Wood engraving of an Irish Wake

Irish Keens, Modern Grief, and the Digital Landscape of Mourning

In January 1833, an author known only as O’G published their musings on the Irish funeral cry, or caoine, in the Dublin Penny Journal. O’G described the cry as “the most singularly plaintive and mournful expression of excessive grief that could well be imagined.” In the article, O’G describes traveling the Irish countryside on horseback on a quiet winter morning in January, enjoying the ease of solitude. Suddenly, a “faint wailing sound, so wild and indescribable . . . came floating on the light morning breeze,” breaking the silence. The source of the sound appeared on the horizon, a “crowd…exceeding a thousand persons.” The origin of the English word keen, caoine is characterized by a loud wailing noise at the deathbed of the deceased and a structured lament detailing the deceased’s life and virtues throughout the funeral procession to the graveyard. Keens follow a basic structure, but are extemporaneous in nature. No two keens are the same, as they are tailored to the deceased.

O’G’s description highlights the Irish funeral keen’s long tradition in the scope of Irish oral culture. Christina Brophy argues that, in the folklore of Ireland, keening women’s social role formed from a direct link to mythical women, predominately the warrior goddesses who often sang for their male champions.[1] Brophy also acknowledges that while most of the written records pertaining to keening are about upper-class women, lower-class women performed the majority of keens, which was often their only source of income.

A wood engraving of a seated woman, hands outstretch, keening.
An Irish keener. (Courtesy Library Ireland)

The scholarship’s predominant view of the Irish funeral keen places it squarely in the realm of antiquity, identifying the early twentieth century as the end of the custom. Keening was denigrated during nineteenth-century British colonial efforts in Ireland to prove the “inferiority” of Irish people and customs. Further, early English notions of the separation of public and private spheres firmly placed grief in the private. Keening simply did not comply. A plethora of factors led to the apparent demise of keening by the early twentieth century – early British notions of separate public and private spheres, social and religious opposition, decline of the Irish language, and the Great Famine are all often placed in neat lists describing the death of the Irish mourning tradition. But recent scholarship has begun to explore a new question: what if the Irish keen is still in practice? In fact, scholars suggest that the Irish funeral keen did not disappear. It lives on in small pockets and has adapted to the stressors placed upon it.

One of the most convincing pieces is a study by anthropologist and sound designer Michelle Collins, who details a modern example of keening in Ireland. She explores a group of women collectively gathered in a closed area to keen together, experiencing one another’s sorrows and engaging in a community mourning practice that aids in a period of catharsis for those involved. Her exploration of sound as a dynamic force suggests that intense sound, such as keening, has the capability to alter an individual’s physical reality. Audible stress from layered keening sounds can result in psychotropic effects.[2]

Collins is not alone in this renewed academic interest, and the ritual Collins participated in is an example of this resurgence. While keening is no longer present in the Irish landscape on the scale in which O’G experienced it, individuals in Ireland are still engaging with the ritual, albeit in an adapted form. The effects of modernity made adaptation necessary for survival. Although the forms have changed, the keen has not been forced into extinction.

While the Irish keen has its own idiosyncrasies and history, keening rituals and laments are found in various cultures. For example, Chinese Buddhists employ chanting to assist in the death and rebirth process, Grecian women wail at the deathbed and prepare the body, and Jewish lamentations are found in many of the holy texts.[3] Each ritual has its own unique elements, but all of them work to facilitate the transitional period of death. Keening operates as a tool to help communities or individuals process their loss while moving back toward their lives, a catharsis that allows a space to process grief in a healthy way.

We engage in a collective mourning every day as thousands die from COVID-19 in the U.S. alone. In light of COVID-19, it is common for most people to know someone who has died due to the pandemic. For safety, funerals are held virtually and grieving must be done from a distance. Loved ones in hospitals and nursing homes are resigned to viewing their family members through windows, and we are unable to safely be with those we care about. For those who can access it, technology has become a source of connection in these physically distanced times. Virtual connection is a privilege, and one that we have come to rely on in 2020.

Just as there are pockets of keening still operating in Ireland, there are echoes of keening across our digital landscape – anyone may share their grief and be heard. Platforms like the Washington Post and the New York Times have created spaces for remembrance. Both operate as online memorials, growing lists of those who have been lost to the virus. The collected obituaries stand stark on the screen, and anyone with computer access can scroll through a list of photos of veritable strangers and learn about their lives. Families send this information to these collective memorials in order to remember, but also to have others know and feel their loss.

The anonymous author O’G explained that as the funeral processions passed through nineteenth-century Irish towns, strangers who did not know the deceased would leave their homes and join in, beginning to cry and wail with the crowd. They could pass large distances before stopping to ask “who is it we’re crying for?” Similarly, even if you don’t know anyone on the digital memorial sites, it is hard to leave without feeling intensely melancholic and mournful of those who have been lost. As we quickly approach the one-year mark of COVID-19’s presence in the United States, the memorials become all the more harrowing.

Digital mourning is silent but, despite the lack of noise that would arguably define a keen, the social aspect is equally important. Keening requires a public mourning – and the digital landscape is as public as can be. Above all, keening mourns the separation of death. COVID-19 has not only separated the living from the dead, but also the living from the living. Still, those with internet access can still interact and engage with their friends and family and collectively talk about losses, effectively blurring distance and communication barriers. Online memorial spaces allow for a silent wailing in the digital space, a blend of public and private space that is unique to our modern world.

O’G considered keening a custom “fallen greatly into disuse.” They were incorrect. Keening rituals in Ireland, and, in fact, worldwide, have adapted to suit the modern landscape – but they are still considered viable forms of public grief and a legitimate legacy of the Irish keen. Considering the global aspect of keening more generally, the digital landscape and the public space it offers in light of COVID-19 can and should be considered a public display of grief. Markedly silent in this new separated social landscape, digital mourning spaces are a place for connection and silent wailing in the space of so much loss. Technology bridges space and enables alternative connection. Today, those with access to technology have developed a silent keen that overcomes previously unimaginable barriers – until they may laugh and cry next to one another again.

Notes

    1. Christina Brophy, “Keening Community: Mná Caointe, Women, Death, and Power in Ireland,” (PhD diss., Boston College, 2010), 85.
    2. Michelle Collins, “Corporeal Interventions and the Contemporary Sounds of Keening,” in Intervening Spaces, ed. Nycole Prowse (Brill | Rodophi, 2018), 69.
    3. Meir Bar-Ilan, “The Keening Women,” in Some Jewish Women in Antiquity (Brown Judaic Studies, 2020), 52–77; Evy Johanne Håland, “Laments and Burials,” in Rituals of Death and Dying in Modern and Ancient Greece: Writing History from a Female Perspective (Cambridge Scholar Publisher, 2014), 190–264.

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