‘Modern death is clinical, antiseptic’: the festival that wants to revive the Irish wake

<span>A scene from the 1966 film of Finnegans Wake, based on the novel by James Joyce.</span><span>Photograph: GRANGER/Historical Picture Archive/Alamy</span>
A scene from the 1966 film of Finnegans Wake, based on the novel by James Joyce.Photograph: GRANGER/Historical Picture Archive/Alamy

It was a scene once common in homes across Ireland: a body in an open coffin surrounded by family, friends and acquaintances who shared stories, sang songs, ate sandwiches, and sipped tea or perhaps something stronger. Over three days they bade farewell to the dead in humanity’s oldest rite.

The Irish wake is part of a tradition practised in some form by every culture dating back thousands of years, a ritual to comfort the bereaved and acknowledge loss.

But in Ireland the ritual itself risks dying out – replaced by a professional death industry of mortuaries, funeral homes and closed coffins. So this weekend, artists, singers, writers and scholars gathered in County Mayo to breathe new life into the old way of dying.

The world’s first arts festival ­dedicated to wakes staged walks, talks, bardic poetry and workshops on the ancient art of keening and sean-nós (old-style) singing at the Old Convent in Mulranny, a village overlooking the Atlantic.

“The festival is a clarion call to the Irish to celebrate this rite,” said Kevin Toolis, an author who organised the event. “The Irish wake is under pressure from the Anglo-Saxon way of death, where you go to the funeral home and you’re out in five minutes. We have this amazing Irish rite and we should protect it.”

The festival, called The Keening, took place on Saturday on the eve of the national famine commemorations on Sundayto honour those who perished in the 1840s calamity.

“We want it to be an annual event,” said Toolis. “People abroad look to the Irish wake as a comforting, communal rite. It is a classic therapeutic model. The problem with the modern way of death is it seems clinical, antiseptic, hollow.”

It is the latest sign of rekindled interest in wakes following the ending of Covid restrictions.

In 2023, Ulster University researchers found that traditional Irish rituals for the departed may help people to cope with bereavement. The study involved more than 2,000 people and focused on prolonged grief disorder (PGD), which it described as an enduring yearning for the deceased persisting for more than six months.

In Ireland, 10.9% of bereaved people matched the criteria versus 15.3% in the UK, said the report, which was published in the Journal of Traumatic Stress. “Cultural differences with regard to death may be an explanatory factor,” it noted.

A wake museum opened in Waterford in June 2023. Sited in a 15th-century almshouse, where residents used to earn their keep by praying for the souls of its patrons, exhibits include a bronze age funeral urn, mourning jewellery and one of Ireland’s oldest death masks.

The composer Peter Reynolds wrote music for the festival in Mayo. Caitríona Ní Cheannabháin, a sean-nós singer from Galway, gave workshops on keening and a style of singing passed down through generations. “I’d see my granny doing the lament,” she said. “She’d frighten me because it was so haunting. You’d hear her voice shaking – the loneliness and sorrow of missing this person.”

Letting children see a body helped them to understand the meaning of death, said Ní Cheannabháin, citing the example of her three-year-old nephew. “When he saw my mam laid out, he said ‘she’s not working any more’.”

A wake, even if compressed into one or two days, gave people time to come to terms with not seeing someone again, she said.

“If there was anything that was bothering you, if you felt you’d let them down in any way, you can whisper to the body. Some people might need that peace. It eases the pain. It’s a way to say goodbye.”

Toolis, a Bafta-winning filmmaker who lives on the Mayo island of Achill, championed the tradition in his 2017 book My Father’s Wake: how the Irish teach us to live, love and die and a Guardian article the same year.

In Ireland it is common for people to see scores of dead bodies over a lifetime of attending wakes – in contrast to England, where bodies tend to be cremated or concealed in closed coffins, he said. “In England you may never see a dead body. There’s this incredible difference around what you may call visible death.”

Small, brief funerals often left people unaware that a friend or acquaintance was grieving, said Toolis. “You can feel traumatised because your world has changed completely but the outside world doesn’t recognise that.”