Mourning the loss of the keening tradition in Ireland

BBC presenter Marie-Louise Muir used her own experience of grief while exploring the fading tradition of keening at Irish funerals, writes Richard Fitzpatrick

THE practice of keening — where women would gather and wail in grief at a funeral — died out in Ireland around the middle of the last century. There are live recordings of keeners from the 1950s available at the Irish Traditional Music Archive in Dublin, tapes which Marie-Louise Muir listens to as part of her exploration of the tradition in the BBC Radio 4 documentary, Songs for the Dead. They make for uncomfortable listening.

“It shocked and surprised me how difficult I found listening to those archive recordings,” she says. “To my ear, as an orchestral, classically trained musician, they were off-note. That unsettled me. It’s akin to nails being scraped down a blackboard. Every atom of your body cringes against it. You just recoil. You’re recoiling from the horror of loss, but this music is incredible. It’s expressing how you’re feeling.

“Having gone through it with [the funeral of] my own father — and this is not to sound crass — but you’re also strangely euphoric because you’ve gone through a lot. To be in a room where your father breathes his last breath, you’ve never experienced that before. Then everybody, your family, the community piles in on top of you for a Catholic wake. Pots of tea and sandwiches are brought in. There’s almost this party atmosphere. Everybody’s dropping by.

“You’re giddy with lack of sleep, with grief. Everything’s upended because you’re having a party but the main person isn’t there. To bring keening into the middle of that must have felt like you were breaking some kind of trance. That was in a way why it was so harsh — it must have been hard to penetrate the grief.”

As well as hosting The Arts Show on BBC2 Northern Ireland, Muir has been presenting the evening magazine show Arts Extra for more than a decade on BBC Radio Ulster. Her father, John Kerr, died in 2007; he was a former Mayor of Derry. The mystery, unpicked in Songs for the Dead, is why keening — a variation of which is still practiced all over the world in other cultures, from pockets around Europe, including Portugal, to Africa and the Asian subcontinent — disappeared.

“It was pretty much outlawed in Ireland,” says Muir. “It came up against the Catholic Church. The church didn’t want it. It was something that was frowned upon. When the body was laid out for the wake, the priest would come in and say prayers over it. There was an order of service, quite literally — the Catholic Church was in control of what was going on.

“Then, can you imagine the awkwardness of the keener coming in and the ceding — the priest having to give way to this what I suppose he might have considered almost pagan custom? Where does the priest put himself? I kept imagining myself in a room with this practice happening. I’m not from that tradition but I felt if I could experience that, having lost my own father, and him being waked, what it would have been like within those three days and three nights if a keener had come in. Our grief now is too contained. We rely on taking anti-depressants. We go to a grief counsellor, but these people in a way, letting it all out, having a good scream, coming from the feet up, a good cry, a good purging.

“In a very sad way, too, the primitive nature of it was difficult for the people themselves. They felt they were being viewed as being almost backward. They wanted to be part of the modern, forward-looking world. It wasn’t just the Catholic Church saying ‘No’. They were complicit in it. It became viewed with suspicion on both sides.

“In Victorian times, there was the equivalent of the Lonely Planet, the grand tour, and you would be told, ‘when you go to Ireland, make sure you get to an Irish funeral and catch a keener’. That almost performing monkey element became very difficult. People said they didn’t want to be part of this regressive, backward-looking culture — ‘I want a bit of modernity’.”

Because keeners were always women, this was seen as a threat, too. “The role of women was seen as transgressive given the patriarchy of the Church,” says Dr Deirdre Ní Chonghaile, a musician and academic who is interviewed by Muir for the documentary.

“It would have been a major factor as to why the Church would have seen fit to discourage it.

“You might have priests today objecting to secular music being used in a sacred service. I’ve experienced it myself performing music in church contexts. It can be that priests encounter people arriving at a funeral with a lack of familiarity with the liturgical requirements. That’s where the tension might arise.”

Women were paid — not much, often not even money, just a glass of whiskey, say, or some snuff or dinner — for doing keening. “That still sits slightly awkwardly with me,” says Muir. “Are you grieving with me or are you a performer?” Ní Chonghaile makes the point out, however, that priests were also paid for doing funerals.

“Funeral customs are different in different cultures in different times,” says Ní Chonghaile. “For instance, I’ve witnessed dancing at a funeral in the church. That’s in my own lifetime. Take the custom in some parts of the country, particularly rural areas, of filling in the grave while the congregation is still there. Other funerals, which I’ve experienced in cities, that doesn’t happen. From my perspective, coming from a rural background, it felt unfinished. It was somewhat distressing. It’s based on our own expectations of what the occasion merits.”

Muir laments the passing of the tradition. She concludes in the documentary — which includes an unexpected, heart-wrenching personal story at the heart of the song, Grief, by the late singer and composer Eithne Ní Uallacháin, that set Muir on her exploration — that we didn’t lose keening. We discarded it, but at the loss of something valuable.

“I do feel there is something lost,” she says, “and it’s a deep shame that even the people themselves who were doing it felt ashamed of it. As Treasa Ní Mhoilláin, one of the Aran Islanders who remembers seeing keeners when she was young, said when I interviewed her: ‘It was weird.’ That was such a strange word she used – ‘weird’. It was such a contemporary Americanism. It became an embarrassment. That’s the tragedy of it.”

Songs for the Dead will broadcast today, 11.30am on BBC Radio 4 and will then be available to download on the BBC Radio iPlayer app. For more information, visit: www.bbc.co.uk/radio4.

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