Book Review by Rob Butler
Kevin Toolis, MY FATHER’S WAKE, Orion Books, 2017, 275pp
This book begins and ends with the early and final stages of the author’s father’s wake and provides a fascinating commentary on the Irish traditional approach to bereavement, as distinct from what Toolis refers to as ‘the Western Death Machine’. It is set in Achill island, Co. Mayo where the old rituals still apply.
On my first visit to that part of the world, I recall being intrigued by the local radio programme, with its thrice-daily roll calls of bereavements, following a short burst of solemn music, and announced in the manner of: ‘The death has occurred of Martin …… of ……. Peacefully at home after a short illness. Reposing at his residence. Removal of his remains on Thursday at 6pm to our Lady of Saviour Church. Mass of the Resurrection at 10am on Friday before proceeding to internment at St Joseph’s Cemetery.’ Then, after a short pause: ‘The death has occurred of Brigid ………….’, and so on.
Of course, such announcements ensure a thoroughly well-patronised attendance to pay respects to the deceased, arranged in an open coffin in the ‘front room’ of the residence and attended by a bevy of keening women. There is usually an adjoining table covered in trays of ham and tomato sandwiches and supplies of Guinness. The many attendees deliver the standard greeting to the bereaved ‘Sorry for your trouble’ and get on with socialising, after paying their respects with a touch or kiss on the forehead of the deceased. Rosaries and prayers pervade the long vigil maintained overnight around the departed one, ending when the time comes for the coffin to be transferred to the church. It is carried by the pall bearers and initially deposited on two chairs set up in the front garden. The coffin is then transferred to the hearse and the chairs are kicked over, part of an ancient pagan ritual to ensure that the ‘bridge of return is doubly broken’.
This personal journey of the author, on the death of his father, inspires in him an enduring respect for the ancient rituals and he dismisses the clinical Western approach to death as something quite lacking in comparison.