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.
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