shops! There’s that too!

  3. Very moving. Thank you so much for sharing this.

    1. Thank you for taking the time to read it.

  4. Wow! Thank you for that little history lesson. I never really understood what a wake was; I was a little curious but didn’t know who to ask. I thought it was a Catholic thing, but it’s actually Irish?

    1. Honestly, Brenda, I’m not sure we’re the only country to ‘Wake’ our loved ones.

      The way I have heard it described is that it’s a continuation of ingrained, pre-Christian traditions.

      Prior to Christian influence it was understood that death was actually a rather joyous thing for the lost individual. It was believed that they passed not to an inaccesible afterlife but a parallel world that could still be accessed by the living at key times of the year (hence, Hallowe’en)

      And that that parallel world was better and more bountious than this one.

      So, a Wake, really, is a bit of a party. Of course there is sadness and grief and no-one denies how tragic the loss of a loved one is, but there’s also stories and singing and laughter. People traditionally don’t wear all black; colour at an Irish funeral is part our colture because of the ancestral memory of that “joy” for the departed.

      It’s all very beautiful, if you ask me.

  5. It’s after Christmas now as I am reading this. I believe we should’ve all had wakes before this hit, had we been prepared, who knows? I’ve seen and heard and experienced so many things this year that have just spun me around, I think I shall plan a wake for the leaving of 2020 . Beautiful writing by the way . Thank you !

  6. My ancestors did something similar in the late 1800s, early 1900s from Sicily. My great-grandfather arrived in the US and six years later sent for my great-grandmother and most of their children. My grandmother was born in the US and was the youngest of a very large family. Through my great-grandparents I was able to reclaim Italian citizenship and then move from the US to the UK a few years back. It was a huge blessing and I’m sure they wouldn’t begrudge my U-turn! I start the journey by looking into claiming citizenship through other routes and realized Italy was my best choice. I have Irish (O’Bright) and English heritage too.

    While in Italy, I saw the memories set up to remember those who emigrated to the US. (I also find it funny that so many Americans claim to be blah, blah, and blah. At least now with dual, soon treble, citizenship I don’t feel like I’m just claiming it!)

    1. That’s so interesting!
      I had never heard the surname O’Bright, but I’ve looked it up, and lo and behold, there they are! A bushel of O’Brights!

      It’s fascinating, isn’t it, how some traditions can become a part of such diverse or far-flung groups of people.

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