Hospitality at Wakes and Funerals in Ireland from the Seventeenth to the Nineteenth Century: Some Evidence from the Written Record

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Abstract

Several aspects of mortuary customs in Ireland have already been studied in detail. This paper focuses on the role of hospitality on the occasion of death from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century. Based on a variety of written records, it discusses the attitudes of both lay and clerical commentators--officials, travellers and writers on the one hand, and the clergy on the other--to the provision of hospitality, particularly before the interment of the corpse. The meaning of hospitality for the bereaved family, the community, and the deceased is also explored.

Introduction

Detailed study has already been made of certain customs relating to death and funeral practices in Ireland, such as the traditional lament for the dead, wake games and other wake amusements. [1] Another important aspect of mortuary practice, the provision of hospitality--particularly food, drink and tobacco--has also received attention, though not to the same extent, at least for the period under discussion here. Writing about the twentieth century, some aspects of wake and funeral hospitality have been dealt with by Crozier (1987), Lysaght (2002) and Sexton (2002), and Sean O Suilleabhain has provided a chronological overview of many of the sources referring to hospitality on the occasion of death in Ireland from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century in his book Irish Wake Amusements (O Suilleabhain 1967, 16-25).

Recent in-depth historical studies of death in Ireland provide a number of references to hospitality on the occasion of death in the period prior to that dealt with by O Suilleabhain. Susan Leigh Fry, in her analysis of burial in the period 900-1500, states that there are indications that food was "connected with medieval burial practices," and she provides some examples of this connection (Fry 1999, 93). Clodagh Tait's study of mortuary practices and commemoration of the dead for the period 1550-1650 also includes references to hospitality on the occasion of death, as indicated in the following discussion.

In the absence to date of comprehensive historical studies of mortuary ritual in Ireland from the middle of the seventeenth century onwards, this paper, building on the work already done by Sean O Suilleabhain, is an attempt to show the prevalence and meaning of hospitality on the occasion of death from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries. It is based on diverse written sources which are neither exhaustive nor fully representative, but which signal, nevertheless, the continuing importance of hospitality on the occasion of death, particularly before the interment of the corpse. For the period prior to the nineteenth century, the sources used in this paper emanate essentially from "outsiders" or official sources, both lay and clerical, whose comments are often critical for a variety of reasons, some of which are explained in the following. In the nineteenth century, "insider" accounts become more frequent providing a greater participant-observer perspective on wake and funerary custom and usage.

Historical and Religious Background

The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were periods of massive political, social and cultural change in Ireland due to protracted wars, the Tudor conquest of the country, and the widespread redistribution of land, mainly to immigrants and settlers of English origin and Protestant persuasion (Hayes-McCoy 1976, 39-141; 1994, 174-88). Some members of this Protestant settler 61ite wrote descriptions of their respective counties--which occasionally included information on the death customs of the surrounding native population--for official enquiries and surveys of various kinds in the course of the seventeenth century.

English officials and travellers in Ireland in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries also sometimes commented on mortuary rituals, such as wake games and the provision of hospitality--practices, we are told, which were already in decline in England by 1600 (Gittings 1999, 105-7; cf. …