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(As told by Frank Harte, Gortnagoyne, to Chris Healy January, 2004.)Frank HarteFrank Harte
In days gone by, there weren’t any funeral homes so when a person died the wake was always in the house. Nothing was done with the body for 4 hours as they had to let the spirit get away first. The clock was always stopped at the time of death-people always wanted to know the time of death so they only had to look at the clock to find out. Next they went to town to get the burial charge- that was everything they needed for the next couple of days. They had to get the coffin, a habit, candles, bread, tea, jam, bars of soap. There was no such thing as soap flakes that time so they got bars of soap and cut them up into small pieces and left them soaking in water. I got an old bill of a burial charge from 1922, got in Martin Thomas Walsh’s in Dunmore, and the whole cost was £13.6shillings. That was the coffin, about £5, the drink, pipes, snuff, the lot. The pipes were a very important thing for the wake, a gross (144) of them, 21/2pounds of tobacco, and 4or 5oz.of snuff. They’d have a 9 gallon barrel of porter, some port wine or sherry for the women, and a drop of whiskey and a few minerals. About three or four would go for the burial charge and they’d be from the family and a relation or two or a neighbour maybe.
There were certain women in every village who always laid out the corpse; the water used in washing the body was thrown away in a corner of the back street or under a hedge, someplace where it wouldn’t be disturbed again. The clothes that the person had been wearing would be burned, and the razor used for shaving wouldn’t be used again either. They used a “marbh-fhaisc” (morv aushc), which was a bit of cloth to keep the mouth closed.
They would have the wake for two days and one night and if it was a young person it would last two nights. If a person died in the evening there wouldn’t be a wake that night. They would always send for the priest when someone was dying – it was more important than the doctor. There was an old man who lived down at the bottom of the hill and he was dying. One of the old Grogan men who was building the road went in to the house to get the kettle boiled, and when he saw the state of the poor fellow, he went for the priest, -he ran most of the way to town. The priest came out on horseback. Straw CoffinStraw CoffinIt was a great thing to have the priest before death. The corpse was nearly always laid out in the coffin, now and again it would be in the bed. They would have the coffin in the kitchen, left on two chairs, the head facing east, the rising sun, the same as in the grave. The corpse was wearing a habit; it was brown in those days. I heard a story about a woman who died and she had relations in America who had sent some fancy slippers to her. So they were put on her in the coffin .Well a neighbour came in and said “Margaret, dear, you have a grand pair of slippers on when you don’t need them, and you hadn’t them when you could wear them.”!All the neighbours came to the wake, and the relations came from far and near. When they came in to the house they shook hands with the relatives and said “I’m sorry for your trouble.” or “Sorry for the loss of -.”They’d praise the dead person, how good of a neighbour he/ she was, and things like that .You’d never hear them running down the person. They’d kneel down at the coffin or beside the bed and say a few prayers. Then they would have a drink or two maybe and of course they had to have a smoke. There would be certain men there at the wake and their job was to keep the pipes filled with tobacco. These clay pipes were put into a scib (a large wicker basket) and it would be left on a chair that was turned sideways in the middle of the kitchen. Everyone would take one –it would be bad manners not to- and they’d kindle up.
