The Irish Keening Tradition: Singing the Soul Home

This article was written by David Halpin of Circle stories

Keening, which was once an integral part of the Irish grieving process, began to vanish from before the 1880’s. In many academic papers it is implied that keening was strong until the mid-20th century but the Irish folklore archives contradict that view. There are still isolated accounts of keening taking place but it is now extremely rare. There have also been some recent attempts to bring back this ancient practice and perhaps we will see a resurgence at some point. There are a few different reasons for why keening disappeared but two in particular seem to form the basis of opinion for many of today’s researchers.

The first reason is that keening was always considered a pagan practice and the church felt that it had no place in a Christian ceremonial context. Keening and a form of death wailing is found in indigenous cultures from Europe to the Americas and throughout Australia, Africa and Asia. In some traditions there is a form of wordless cry but in others there is a recounting of the persons deeds and traits; a plea at times and perhaps an attempt to sing a scar upon the memory of those left behind in order to never forget.

In ancient Greece mourners called Goetes would howl and chant next to the dead in order to secure safe passage to the heavenly realms. Although the term ‘Goetes’ is sometimes said to mean ‘sorcerer’ or ‘magician’ its original translation was to ‘moan’ or ‘howl’. It was believed that these shamanistic-type ‘songs’ somehow attached to or carried the soul of the dead person and helped to navigate its way past the obstacles and dangers of the underworld. Although the term ‘shamanistic’ is often used outside of the original cultural context, in this instance there is a direct relationship to the Asian forms of chanting and singing at the funerals of the dead. We can trace many of the practices of appeasing ghosts, for example, from Asia to Mesopotamia and onto Greece. We see a separation of sorts when we look at the Buddhist prayers or reading from The Tibetan Book of the Dead/ the Bardo Thodol (Liberation Through Hearing During the Intermediate State) and the many indigenous and non-formal Asian funeral practices. (Personally, I would tend to think that all cultures and indigenous magicians knew this art of keening/ chanting for the dead and there is no real need to look for one original source of the tradition.)

In Ireland the Banshee is a fairy associated with death and keening. Rather than go over a description I’m sure most readers know already I thought I would mention another specific interpretation of this supernatural being associated with keening you may not have heard of, The Bow. From the Irish folklore archives, “The Bow is said to be the demon of the air. The old people in Ireland always believed in the bow. It is said that she is a small woman and that when she was a girl she had a long head of hair which she was always combing. She was very proud of her hair and it is said that when she died she was too bad to go to Heaven and too good to go to Hell and God sent her on this earth to cry after certain people when they die. She makes her path through the fields and on the hills. She goes around at night crying and keening and her cry is like the cry of a young child…” Full account of The Bow here: https://www.duchas.ie/en/cbes/5009342/5008793/5130356 (Notice the description of The Bow as being not good enough for heaven, nor bad enough for hell which is also applied to the Christian explanation for the origin of fairies.)

Returning to why keening disappeared from Ireland, Marie-Louise Muir, who made a BBC documentary about keening called Songs for the Dead believes that it was the giving way to the keening women, in particular, at funerals which angered priests. When this happened the church felt that its authority was being undermined by something more archaic and, indeed, authentic. The primal nature of keening perhaps resonated with people more than the reciting of memorised and formalised prayer. Of course, for the priests, giving way to a woman, and one who in their view might be uneducated and an advocate for superstition, was something that had to be stopped. An example of an account of keening here: “Long ago when a person died the old women of the neighbourhood would come into the wake house crying over the corpse and reciting the praises of the dead man or woman. This would generally be repeated from time to time until the corpse was taken to be buried…” https://www.duchas.ie/en/cbes/4921781/4906668

It is this difference in social context which contributes to the second main reason for the demise of keening. People began to believe that keening was something that *should* be left behind as it was part of the old Ireland. In many cases people felt embarrassed about the keening women themselves. As I have mentioned, it was usually a specific person who led the keening. This woman was very often associated with folk-cures, fairies and the old ways. As Muir goes on to say about this factor, “People said they didn’t want to be part of this regressive, backward-looking culture — ‘I want a bit of modernity.” In this account from the Irish Folklore Archives we have an example of the keeners being laughed at and deciding not to keen at the next funeral. “John F Senior made a laugh of the keeners and said if they did not stop they’d waken his father. There was a laugh and the keeners felt so wronged that they refused the next funeral.” https://www.duchas.ie/en/cbes/4605955/4605647/4644054

A recent fictional account of the keening tradition can be found in Hannah Kent’s novel, The Good People. The scene in question is when the village ‘Bean Feasa’, Nance Roche, comes to keen at Nóra’s husband’s wake. The suspicion and embarrassment of the villagers is palpable as Nance begins the keen and makes those gathered reflect on who they are and where they come from. However, maybe it is how Nance reminds them of where they are ultimately going which instigates a more subtle separation between her customs and those of the village. The practice of keening was raw and emotional as opposed to the quiet repetition of the rosary. While many saw the outpouring of keening grief as cathartic and all-encompassing instead of liturgical and formal, others felt self-conscious and ashamed of it.

Today, when we think about our ancient, megalithic monuments aligned to the sun and stars you sense that perhaps the ancient Irish people were well aware of the necessity to preserve a universal perspective of death and lamentation. These sacred places point outward in some ways, yet they also draw light down from solstice dawns and cradle it momentarily within their stones as if to acknowledge the fragility and wonder of life. Then, from around the 1850’s as the church discouraged keening, the traditional Irish funeral took on a more sombre tone and celebrating a life and death often became a custom of inward constriction. For the ancient Irish, and the keening women, though, death was a moment of outward release.

(C.) David Halpin.

Photos.

1. Boleycarrigeen stone circle on a misty morning.

2. Ireland’s only Viking Hogback Stone in the grounds of St. James’ Church, Kildare.

3. The Ring of the Rath, Co. Wicklow.

SHARE ON