American Wake

The famine changed the attitude of the Irish towards emigration. No longer was it a question of whether to go, but of when and how to leave. Hope was before them, nothing was behind them but the misery they were leaving.

With them also went a terrible bitterness and sense of wrong, endless struggle against blighted harvest, rack rents that rose every time a man tried to improve himself and his family by working harder. They had witnessed death by starvation, long lines of people waiting for flavored hot water which was called soup, and the most galling and pitiful sight of evictions of entire families some with sick children and often, these evictions would take place in the middle of winter.

If a family could raise only enough money for one passage, the ticket would be bought in the name of the eldest son or daughter. When that son or daughter arrived in America and got a job, money would be sent back to Ireland to help the family pay the rent and eventually to buy another passage for a younger brother or sister. This system of “one bringing another” would follow until the children of an entire family were reunited in America.

The days before going put a terrible strain on the parents and the person leaving the parents knew they would never see their oldest son again. The emigrant suffered through a torturous push and pull. Pushed by the fear of hunger and poverty out of the country, away from his family, friends, everything he knew and loved. He was also pulled by the uncertain hope of plenty to a strange land where he had no family or friends and where no one spoke Gaelic. If he was also leaving behind a girl he loved and wanted to marry, the torture leading up to his departure became almost unbearable.

On the night before the departing one was to make the trip to port and board ship the family held what later became known as an “American Wake”. It did not become widespread until the vast exodus of the late 1840’s and throughout the 1850’s when the country lost through emigration almost what it had lost through starvation and disease.

The practice was a natural extension of Ireland’s reverence for the dead “or” waking, watching over the dead person during the night prior to burial to prevent evil spirits from entering the body. Since departure was a kind of death especially when a voyage across the ocean to America could last two to three months and the prospect of a return was beyond imagining, the emigration ceremony was associated with waking the dead. Birth, marriage, death and burial were the four most important events in Ireland’s peasant society, the America wake would be the 5th. It even took on the elements of all four.

Death = Departure

Burial = The boarding of the ship that sealed for life the separation.

Birth = The emigrant’s arrival in America.

Marriage = The letters sent back and forth across the ocean.

During the week before his leaving, the emigrant would make calls throughout the parish to inform his friends and neighbors of his intentions in every cabin cottage or farmhouse visited he would get a warm welcome and he would bestowed with blessings and good wishes, followed by questions about departure time and where in America he was headed. Between all this small talk was an invitation to the home of the emigrants parents on the night before he was going. Those invited were not obliged to attend but almost all did, just as they attended funerals. It was something like a point of honor and those absent without good reason would receive the same response when one of their own died or went to America. In those days people made very little difference between going to America and going to the grave.

In the famine year of 1847 the American wake was very somber and sad occasion, with no food, drink or tobacco to share, it must have been a pitiful sight. As things began to improve so did the American wake. Everything was done “on tick” i.e. on credit. “You did not pay for three or four months and then you had to pay more than the price of the stuff, interest the shop man called it” explained one man whose father had been through the experience.

In most cases, the debts incurred by a families holding an American Wake could not be paid until the money came from America, from the very emigrant who had been waked. The emigrant accepted this responsibility and lived up to it as quickly as he could. He considered the hardship suffered insignificant with the honor bestowed and the memories won.

The basic elements necessary for a successful wake were those that had for generations immersed the participants in their parish and village way of life – neighborliness, respect, reminiscence, dancing, singing, food, liquor and a shared feeling of loss and regret at the permanent departure of a loved one. Clay pipes and plenty of tobacco, a luxury reserved for the most important functions were offered to the men and women. The tobacco was bought in town for a penny a “Finger”.

Finger of Tobacco = The measure being the middle finger of the right hand from the tip to the third knuckle.

Any wake deserving the name saw many fingers consumed before the night was over. If there were more guests than pipes man and wife shared one and lighted pipes would be passed around. In those days in Ireland pipes would be passed around. In those days in Ireland smoking was prevalent among the older women. One grandmother asked when she first took to the pipe, replied “I tuk to it as a bit of divarshion after me poor old man was tucked under the daisies.”

The liquor served was almost always poteen a highly potent spirit distilled illegally. It was neither expected nor offered during the early hours of the wake. The emigrant would first be given contributions to his sea stock of provisions. A box of hard boiled eggs, a supply of rye or oatmeal biscuits dried and hardened but softened in a cup of hot strong tea. A near relative might give him a few loaves of frog bread.

