IN the 1980s I lived in northern Italy, up near the border between the provinces of Trentino and Alto Adige, the latter known to most of its German-speaking inhabitants as Sud Tirol. There was a point on the road about 10k from my house north of which gnocchi turned into dumplings, lederhosen hung on the washing lines and speaking Italian in a shop or café would get you no service, just a glare.
I was teaching English in a language school where the majority of other teachers were from the UK and (like many Irish in Europe in those pre-Riverdance days) we Irish regularly had to fend off the irritating presumption than we were British. Gradually, though, we were forced to look at just how much Irish and British culture overlapped:
language, food, sense of humour, currency, television, shops … Compared with the chasm between German and Italian civilizations just 10k north, the Irish and the Brits were practically joined at the hip.
But there was one area that was then and still is utterly distinctive, and that’s the attitude to death and the rituals of death. Very little survives in Ireland of the pagan Celtic culture that created Samhain, the festival of the dead that underlies Halloween – here it’s now an just Anglo-American holiday, mixing cartoon ghouls with Guy Fawkes fireworks. But the dead are still a much more important part of everyday life in Ireland.
First, there is an absolute obligation to be physically present at the moment of death of a family member, almost as if the death has to be caught and preserved. Then, funeral attendance trumps every other social duty, even for remote acquaintances. With funerals held extraordinarily close to death, within three or four days at most, which means dropping everything at very short notice. And a good time tends to be had by all – my uncle Paddy used to prefer funerals to weddings, because you didn’t need an invitation to a funeral.
And then there’s the removal, the lying-in, the wake (now more usual after the funeral), the death notice, the memorial announcements, the mass cards, the month’s mind … While many other Irish customs and traditions have withered, those surrounding death are as tenacious as ever.
Which is good news for those of us who track the Irish dead (aka genealogists). Because getting to funerals is so important, the Irish newspaper death notice is absolutely essential and at its most florid can give a picture of entire extended families and social circles as well as home addresses and burial places. From about 1940, it’s a very rare funeral that didn’t have a death notice, and they’re now all searchable online at the subscription site www.irishnewsarchive.com (25% off with the discount code JGDISC25). They can provide superb evidence of living relatives. And for the past 10 years, www.rip.ie provides a free online version. There is, needless to say, no such thing as www.rip.co.uk or www.rip.com.
One other feature of Irish funeral rituals is that we’re very proud of them. I once boasted about them to an American psychotherapist and genealogist and she responded “Yes, I’ve noticed that the Irish have problems letting go.”
Food for thought. Perhaps eventually ceasing to grieve for the dead is not a betrayal, just an acceptance that they’re gone.