Boyhood Memories from West Cork, Part 1

When I was a child, the old people used to say: "The old customs are nearly all gone. Funerals now aren't like what they were long ago. "When we were young," they used to say, "We'd be frightened by all the keening that went on at night in the wake house where the corpse was laid out."

My parents, when they were children together in Goleen, said they heard eerie wailing sounds one night, which they later found out was keening at the wake for Johanna Hurley in Ballydevlin near the village. None of that happened when I was a child in the forties, when I began to learn the funeral rituals of the Catholic Church in Goleen.

I remember my Grandmother, Kate McCarthy, as a plump old lady dressed in long black clothes with a great gradh for her first grandchildren. She became ill and died in 1943 soon after I got to know her and was the first dead person I had seen laid out. She was in her brown Third Order of St. Francis habit, crucifix on her breast with a rosary beads entwined round her clasped hands. I remember feelings of awe and mystery, but I felt no fear. People came, prayed and went in the wake room.

Many of the older women remained for a while seated round the white linen covered bed, which was hung with sheets at the back, talking quietly in the shadows almost beyond the flickering range of the five fragrant wax candles on the bedside table. Some neighbours would keep vigil all night.

Downstairs in the kitchen there was a different scene. The people of the locality, having paid their respects sat around the tables and talked. I suppose there was tea to be had, although tea was very scarce at that time - in the middle of what was to become known as World War Two - but what I remember most were the white table cloths, the plates of snuff and of cut plug tobacco, the new clay pipes beside them, the whiskey tumblers and the bottles of Paddy standing on the tables, and the powerful aroma that all these commodities gave off. Indeed, as I remember it, whiskey was almost like incense at funerals in those days. When the tumblers for the men who made the grave were filled and passed round in the churchyard, depending on the direction of the wind, the bouquet comforted a sector of the mourners as well.

Although I mentioned whiskey in each of the last two sentences-and will use the word again- I would like to dispel the idea that heavy drinking was a regular feature of traditional wakes and funerals. A trawl through the internet shows that this idea is very prevalent even today. It belongs to the category known as "paddywhackery" and is especially common in America and in Britain.

Death was a cottage industry in those days. Mrs. Annie Barry of Colleras was responsible for the washing, dressing and laying out of the corpse. The funereal brown habit was supplied by our uncle Jerry McCarthy, brother of Mai McCarthy, who later took over the business which is now Denny O'Meara's.

He also provided the plain deal coffin, made by a local carpenter, probably by either Willie or Jack Goggin, and the "cypresses", which were frilled, over the shoulder fine white cotton stoles worn by the officiating clergy, and also the metal breast plate. This would be inscribed with brief details of the deceased in meticulous copperplate by my grand uncle Tommy Wooll, a former teacher. He did this painstaking work using a large curved bag needle normally used for stitching jute sacks. His reward used to be a plug of tobacco. He himself, sadly, was the first person not to have this elegant script on his breastplate.

The Crowley Clan Newsletter is
compiled by Marian Crowley Chamberlain