It’s St. Patrick’s Day, one of the few saint’s days to have an impact in American culture. It’s a day (or weekend!) for drinking, turning the rivers of Chicago green, attending parades, and generally reveling in one’s Irish heritage (whether actually Irish or not).
Religiously speaking, the Irish aren’t known only for their excellent beer and whiskey production—the humorous, celebratory tone of Irish wakes and funerals is iconic enough to be featured in TV shows and films. The Irish have a reputation for being really good at grieving. It’s a stereotype that is caricatured almost as frequently as Guinness and leprechauns.
In the book Death and the Irish, historian Salvador Ryan, professor of ecclesiastical history at St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth, has collected together 75 short and intriguing stories about death, burial, and the afterlife from the fifth century C.E. to the present day. The book begins with Ryan narrating how he lost his uncle’s hearse during a funeral procession and rejoined the group sometime later uncontrollably laughing. From here the book takes us on a journey from female warriors buried with their horses to the disinterment and dismemberment of unpopular enemies to the 18th-century practice of laying the corpse of the executed at the doorstep of the prosecutor and even to present day cyber-grieving.
A particularly entertaining episode, written by Patrick Comerford, involves the death of Richard Bourke, the sixth Earl of Mayo and a politician who served as Governor-General of India from 1869 until his death. One day while visiting the Andaman Islands, he was attacked by an Afghan convict and murdered. Bourke’s final words valiantly forgave his attacker and those around him made preparations to return his body to Ireland for a state funeral.
In order to delay the disintegration of the body, the Earl’s partially remains were shipped home in a rum-filled cask. Oddly, though, when the body arrived some weeks later, there was no rum left in the barrel. Perhaps the cask had sprung a leak? Perhaps the rum had evaporated? Perhaps the crew had drained off the liquor and drunk it? Or perhaps the recently deceased Earl had enjoyed one last tipple? In any case from this day onward, Lord Mayo gained the epithet, the “Pickled Earl.”
While wisely eschewing the suggestion that the death traditions of the Irish are special or distinctive in some way, Ryan told The Daily Beast that people in Ireland attend funerals whether or not they even knew the deceased; it is part of the Irish way of life. Attending the funerals of relatives and friends is so important, he said, that until recently “the first pages read in the morning newspaper were the death notices [what we would call obituaries].”
In her contribution to the volume, Rita Larkin points out how important death notices are. They are to this day. At the end of every news bulletin, stations often broadcast the local death notices, complete with funeral arrangements. It’s at this moment in particular that you will be told “Shhhh” in an Irish household, “we want to hear who’s dead.”
“Local politicians,” he added “make it their business to attend as many funerals as they possibly can. And it’s not unknown for Irish politicians who, for some reason, can’t make a funeral, to send a driver to park their car in a conspicuous spot near the church so that, were anyone to enquire afterwards, it could always be said that yes, Mr So & So actually did make it; sure didn’t we see his car?”
As for St. Patrick himself, Ryan said, there are several stories that show that he, too, took a special interest in the art of dying. In one story from Waterford, Patrick was told by Jesus to visited a dying man in a remote region who had been unable to receive last rites in the Catholic Church. Patrick arrived just in time to perform the ritual and saw the man’s soul leave his body. According to the legend the soul returned to its body three times and kissed its own corpse. Patrick was befuddled and ask Jesus why this was. He was told that the soul was sad to leave the body that had kept the soul “so clean, without sin.”
In a slightly less saintly story from County Kerry, St. Patrick was watching a hurling match one day when he spied a pagan wandering along and minding his own business. Patrick asked the man if he would like to be baptized and the man consented. Immediately after being baptized he died and his body collapsed into a pile of clothing and bones.
Patrick left, but soon returned to pilfer a few gold coins from the man’s purse. When Jesus challenged him about the petty theft Patrick replied that it was a kind of sacramental fee, to which Jesus replied that from this point priests would always be concerned with money.
The ability to inject humor into death and even great tragedies is feature of many of the stories in the volume. Ryan told me a piece of folklore from the Great Hunger (often known as the Irish Famine) in the 19th century. High mortality rates meant that bodies were often left unburied for days and were then consigned to mass graves.
On one occasion, a doctor gave one pile of thirtysomething corpses a quick once-over before giving the undertakers permission to begin burying them. “Just at that moment, with fingers barely moving, one of the ‘corpses’ pleaded in a thin, weak voice, ‘but I’m not dead yet!’ whereupon the overseer barked ‘well the doctor said you are, so lie down and be quiet!’ And he was buried with the rest.”