The truth about the Irish wake: lewd songs and pranks

A 1873 sketch of an Irish Wake.

Irish wakes are anything but a somber affair. Merrymaking was a common part of the traditional Irish wake and a major part of the grieving process in Ireland.

Pagan ritual was the root of the wake and much of the carrying-on was frowned upon by the church. Storytelling, mischief-making, and games were all part of the send-off in an attempt to ease the suffering for the deceased's family.

The wake custom most likely has its roots in the ancient Jewish custom of leaving the burial chamber unsealed for three days with relatives returning during that time to check for any signs of life.

As in other Celtic countries, Irish mourners adopted the custom as a way to keep vigil over their dead until the time of burial, and it evolved into an occasion mixed with both sadness and merriment.

Lewd songs, pranks, and games with names like "Priest of the Parish" and "Hide the Gulley" were commonplace at wakes up until the mid-1900s.

Even contests of strength, which included lifting the corpse, were common.

Another prank often played was hiding under the corpse’s bed and shaking it when someone walked in, scaring the living daylights out of them

These activities and their pagan origins were severely frowned upon by the church, who tried to stamp out the custom. Official action was only taken, however, when a wake turned particularly scandalous.


An Irish wake began when neighborhood women came to the house and washed the body of the deceased. The corpse was then covered in white linen and adorned with black or white ribbons.

Custom dictated that crying could not begin until after the body was prepared, for fear that evil spirits would be attracted to the body and would take the soul of the deceased.

Female keeners were often hired by the family, and they wailed and cried and recited poetry, lamenting the loss of the loved one. The principal mourner stood at the head of the bed striking the first note or wail.

While wakes are still held in the more rural parts of the west of Ireland, funeral parlors have sprung up across the country in the past few decades and the wake tradition has become in someways a part of historical Ireland.

Is the time of the Irish wake dead and gone? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below. 

*Originally published October 2012. 

H/T: Irish Independent.

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