Frog Bread = Made by killing, roasting and pulverizing a frog and mixing the powder in with the bread dough.

By eating this frog bread during the voyage the emigrant, it was believed, would be immunized against fever.

In Ireland, where fairies, banshees and leprechauns were part and parcel of everyone’s imagination. The people were highly emotional and addicted to superstition there were many such beliefs. Another common one held that anyone born with a Caul would be forever safe from drowning.

Caul = The fetal membrane that sometimes covers the head of an infant at birth. This belief, apparently based on the Caul’s protection of the unborn child in the watery world of the womb during pregnancy. When an infant was born with one, it was carefully removed and if a family attending an American wake had had a child born with a Caul, the lucky emigrant would be given it. The emigrant who had no doubt been searching the parish for one, would accept with great appreciation, embrace the child whose caul it was and promise to return it to the family for someone else to use.

Guests who could not afford to give the emigrant material gifts gave verbal ones. An arriving guest might address him – adding the affectionate “een” to his Christian name with “When you reach America, Mikeen, may the devil fly away with the roof of the house, where you’re not welcome”.

The evening commenced quietly with stories from an endless repertoire that was added to and handed down by each succeeding generation. These stories would gradually lead to the main topic of conversation ; The United States and the countries wealth.

A man would say that he had heard of a river so full of fish in upstate New York that “if you were to boil the water you’d take out of it – you would be getting the taste of Salmon in your tea”. Going one better a woman guest would tell of two men who left the area and went to New York.” When they landed in that city and were walking up the docks from the boat, one of them saw a sovereign lying on the ground. He was bending down to pick it up when his companion caught him by the arm and said “Don’t bother with that one. Come on to the heap”. From the letters, stories and talk developed the overwhelming consensus that the United States was “the mainstay and the hope” of the Irish people a “ready made Republic where they would pay no tithe to an alien church.

Tithe; A tax all Catholics had to pay to the Protestant Church which they despised.

Cultivate the soil without paying rent, earn high wages and have a stake as voting citizens in the country of their choice. But given the famine conditions under which they were living, the most powerful and appealing attraction was the money paid for work done. Freedom and citizenship would come later, when they found the time and strength to think of something other than survival.

It was no wonder that the American wake brought so many conflicting emotions into play, for if departure was a kind of death, so was being left with the conviction that your country and your way of life were finished. The poteen was now beginning now beginning to flow and the liquor brought to the surface these emotions. One person would cry for some private reason with a friend, another would express openly, tearfully, his or her thoughts on the country’s plight. The evening gradually became very emotional and especially sad for the emigrant and his family, who knew that every hour passed brought the moment of permanent separation nearer. It was like a man attending his own funeral. He knew he was alive and looked the same, but the guests kept treating him with the respect ad consideration for someone lying in a coffin.

It was a wake in every sense of the word an old native of Fenagh recalled” though not of a dead person but of a living one, who next day would be sailing for the promised land”.

Finally, at three or four in the morning as if concentrating in one act the love, sorrow and loss everyone was feeling the emigrants father would stand and say “Get up here son and face me in a step, for likely it will be the last step ever we’ll dance”. It would be a jig to be remembered and there would not be a dry eye in the house. The partnership they expressed in their timing, the ascendancy of their concentration over their sorrow, and the note of courage and hope in their exuberance brought what everyone was feeling to the surface and broke down all restraints. It was in a way a festival atmosphere of singing and dancing but with a great sense of sadness and sorrow that heightened the importance of an American wake. The combined pleasures of song, dance and melancholy were no where so appreciated as in Ireland, a country whose people had centuries of oppression behind them and no reason for hope in the future joy, however intense was never far from the memory of misery which was a continuing reality. The American wake was an interchanging of conflicting emotions a time when happiness and sadness, hope and defeat passed to and fro.

When father and son had finished their dance the keening commenced. The old woman of the area noted for their ability to wail and lament would start keening over the dead person the emigrant. The mournful effect of their high pitched lament took hold of everyone present. Long before they were thru bemoaning the loss of the dead one the women guests along with their weeping husbands joined them in a chorus bereft of inhibition – a chorus so poignant and infectious that the emigrants parents, and at last the emigrant himself joined in.

