Keening – A Mourning Ritual For Our Time?

By Mary Mclaughlin

Image: Irish Keeners - 1841 (from Samuel and Mrs. Hall’s Travelogue Vol. 1 p.223)
Image: Irish Keeners – 1841 (from Samuel and Mrs. Hall’s Travelogue Vol. 1 p.223).

On 26 April 1995 my beloved mother passed out of this life into the next while I held her hand. It was a traumatic event for both her and me and it unleashed a kaleidoscope of feelings, not only within myself but also within my large Irish family. In line with custom in Catholic Ireland, the body was taken from the hospital and brought back to the house to be ‘waked’. Sean O’Sullivan gives an eloquent description of this ancient ritual,[1] which helps the bereaved begin to come to terms with the departure of a loved one while simultaneously mourning and celebrating him/her. By the mid-1990s this ritual was somewhat watered down, although my family prepared the ‘wake room’ (in this case our front sitting room) in the traditional fashion. Curtains were shut and candles lit, which gave a sense of sacred space; mirrors were removed or covered, in case the spirit would see its own reflection and try to get back into the body; windows and doors were opened so that the spirit could more easily leave; trays of sandwiches were brought in by neighbours; several kettles were borrowed so that there would be a non-stop supply of tea for all who came to pay their respects. For centuries a custom of stopping clocks at the time of death has also been widespread throughout Ireland. Putting the pause button on time gives people a chance to mourn without the business of normal life carrying on; this creates liminal time, an essential component of ritual, and has helped to develop communitas.[2]

The jewel at the centre of the traditional Irish wake had traditionally been the ‘Keen’ – in Irish, Caoine (Kweena) or Caoineadh na Marbh (Kweenoo na Mariv), meaning respectively ‘Cry’ and ‘Lament for the Dead’. The Keen was a highly sophisticated, partly improvised musical art form; usually (although not always) sung by women. It had more than one function, as many scholars have pointed out,[3] including a spiritual dimension. In this blog, however, I want to focus more on its cathartic affect on the bereaved rather than its spiritual function for the deceased.

By the mid 1900s, the Keen had all but died out in my area of Ireland. Reverberations of it, however, continue to exist. In our town in the 1980s, there was what my mother used to call a ‘professional waker’ who would visit wakes with a bottle of whiskey in his pocket, pass it round among whoever was present, start eulogising and lamenting the passing and (in my mother’s words), ‘get them all worked up’. When he had unleashed the grief of the household he would move on to another wake. Although this man’s ritual somewhat reflected the cathartic function of the Keen, one vital piece was missing: singing, which, as Ó Madagáin points out is directly related to emotion.[4] At my mother’s wake we had stories, we had memories, we had laughter, we had tears and we had drama, but we had no professional waker and we had no keening. The closest we got to it was the chanting of the rosary (a Catholic litany of prayers). Although the chanting was powerful as an act of ritual, the words were laden with their own significance and were not specific to this event.

Thirty-six hours after my mother had died the priest came to the house and, surrounded by our community of family and neighbours, we again chanted the rosary as he walked around the open coffin sprinkling my mother’s lifeless body with holy water. The coffin lid was closed in preparation for her journey to church and burial. It was at that point that the reality hit me like a thunderbolt. I had been managing for a week; managing her fears about death, managing my family’s hysteria and abject grief, managing my own feelings – and all of this without sleep. Her death and the period when she was waked had a very surreal quality, but I will never forget the sound of that lid sealing the coffin and in that instance realising she had gone from this life. I felt a wail begin in the centre of my stomach; it was uncontrollable as it came through my body and out of my mouth in a dis-embodied shriek of unbridled grief. My head was telling me that this was ‘not respectful’. This was the construct that had been laid on Irish Catholics who had keened for their dead in the centuries anterior to its dwindling. I did not wish to be disrespectful but I just could not stop screaming. My nine-year old niece was the first person to react; she wordlessly flung her arms around my waist. Her instinctive action was enough to bring me back into my body and I gradually calmed down. My other memories about that day are hazy, including the church service. There was probably singing but I didn’t register it – it didn’t reach me.

