FAMILY TIES #2: A FULL MOON & AN IRISH WAKE

In 2007 I was over in Ireland researching my family tree when I picked up a book ‘Old Irish Country Life’ by Hugh Oram. It was packed with photographs taken at the beginning of the 20th century of people working on the land, some I have included here along with the text by Oram.

From fishwives to seaweed harvesting, weaving and cutting turf, the wonderful black & white pictures illustrated a harsh life – and these were similar scenes to what my ancestors lived through.

Seaweed harvesting was an industry along the coastlines of Mayo, Galway, Donegal and Kerry.

Work on farmland and fishing were major occupations in Ireland and after a long day’s work people would organise entertainment – there was no radio, TV or cinema in those days.

Relatives, friends and neighbours would enjoy endless singing and storytelling, the tradition of seanchaí – a teller of traditional stories – was hugely popular in rural households.

Killing the pig was an important ceremony and social occasion with neighbours lending a hand. Tea and the odd whiskey or two were shared afterwards, plus the latest neighbourhood news and gossip.

Superstition played a part – a pig was never killed during a month containing the letter ‘R’ and if it was done on a full moon the meat increased in size.

The Bothan Scoir, a labourers cottage, west Ireland.

Ancient customs and traditions were a big part of Irish life – and death. The wake was a send off by  family and friends in the house of the deceased before the body was handed over to the church. My Grandfather wrote of his experience as an Irish family living in Jarrow, North East England.

You know looking back on my younger days, knowing the bit about my father and the more I knew about my mother, she was a very kind woman, strict but fair, and very religious. She must have been a strong woman to work the way she did and to put up with the life she had with my father.

I often wonder how they came together as they had nothing in common with each other. One was always in the pub, the other in the church. Still, I suppose there must have been some feeling between them as she had five children to him, three sons and two daughters. As they say, there’s nothing as queer as folk.  

In 1920 I started at St Bede’s Senior School, Low Jarrow. I was eleven years old and quite a lot happened to make me grow up quickly. I detested school and did everything I could to make sure I seldom went.

The only time I was ever happy at school was during the winter because each classroom had a big open coal fire and it was lovely and warm. But in the summer I would go to school in the morning and if it was a sunny day I would go to Shields beach in the afternoon.

When my father died my mother insisted on an Irish wake, where the deceased is put on display in the front room so that family and friends can pay their respects. They all sat at a table where there was snuff, cigarettes, clay pipes and ‘baccy.

Later on the men brought in the beer and to my young mind everybody seemed to be enjoying themselves except for my father who was stuck in the corner.

Then the final touch the night before the funeral, the priest came down at 7pm to say prayers as there was no taking the coffin to the church the night before the funeral as there is now.

More Irish family ties and images from ‘Old Irish Country Life’ on the next post.

Hugh Oram book published in 2007 by Stenlake Publishing Limited.

Gary Alikivi  May 2021