There would be tea a couple of times during the night and they would say a few rosaries too. there were two candles lighting at the head of the coffin, which was usually made of oak. They would be talking about the dead person, telling stories about different things he/she did and said. And all night long it would be ghost stories and talk of the Banshee. It was believed that the Banshee would be heard crying when someone was to die, so if there was a sick person in the house it would be a bad omen to hear this long wailing cry. They would be watching for the colour to change –and when it did they’d say that the death was on him / her. To see four magpies was another omen of death and they would be listening too for “Gluthair an bhais “(gluhar on waush), a broken noise in the voice. Another thing they’d be talking about was the Coiste Bodhair (Cushtcha Bower). It was a big coach with two horses, which moved silently along. They believed it came to carry the spirit away, and it travelled mostly through the old pathways and boreens and across the fields.   I heard a story about a man who was going to a fair in Claremorris; of course he was travelling in the darkness. Anyway, he came to this thorn bush and his horse stood up and wouldn’t stir. There was a pathway crossing there and there was a wake going on in a village beyond. A voice said to him “Good morning Tom “, and he reckoned he knew the voice-it sounded just like the voice of the dead man- and he guessed it was someone coming from the wake who was trying to frighten him. In days gone by, the blacksmith never locked his forge at night, because if any of the horses with the Coiste Bodhair lost a shoe or if anything would happen the coach, the door was left open and all the tools ready, and turf and coal beside the bellows. As time went on tools became more expensive, and next thing was they used to be stolen so then things had to be locked up.
Before my time they had “Slapping “ matches- rival groups slapping the hands and the one to last the longest was the winner. But they had to cut that out. The priests and the people who had the dead relative stopped it because it led to faction fighting and it was taking away from the wake, which was a special occasion and respect had to be shown to the dead.
Then there was a story about a man in the Castle who had a hunchback. When he died, they laid him out on the table and put a strap across his chest. A young fellow came to the wake and when he spotted the strap, he went in under the table; so when some people came and knelt down to pray, he cut the strap and up sat the corpse. Well the poor people ran out the door and they weren’t the better of the fright for six months.
Before my time there were women who came to do the keening at the wake. They were as good as the Banshee at the crying and the long lonesome wail- they called it an “olagon”. Of course they weren’t really crying at all, it was just “put-on”. There was an old woman from Knockatee and she travelled all over the place to wakes. She reckoned several times she saw shadows crossing pathways all around her and she believed they were either going to or coming from a wake because she spoke to them but got no answer. So that’s the sort of stories and pranks that would be going on at the wakes long ago.
Then the next evening they’d take the corpse to the church. They’d take the coffin out and leave it on two chairs outside before they put it into the hearse. When the coffin was put in they used to knock the two chairs over – to keep death away, I think. They travelled the long way round to the church and the same going to the graveyard. The family and relations would carry the coffin. If it was a woman that was dead, two people of her maiden name and two with her husband’s name would be the pallbearers. The gravediggers were always the near neighbours. They had a custom of putting a spade or shovel across the open grave, in the shape of a cross- this was to keep the evil spirits from going into the grave. Then they started taking the spades and shovels so they had to cut out that custom!
Talking about death and burials, I heard a story from Tom Mongan, from Cloondalgan. A man and his wife, living in the village, died from the Black Flu, but nobody would go in and have them buried. Then one of the Grogan men, from Garrafrauns, went down with his spade and shovel and dug a grave for the two of them beside the carthouse. He put the couple into it and then he knocked down the gable wall of the carthouse on top of the grave so that nothing like dogs or foxes could disturb it. This land is now owned by Michael Shally. This happened around 1914 or 1915, and they say that more people died from the Black Flu than were killed in the War. In 1947, the year of the Big Snow, the remains were carried to the church and the graveyard by a man from Garrafrauns, who had a jennet and cart.
The women all wore black clothes, “The Widows’ Weeds” they were called! The men would have a black tie and the black diamond on the sleeve of the jacket or coat.
 Then after the burial it was back to the house for tea and something to eat. The next day or so, they would give back everything that was borrowed from the neighbours, like pots and pans, tablecloths, towels, sheets, glasses and dishes. Three days after the burial, there was Wash Day. A few of the neighbours would gather and they would wash everything- sheets, blankets, towels, and clothes, the lot. You’d see lines of clothes spread all over the place, on hedges and bushes. And when it was all done they’d have tea and a smoke and a drop of drink as well maybe, if it was left over after the wake and funeral. Then the real mourning began –wearing black, no music or radio, no dancing or celebrating for twelve months. This was their way of showing respect for their dead.