The Irish way of death

In Ireland we like to congratulate ourselves on the way we deal with death. Or, more precisely, with other people’s bereavements. There aren’t many places on the planet where the funeral of a cousin’s mother-in-law, taking place two days after she dies, will demand instant attendance, take priority over work, family, health, weather and money and necessitate a hell of a party.

A wake

I remember how, three decades ago, my mother and her sisters scrambled across to England in full funeral-emergency mode within twenty-four hours of her brother Paddy’s death. They then kicked their heels in East Anglia for ten days as the English side sat around with long faces talking to the undertakers. And not a party in sight. My poor mother thought she was on Mars.

That profound difference in funeral culture between the two islands can sometimes have more serious effects. One of the reasons English police were convinced of the guilt of the Birmingham Six was that five of the men were hightailing it to the funeral of a Belfast neighbour, who just happened to be an IRA man. They were only following the advice of my (other) Uncle Paddy: funerals are better than weddings because you don’t have to be invited.

Apart from the party, the main impulse underlying Irish funerals is, I think, simple tribal solidarity. The bigger the crowd around the grave, the smaller the burden to be carried by the immediate family.

Or at least that’s the theory. In practice, as an American psychotherapist (not my own, I hasten to add) once told me, many Irish people have trouble grieving properly. Maybe all that solidarity makes it harder, not easier, to let go of the dead.

In any case, our intense focus on obsequies has produced a uniquely Irish record source, the death notice. Since about 1940, a public announcement of the time and place of removal and burial has been a compulsory part of every Irish funeral, and often also includes the names of surviving next-of-kin, place of death and cemetery. Checking “the deaths” remains a ubiquitous social necessity. And checking old death notices is an excellent way of tracking distant cousins and forgotten addresses and burial places.

The original and still largest sources are newspapers, The Irish Press and The Irish Independent in particular, with local newspapers also very good. The single best collection of twentieth-century Irish newspapers is at www.irishnewsarchive.com, a subscription site.

More recently, www.rip.ie has become a standard part of funeral announcements, free and fully searchable from 2006. It should also be a standard part of the toolkit of every Irish private eye genealogist.

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