If we view the wake as a drama, then the central character is the deceased and two of the main actors are the bean chaointe
(keening woman) and the bórachán
the ‘organizer and director of the pranks and games of the wake assembly’ (Ó Crualaoich
in Donnelly et al. 1999, p. 191
). It is these two who control and propel the action forward. The interaction between them intensifies the emotional outpouring, with the bórachán
facilitating the laughter by orchestrating the more earthy wake games and the bean chaointe
encouraging the expression of sorrow in a wailing lament. Both give license for emotional release but, in addition, each of these actors has a specific role that interfaces with, and compliments, the other. They are ‘threshold people’, who play a liminal role and reflect the ultimate liminality of the mourners. As Victor Turner points out, ‘The attributes of liminality or of liminal personae (‘threshold people’) are necessarily ambiguous, since this condition and these persons elude or slip through the network of classifications that normally locate states and positions in cultural space’ (Turner 1969, p. 95
5.1. The Borachán
Acting in the role of ‘fool’ the borachán can break all the constraints of normal society. Ronald Grimes points to the liminality of the ‘fool’ that allows him to straddle thresholds while directing the action.
As the Latin etymology suggests, liminality is the process of passing over the threshold; it is a moment of boundary crossing. The idiot of the play is not only boundary crosser but also stage-manager.
Ó Crualaoich notes that the term ‘bórachán’
is also ‘applied to the ‘joker’ in card playing, and its use in relation to the ‘joker’ or master of revels at wakes is an extension of this meaning’ (Ó Crualaoich 1999, p. 191 fn
). The ‘joker’ in turn reflects the ‘trickster’, a character that is often evident in classical mythology.
Wherever the trickster appears, the premise is the same, the ‘actors’ put aside their daily identity to don a mask that permits them to have a foot both in this world and the (mythical) Otherworld. As Joseph Campbell, in his 1964 talk The Importance of Rites
, comments: “Myths are the mental support of rites; rites, the physical enactment of myths” (Campbell 1972, p. 45
). The bórachán
has an important role to play at a death scene. After all, the central character (the deceased) is in the ultimate liminal state, that of literally passing between life and death, and this is being mirrored all around. The bereaved are in a liminal state, between roles (e.g., the wife has just become a widow, the child an orphan), and the bórachán
is both mimetic and liminal in his own right. The bórachán
is in the same category as what Grimes refers to as the Ritual Idiot
, “...He pursues a meta-reality—a liminoid reality on the creative bound of society” (Grimes 2007, p. 217
The function of the bórachán
, then, could be seen as three-fold. Firstly, as Ó Crualaoich points out, he helps to propel the rite forward on a practical level by instigating and organizing the games and entertainment (Ó Crualaoich 1999, p. 193
). Secondly, he introduces a mythic level. At this level, humans are often able to integrate that which challenges them on other planes. Joseph Cambell points out that it is particularly important for young people to participate in the myths and rites of their social group ‘to accord with [their] social as well as natural environment…’ (Campbell 1972, p. 45
Thirdly, as Ó Crualaoich indicates, the bórachán affirms the community,
...his role is that of the social order itself personified. In the person of the ‘borakeen’ and of his willing helpers and henchmen (the ‘hardy boys’ and ‘prime lads’), the community displays its vitality and continuity in the face of mortally threatening contact with the supernatural realm.
Ironically it was these misunderstood functions of the bórachán that drew the wrath of the clergy and the censure of visiting reporters who, not being from the Irish culture, did not understand what they were witnessing. In their belief systems, prayer and restrained tearfulness were considered more appropriate and respectful at a funeral and there was no space allowed for laughter; neither was there space allowed for hysterical crying, never mind the combination.
The role of the bórachán, then, is part of the support system that facilitates the departure of the deceased from the community. This is an important stage in the rite and it paves the way for the other liminar of the funeral obsequies—the bean chaointe (keening woman), as she shepherds all present towards the Otherworld, where the deceased will be received and the mourners cry their final farewell from the human world.
5.2. The Bean Chaointe
In talking about his brother Bernard’s passing in the 1980s, (see above) Kevin Toolis described the spontaneous outpouring of grief that occurred in his home on hearing of the death, as follows:
I rushed back to my parents’ house into the maelstrom of my keening mother, sisters and Bernard’s wife. The immediacy of his death was a convulsion, a physical pain that gripped at your chest, smothering then bursting out in heaving sobs, rivers of tears, panic. The cries of the women, and my own, soared around an ordinary suburban sitting room. The keening was a primeval scream, a calling out of the agony of death, an eruption of despair, tenderness, fear, love, loss and pain.
This may seem at odds with his earlier statement regarding the ineffectiveness of the ‘Western Death Machine’ (see above). This spontaneous family mourning, however, was more organic than ritualized and if we look at the following elements of the wake (see ‘Functions of the wake’ above), we notice that, although the first stage of the traditional keen was a spontaneous expression of grief by the family, it was:
fully ritualized by the formalized keening of professional keeners over the body, within the context of the wake.
