Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Wake in the fields

Our elderly neighbours out here grew up in a different world -- in many ways, a different century -- than modern people know today. I stopped my bicycle tonight to talk to my neighbour, a farmer in his 80s; he grew up when everyone kept gardens, drove horse carts to town, and gathered at each others houses to sing in the evenings. He was already a father when television first appeared here in the 1960s, and many people didn't get it until decades later -- some houses still lacked electricity in the 1980s. He was a grandfather by the time divorce was legallised here and the first supermarkets and SUVs appeared. Ireland has taken the course the USA took, but traveled a century or two in just a few decades, and not always in a good way.

Even in our ten years here, we have seen many changes; the traditional culture that sustained families is dying. Most of the older people spend their remaining years watching television, and my daughter’s peers are mostly watching the internet; I don't know what world they're living in, but it's not the one around them. I simply hope that people retain enough of the old culture to revive it if times get difficult again.

Last night, though, something happened that once was commonplace, and is no longer. Word went out to all the people who live along the canal that our elderly neighbour had died, and the usually-empty country roads saw families, one after the other, making their way to her house.
Irish wakes celebrate the deceased; the body lies in the home, and people who knew them well sit with their loved one for hours, with sandwiches and drinks. Sometimes mourners staged riotous parties, with songs and games, all night long – hence a “wake.”

This gathering was quieter. I didn’t go in the house; I didn’t know the deceased well enough, and the family was private. Instead I, and perhaps fifty of our neighbours, stood in a crowd outside the door, while inside the closest loved ones and the priest stood with the body. From behind the lace curtains of the house, the Father’s voice called out to the crowd: Let us pray.

And we did. The white-haired neighbour that trains his pony along the canal banks, the settled Traveller family whose yard overflows with chickens and ducks, the neighbours who helped us foot our turf for the winter. The cattle farmer who has 1930s cars under blankets in his barn, and the father and son I see fishing around the herons in the spring. Too few of these people gather anymore, and most are old – their ways are dying out. Nonetheless, they gathered; everything still stops for a wake.

On our right was the canal older than my native country, swallows wheeling through evening air heavy with midges. On our left fields of wildflowers, dimming in the twilight, rustled in the breeze – and beyond them the Bog of Allen under a brilliant rose sunset.

In memory of our neighbour ____, we will say the rosary, the priest’s voice called from inside, and he began to say the rosary. If you’ve ever heard old-style Catholic priests read prayers, they do not so much speak as chant in a sing-song, and we repeated them all – one Hail Mary after another, until the rosary was done.

I spoke to our neighbours, offered condolences and pledged to see them soon under better circumstances, and mean to keep the promise this time. Between commuting to work in the city or watching television, the modern world has pulled people away from each other, and as a newcomer I’m not the right person to carry the torch. Nonetheless, I can do my part, and pass on what I’ve learned from them.

Occasionally people ask about the photos on this blog, and why the land is so empty. I tell them it’s usually not – there are often people on our roads or in the fields, but I rarely show the people. I don’t have permission to use their images, or to put information about the old farmers or grandmothers into a world of data mining, targeted marketing and facial-recognition software. Some of them never  entered the world of electronic media and consumption; they still live in a genuine world of wildflowers and herons, and they deserve to keep it as long as they can. 

 Top photo: Our neighbour's car. Bottom photo: Sunset over the bog.


Sarah R said...

A lovely, moving post. I was particularly struck by the way that death is still a community affair with the body in the house, where presumably your neighbour died, not whisked away from the hospital by the undertaker. I think it's a much gentler and more natural way of coping with the transition from life to death and I wish I could be lucky enough to die in such a way.

Brian Kaller said...


Thank you. I've been listening to interviews with Irish in the 1970s and 80s, and they all assumed that death would be handled by a family -- laying the body on the table, carrying it to church and so on.

There was a great hostility to the idea of funeral homes when they appeared -- it took people away from their loved ones at the most intimate moment.

Brian Michael said...

Thank you Brian for reviving memories when I was a child in Philly in Pa. My father took me to a wake of one of my boy scout friends. It was in the home, they were Irish Americans and they kept the tradition. It was so much more moving than what we experience in America today. The neighbors gathered and the women mourning and the men telling stories of the deceased and drinking. It made a huge impression on me as a child. As a priest I miss the familiarity of it and the warmth! It just seemed right to remember the deceased this way in his home.