It was a harrowing experience and everyone showed its effects in the light of dawn when the guests stepped outside to allow the departing son to bid his parents his last farewell in private. The parents did not want to embarrass their son; they tried in fact to appear calm, but this was the end of the American Wake, the closing of the coffin, and as the seconds passed a kind of family torment webbed the air and made it hard to breath.

“Be sure and write lad as soon as you can” the father would say, rather than wait speechless for the inevitable “I will, Da you can rest on that”

“Did you pack your —?” The mother would add. She had worn her husbands jacket during childbirth in the Irish belief that he would thereby bear some of the pain. Whether or not he did then, they were both bearing equally the pain of departure now.

At last, with the kindness of efficiency, the drained and exhausted son tried to leave. Embracing his father, kissing his mother, making quick solemn promises to take care of himself and send back money, he turned as if expecting his mother to release him. The father too, his pent-up sorrow killing him tried to shorten the ordeal, but the mother, with her instinct for the truth of the situation, would have no part of it. She knew that she would never see, be with, talk or listen to her son again, that once she released him from her grasp, he would be as good as dead as far as the rest of her life was concerned. All the untouched time between her and her son, all of it still to be lived, would now and forever be lived in separation.

The son knew what she was going through. Her naked grief tore at his heart, and to end it once and for all he used his utmost strength and his fathers help to free himself with tears streaming down his face, he turned and ran out, waved goodbye to the remaining guests, and joined the convoy of youths chosen to accompany him to port.

But as so often happened, the mother at the very end broke free of her husbands grasp and with a deafening wail, ran out of the house to lock her arms once more around her son. She clung, she hugged, she cried, her concern for appearance completely deserting her, then in a final gesture before the final sad parting the holy water was liberally shook over her loved one. ( Irish mothers had great veneration for holy water – it was used at births, christenings, marriage, deaths, sickness, cows calving or sick, sow farrowing, in times of disaster high wind, storms lighting, and at all crisis the holy water was dispensed.) Shrouded in the privacy of a cell, her grief, her tears, and swollen eyes, the agony in her voice as she cried out “God bless you – God preserve you. The Lord in heaven protect you.”

Without meaning to or trying to, she told everyone present, in language as true as the emotion it expressed, that there is no greater pain in all of life’s ills than permanent separation not caused by death itself. She and her husband would retain their full consciousness of loss and their full strength to suffer, knowing as they would that their son was still alive but forever gone, never to be seen, touched or spoken to again.

For the son it was a ghastly experience, one that other young people in the audience swore they would at any cost avoid. Many of them in fact did by stealing off to America without their parents knowledge. “You would rather not be there at all if you would be any way soft yourself” one man said. “As they say, the sight would take a tear out of a stone.

One of these final partings was witnessed by a writer named Harriet Martineau who frowned upon grief openly expressed and reacted accordingly with a peculiarly British blend of sympathy and disdain, prejudice and an assumption of moral superiority. “The last embraces were terrible to see, but worse were the kissing and the clasping of the hands during the long minutes that remained. When we saw the wringing of hands and heard the wailings, we became aware, for the first time perhaps, of the full dignity of that civilization which induces control over the expression of emotions. All the while that this lamentation was giving me a headache – there could not but be a feeling that these people, thus giving vent to their instincts, were as children, and would command themselves better when they were wiser. Still there it was, the pain and the passion and the shrill united cry – rings in our ears and long will ring when we hear of emigration”.

The priest in every parish was out on the road to see his parishioners safely out of Ireland. The emigrants gathered round him with smiles of affection while he gave words of advice. The tears and lamentations that followed when the emaciated old and young got down on their knees around for a final blessing and the priest asked God to protect them during their long journey, left an indelible impression on the minds of all present.

The convoy of brothers, sisters, and close friends never took a near cut or short cut on the way to port for the same reason that a funeral procession never took a near cut to the graveyard, if you hastened the dead ones departure you jinxed his arrival. Eventually, though either in the next village or the one beyond that, the time came for the emigrant to continue on his own. Those who had been carrying his bags and provisions would hand them to him. There would be handshakes and good byes, promises, hopes, and blessings.

Finally, with all the weight on his own back the emigrant would continue his journey. The convoy would stand there, with an unbroken stillness watching and waiting for the young emigrant to pass forever out of sight. But just before that happened he would, as they knew he would turn around and wave.