AIDA AUSTIN: When people die here, they have lots of sort of… get-togethers

The first time we revisit England after moving to Ireland, we get stuck in weekend traffic going west out of London.

“It must be a really big funeral,” my six year old says from the back seat. 

“It’s not a funeral,” I say, “it’s just too many people trying to leave London at the same time. In England, traffic isn’t just for funerals.”

“Is traffic just for funerals in Ireland, then?” 

“It is in Clonaklity,” I say.

“Why?” he says, “do more people die in Clonakilty?” 

“I’m hoping not,” I say, “I’m hoping it just seems that way because the funeral procession goes up the same road as our school run.”

We didn’t know much about death back in 1992. But like moving to France, where you’ll pick up French one way or another, so it is with death in Ireland: you can’t avoid it. Sometimes, this is because people don’t let you:

1992: “Guess what happened at school today,” my husband says.

“What?”

“A colleague asked if I’d stay behind after four, to help him with something. He said he needed a bit of muscle power and when I followed him upstairs all he said was, ‘you take her feet’.”

“Whose feet?” my son says.

“A nun’s feet,” my husband says, “she’d just died from natural causes in the old part of the convent. She needed to be carried downstairs.”

“So what did you do?” 

“I took her feet.”

“Were you scared, Dad?” 

“I was scared of dropping her,” my husband says.

Other times, just as after a while you might find yourself saying, “Ça roule? Comme d’hab!” soon you discover you’ve picked up little bits of lingo here and there along the way just by listening, which you can pass on to your children when you’re idling the engine six cars behind the funeral procession on the school run:

1993: “Why do they always chat so much?” my seven-year-old son says from the passenger seat.

“When people die here, they have lots of sort of… get-togethers,” I say, “so they can enjoy a nice chat.” 

“What sort of get-togethers?” he says.

“I think the jolliest one’s called a wake,” I say, “but then there’s a thing called ‘the afters’, which can be quite jolly too, by all accounts. And the rosary, and removal. Oh, and sometimes something up at the house.”

Of course you learn about local customs by osmosis too:

“What do they do up at the house?” he says. 

“They have plenty of drinks to cheer things up,” I say.

But as with learning any new language, it’s all about getting some proper practice in and before too long, you’re cutting your teeth on an actual funeral, which is how you really learn about Irish death:

1994: my first open coffin. I stand beside it because that’s what everyone else is doing. People are making comments about the person in the coffin. 

It seems impolite not to join in. But I don’t know what to say about someone dead I only knew a bit. Inside my head, fitting remarks are extremely thin on the ground. 

I’m just about to give up on finding one, when I hear myself utter the words, “she looks very healthy”.

But all is not lost. You get better with practice. 

So you practice - until you get so good that when you offer your condolences to a mischievous friend by shaking his hand up at the front of the church and he tickles your palm with his middle finger and winks at you, it doesn’t even knock a feather out of you.

And after 25 years you no longer need an algorithm to help you work out the answer to: “are you going to the removal, the mass or both?” because you know exactly what you should or shouldn’t be going to - plus the reasons why. But with any learning process, there are setbacks:

2017, Monday: my husband returns from a removal: “I went into the church,” he says, “but no one was going up to offer their condolences so I just sat there for ten minutes, thinking ‘shit, I’m too late’. 

"So I asked the man sitting beside me whether I should just go up quickly anyway. And he said ‘go up where?’ So I said, ‘to offer my condolences’. And he said, “I don’t know where you’re supposed to be but it’s not here. This is evening mass, not a bloody removal. Can’t you tell the difference?”

Which is when you realise you’re never going to be a natural; however fluent you think you are, a French person can tell you’re not a native as soon as you say, “bonjour”.


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