You can’t expect children to know what to do at an Irish wake.
Wee Fergus inched gingerly through the room to the coffin for a look at his grandad, found the waxy corpse interesting for about a minute then went out to play with his ball in the garden.
Katie, being older, comprehended that she had lost someone and was crying.
The discovery of Pat dead in his bed that morning was like an emotional bomb blast. Sons and daughters would hurry home from half a dozen cities.
Delma and her daughters set up a production line for sandwiches. Within hours the house would be full of chatter.
Betty and I, while there was a chance, went to inspect the grave and meet the gravedigger. It was a double grave with room for herself later. ‘What side do you want him in?’
She had no thoughts on that.
‘What side of the bed did he lie in?’ I asked.
‘The left’, she said.
‘Left it is’, said the gravedigger.
Pat, for now, was laid out in his coffin in the living room. Betty ruffled his hair to make him look more like himself.
It is a shock that soon passes, seeing someone dead, formally laid out, the beads entwined in his fingers. The corpse is at the mercy of the artistry of the undertaker. My sister, in her coffin, wore red lipstick for the first time since her teens. My father, in a blue jacket I had lent him to be cremated in, looked like a club doorman.
Pat had looked worse.
Wee Fergus was warned again that this was a solemn occasion. He had the best possible defence: ‘But they are laughing too’ . He was pointing at me and big Damien, receiving visitors at the door.
I noted that these visitors were more sombre than we were and I straightened my face a bit.
There were times you would have to suppress a cackle at someone’s joke and turn to another person saying: ‘Isn’t it an awful business, and wasn’t he such a lovely man’.
Which he was. And you’d try to be as sad as they were, as sad as you had been yourself a moment before.
Pat Boyle, my wife’s father, an old country school master and brass band conductor, had survived heart trouble and two cancers to get within a spit of eighty and he had kept his sense of humour too.
He rose to speak at our wedding with a confidence that he could put on a far better performance than I could any day of the week.
At another wedding, Mel’s, he quoted from the gospel: ‘The Lord said, “It is good that we are here”‘.
But what people said mostly about Pat was, ‘Just think of the stories in that man’s head that are lost now.’
I’m not sure that I can comprehend the Irish wake much better than Fergus does. You really only learn the genius of it from going to many of them. The folk image is of old men drinking porter around the coffin, telling stories that get scarier and bawdier as the house darkens.
Blame Dave Allen with his yarns about a dead hunchback who’d had to be strapped down and then bounced up when the strap broke; about corpses taken out and set on the rocking chair.
Father Oliver Crilly tells me that he doesn’t remember a wake with drink, that it is not in the tradition at all, though a large bowl of cigarettes, until recently, was.
Probably hundreds came to the house that day and the next. Every time a priest called there was a decade of the rosary. One prayer leader’s pronunciation of ‘womb Jesus’ had mourners suppressing giggles. Some priests were good on wee homilies to Pat. Some weren’t.
But the things that go wrong in a wake are part of what makes it work, so long as they aren’t calamitous. The point of it all is to distract a family from grief and help the bereaved absorb the shock. It is good that we were there.
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