Neither of these elements were present in the case of Bernard Toolis. A disconnect occurs when a ritual is not completed. Arnold van Gennep’s theory of the tripartite nature of a separation rite could well apply here5
. Toolis stated that, in his brother’s case, ‘Bernard was a wound we never bound up; a grave I could never close’ (Toolis 2017, p. 112
). I would suggest that this was because the ritual of grieving, in his case, was not completed and the author remained in the liminal (in-between) state. Had there been a wake, he would probably have had more closure, as he did in the case of his father’s wake (the subject of his 2017 book). In the traditional Irish wake, the process of keening would have moved from the searing spontaneous family reaction through the ritual of the wake with the professional keeners, led by the bean chaointe
(keening woman), to a crescendo at the graveside and then to subsidence as the ritual closed. The professional mourners who were hired for such occasions, were highly proficient at their trade—creating a cathartic environment which helped release the grief of all present and satisfy the deeply held belief that the deceased deserved a good ‘send-off’, a premise eloquently explained by Seán Ó Súilleabháin in his Irish Wake Amusements
(Ó Súilleabháin 1967, pp. 170–74
). Men were sometimes known to perform the keen (Hennigan 2012, p. 72
), but the keeners were usually women who worked either solo or in small groups. According to Breandán Ó Madagáin, the latter was more desired as ‘to be keened by gol mná aonair
(“the cry of a lone woman”) is still remembered in the Gaeltacht
as a great indignity to the deceased’ (Ó Madagáin 1982, p. 313
). Although an etic account, Samuel and Mrs. Hall’s account of the wake they witnessed in the 1840s is invaluable in terms of the observer detail and gives us a visceral description of the process of Keening,
The women of the household range themselves at either side, and the keen at once commences. They rise with one accord, and, moving their bodies with a slow motion to and fro, their arms apart, they continue to keep up a heart-rending cry. This cry is interrupted for a while to give the ban caointhe (the leading keener), an opportunity of commencing. At the close of every stanza, the cry is repeated...and then dropped; the woman then again proceeds with the dirge, and so on to the close.
Over time, the perception of the keeners changed, from women who commanded respect and awe to women of dissolution. Angela Partridge
(1980–1981, pp. 29–31
) paints a picture of the bean-chaointe
as barefoot and bareheaded, with hair flying and clothes in disarray, often torn or ragged. The Halls, similarly, describe the bean-chaointe
, whom they witness as having “long black uncombed locks [which] were hanging about her shoulders... Her large blue cloak was confined at her throat; but not so closely as to conceal the outline of her figure, thin and gaunt, but exceedingly lithesome” (Hall 1841, vol. 1, p. 227
They also noted that the bean-chaointe was normally an “aged woman” but if she was younger “the habits of her life make her look old” (Ibid., p. 226). There was a certain rhythm to the bean-chaointe’s performance and she used motion to dramatic effect, as the account below from the Halls demonstrates. In it, as follows, they describe how, as they enter the wake-house, she is sitting by the corpse; then she rises:
When she arose, as if by sudden inspiration, first holding out her hands over the body, and then tossing them wildly above her head, she continued her chaunt in a low monotonous tone, occasionally breaking into a style earnest and animated; and using every variety of attitude to give emphasis to her words, and enforce her description of the virtues and good qualities of the deceased.
(The Halls observed that the bean-chaointe would cease each time a new mourner came into the wake-house and then begin the process again.)
The only interruption which this manner of conducting a wake suffers, is from the entrance of some relative of the deceased, who, living remote, or from some other cause, may not have been in at the commencement. In this case, the ban caointhe ceases, all the women rise and begin the cry, which is continued until the newcomer has cried enough.
(Ibid., pp. 222, 224)
In their own ways, both actors are the personifications of a psychopomp—a leader of souls (Cowan 1993, pp. 61–62
). The role of psychopomp that these two characters embody is only mentioned in passing here but, basically, the borachán
represents the clown/trickster, who leads the way into the Otherworld, and the bean chaointe
straddles the two worlds of the living and the dead.
In addition, scholars such as Patricia Lysaght
(1986, pp. 49, 64
) and Gearóid Ó Crualaoich
(in Donnelly et al. 1999, p. 192
) draw parallels between the bean chaointe
and the dreaded bean sí
(banshee). In Irish folklore, the bean sí
is an otherworldly harbinger of death who attaches herself to certain families. She is often reported as wailing before a death in the family and is thus much feared as she is considered to be a bad omen. Patricia Lysaght did an excellent exploration of the bean sí
in her 1986 book, The Banshee, The Irish Supernatural Death Messenger
, where she draws attention to the juxtaposition between the two figures of the bean sí
and the bean chaointe
. No doubt, the evocative picture of the keening women sitting on top of the coffin7
and wailing as the funeral procession weaves towards the graveyard (see also Ó Súilleabháin 1967, p. 143
, Ó Crualaoich
in Donnelly et al. 1999, p. 182
), contributes greatly to the confusion between the two figures.
Some scholars see one as the reflex of the other, further defining the keening woman’s identity as being connected with the Otherworld. As 9puts it in the following:
I suggest that we view the bean chaointe at the wake as a flesh-and-blood reflex of the supernatural female sovereign who rules over the Otherworld and into whose domain the deceased is now to be translated. In this light the bean chaointe is the (human) structural adjunct of the banshee….
(ibid., p. 192)
Considering that one of the functions of the wake is that it is an important community event, where, as Gearóid Ó Crualaoich points out, social order is re-established after the rupture of death, the bórachán and the bean chaointe stand on either side of that event. Ó Crualaoich though, also notes the more profound role of each, as follows:
If the ‘old man’ or ‘borekeen’, who is said to be well known in each district as an organizer and director of the pranks and games of the wake assembly, is the agent of that socially cathartic chaos out of which a renewed social order can emerge, then the keening woman, the bean chaointe, is the agent of the transition to the next life of the individual whose corpse lies at the heart of the wake assembly and whose passing is ritually mourned all the way to the grave in the highly charged performance of the female practitioners of the caoin.
(ibid., pp. 191–92)