By Rick Fitzgerald/ SUN contributing writer
Gaelic Graveyards are full of Tradition and Taboo
Every culture around the world has customs to help its people cope with the passing of a friend or loved one. Some are very similar, while others are as different as night and day. For centuries, the people of Ireland have had many well-known rituals that deal with sending people to meet their maker. These rituals follow every stage ranging from the mourning period to the burial and even how the person will be remembered in the years to come. In a recent lecture given at Le Moyne College, presented by the Irish-American Cultural Institute of Central New York, Dr. Siobh’an Geraghty, an Irish archeologist and Heritage Officer to North Tipperary County Council, discussed many of these traditions in her talk entitled, “Irish Graveyards, Full of Life.”
One of the best known traditions associated with an Irish funeral is of course, the traditional wake. The entire community would gather to celebrate the life of the deceased. Food and drinks were served throughout the day or night. Songs were sung and favorite stories about “the guest of honor” were swapped. But, according to Geraghty, the days of the big elaborate wake are all but over on the Emerald Isle.
Another tradition connnected with the funeral rites in Ireland is the washing of the body by local women. She told the story of a woman in her family who would water the tree in her yard when they had finished. In the 1960s the tree was bulldozed to make room for a milk house on the property. “This is what progress has done to many of the old traditions,” she lamented. For a time in Ireland, a law prohibited priests from celebrating the sacraments on the grounds of disused abbeys and churches. That meant that the priest couldn’t be at the burial in many cases because that’s where the cemetery was located. As a result, the prayers were said at the home of the deceased during the wake. Another custom followed decades ago was the practice of keening. Local women would “howl” as a sign of grief much as they do in many Arab nations. After the wake, everyone would walk behind the casket to the church and then to the cemetery. Ireland has been a Christian country since the 5th century when Saint Patrick and other missionaries from Northern Britain and France brought the word of God to the Irish people. Most of the old church sites from the period are ruins now. But, many of them are still used as burial sites. There are thousands of these sites throughout the country including over 70 in North Tipperary alone. Some of these grounds have had prayers said on them for a thousand years or more. Common to most graveyards is the high cross. It is usually made of stone and used as grave markers today. But, in the 8th and 9th centuries they only marked the sanctuary area and the locations for baptisms and the administration of the sacraments.
In the early Christian period, only the nobility or those regarded as potential saints were given grave markers. They were simple stone slabs with crosses engraved on them. Some graveyards had more elaborate markers with the person’s name. All of them, however, were flat, not upright. These markers did more than identify the body; they also protected the grave from animals and solicited prayers for the deceased. If it was later decided that the person inside was a saint, the person would be dug up and his or her bones were used as relics. It wasn’t until about the first third of the 18th century that grave markers were given to commoners. Even then, only about 10 percent of those graves had them.
Sometimes, even the plants found in graveyards aren’t seen anywhere else. Some of them were thought to have healing powers. “There are stories,” said Geraghty, “of starving people during the famine of 1846 being found in graveyards with green stains around their mouths. Were they desperate for food, or were they looking for some sort of healing?” In keeping with the tradition of death being a community concern, the graves were dug by friends of the deceased. They were usually given a bottle of spirits as payment. There were two reasons for this practice. One is out of gratitude, the other was for health concerns. “One of the traditions in rural parishes was that graves were often reused,” Geraghty said. “Legally, you could have three, but often more, people buried on top of one another. The belief was that drinking spirits would protect you from any infection that you may come across.”
During the 19th century, folk art started appearing on grave stones in Ireland. The passion of Christ, His betrayal and angels were seen in many graveyards. Much of this beautiful art has been lost because of the modern ways of cleaning the stones. The art and even the name on the grave can be lost due to power washing. There have been reports of the wrong name being put on the stone afterwards. For centuries, the Irish have been regarded as people who live life to its fullest and according to Geraghty, their lust for life continues even after they’ve been laid to rest.