'Irish Roots' archive



Irish Roots


January 12 2015

Pure Irish deaths

In Ireland we tend to congratulate ourselves on the way we deal with death. Or, more precisely, with other people's bereavements. There aren't many places on the planet where the funeral of a cousin's mother-in-law will demand instant attendance and take priority over work, family, health, weather and money.

I remember how, three decades ago, my mother and her sisters scrambled across to England in full funeral-emergency mode within 24 hours of her brother Paddy's death. And then sat around kicking their heels in East Anglia as the English side of the family took 10 days to ensure they got all the details right, all the while keeping everyone's faces appropriately long. My poor mother thought she was on Mars.

That profound difference in culture between the two islands certainly has partly to do with the reason my (other) Uncle Paddy gave for preferring funerals to weddings: you don't need an invitation to a funeral, and the party can be even better. But the main underlying impulse is, I think, simple tribal solidarity. The bigger the crowd around the grave, the smaller the burden to be carried by the immediate family.

Or at least that's the theory. In practice, as an American psychotherapist (not mine) once told me, many Irish people have trouble grieving properly. Maybe all that solidarity makes it harder, not easier, to let go of the dead.

In any case, our intense focus on obsequies has produced a uniquely Irish record source, the death notice. For more than 70 years, a published announcement of the time and place of removal and burial has been a compulsory part of every Irish funeral, and often also includes the names of surviving next-of-kin, place of death and cemetery. Checking "the deaths" remains a ubiquitous social necessity. And checking old death notices is an excellent way of tracking distant cousins and forgotten addresses and burial places.

The best sources (it gives me no pleasure to admit) are in the Independent and the Press. Full runs of their 20th-century archives are at irishnewsarchives.com.

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