Two years to the day that my mother had passed I began a musical tour in North America that signalled a new life in California. The following year saw the release of an album called Celtic Requiem featuring a collaboration between guitarist William Coulter and myself. When choosing the material, I was drawn to the death songs of Ireland; songs such as the Donegal Badaí na Scadáin composed by a fisherman who had just lost his sons in a fishing disaster. Such songs had strong reverberations of the Keen but I had no idea at the time that this was my way of mourning my mother. I even composed a song called Caoineadh na Mara (‘Lament of the Sea’) and still didn’t make the connection! I also found myself researching Latin funeral chants from the Gregorian Chant corpus; echoing back to my childhood experiences of the potency of the Latin Catholic mass with its combination of chant, incense and ritual.

There was, however, one moment in the studio that I will never forget. I was working on a Latin Funeral Chant (Dies Irae) and wanted to frame it so that it fit with the musical theme of the album, which blended Latin chant and Irish traditional songs of mourning. I composed a short motif for the funeral prayer Requiem Æternam as the introduction and suggested that at the outro I would do a little keening. As I started to sing the spontaneous Keen, the same wail arose from my belly that had arisen on the day of my mother’s funeral, but this time I moulded it into a musical piece which was half–sung, half–sobbed. When I opened my eyes the producer and engineer looked stunned and didn’t quite know how to react. In discussion, we decided against using the whole Keen as it may have been ‘too much’ for listeners who were looking to have their souls soothed by the music. We cut it down to just a faint outro, drowned in reverb. Twenty years later, having followed an academic path through ritual chant and Irish traditional song, with a strong emphasis on the Keen, I would have made a different choice.

I now believe that had there been a keener at my mother’s funeral, s/he would have helped us all to channel and expiate those feelings of wrenching loss we were each experiencing and responding to by enacting individual pyscho-dramas. Irish culture is known for its musicality and even those who are not musical practitioners in an active sense are active listeners. In my doctoral studies I discovered that the Keen has survived in Irish–speaking areas into the twenty-first century and, blended as it is with Catholic funeral rites, still has a huge emotional impact on listeners. The practice of using ‘funeral homes’ rather than bringing the deceased home to be waked gathered popularity in the 1990s/early 2000s, but I have noticed a distinct U-turn in recent years. Wakes are back in fashion. I am so glad and wonder if keening in some form will also come back into fashion. I think it is healthy to acknowledge and express, within a safe structure, those deepest darkest feelings that death elicits. A semi-improvised ritual, rather than reverential restraint, is one way that we can meet head-on the inevitable emotional turmoil that death churns up in the living.

Irish singer/teacher Mary Mclaughlin worked throughout the United Kingdom and the United States for many years and relocated to Ireland in 2014. She is currently finishing her doctoral studies at the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance (University of Limerick, Ireland). Her research focuses on themes of enchantment and entrapment in the Irish Otherworld song tradition. Her musical work has reflected her life-long fascination with Irish mythology and the Otherworld. She has explored the Irish sacred music tradition (both pre-Christian and Christian), the selkie traditions of Ireland and Scotland and the monastic tradition of Gregorian chant in her recording and performance projects. She can be contacted through her website:


[1] S. Ó Súilleabháin, Irish Wake Amusements (Dublin: Mercier Press, 1967).

[2] Arnold van Gennep, The Rites of Passage, translated by M. B. Vizedom and G. Caffe (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009; orig. 1960); V. Turner, The Ritual Process (Chicago: Aldine Publishing Company, 1969).

[3] Breandáin Ó Madagáin, ‘Irish Vocal Music of Lament and Syllabic Verse’, in The Celtic Consciousness, edited by R. Ó Driscoll (New York: George Braziller, 1982), pp. 311–32.

[4] Breandáin Ó Madagáin, B. ‘Functions of Irish Song in the Nineteenth Century’, Béaloideas 53 (1985), p. 144.

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