Friday, May 10, 2013

The Irish Funeral Lament

I've been researching the connections between Irish traditional music and literature for a seminar paper.  It has been, in short, fascinating.  But I've been most moved by the Irish cultural tradition of "keening" or lamenting the dead.  The keen is a centuries-old practice with roots in the pagan heroic tradition and often glorifies the life and deeds of the deceased.  The keen is always performed by women and often led by a single woman who, if necessary, was sent for over long distances and paid for her services.

But most keens passed down from generation to generation through the oral tradition were composed by wives and mothers, sung over the bodies of their dead husbands and children.

One of the most moving (though brief) laments I've read so far was recorded by Peig Sayers, the famous Blasket Island storyteller, in 1944.  Before reciting the verse, "she told of how the widow had just laid out her son in readiness for the wake, when two men came in to measure the body for a coffin.  In a paroxysm of grief she threw herself on her knees beside the body, and, weeping copiously and wringing her hands, she intoned:

My love and my dear!
Your measurement was taken today
Not with black or blue frieze,
But with unseasoned timber,
And fastened with hard nails.
(Translation from the Irish by Patricia Lysaght)"*

*Patricia Lysaght, "'Caoineadh os Cionn Coirp': The Lament for the Dead in Ireland," Folklore 108 (1997):70.

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