Irish funeral traditions

‘The Irish funeral cry is at all times a wild and melancholy sound … and as it mingled fitfully with the wind that moaned without, it occasionally assumed an unearthly cadence, that might seem to a fanciful mind, the wail of some wandering spirit’. So wrote Thomas Crofton Croker in his Legends of the Lakes; or, sayings and doings at Killarney (1829).

'Irish funeral procession trailing over the mountains' (MS 4571 folio 8)

‘Irish funeral procession trailing over the mountains’ (MS 4571 folio 8)

Croker (1798-1854) was a man whose biography proves that, when it came to talent, a little went a long way in the nineteenth century when one was ‘well connected and respectable’.

To give him the principal credit to which he is entitled, Croker was among the earliest of the Anglo-Irish gentry to display an interest in the culture of their impoverished countrymen and women. His earliest publication was on the subject of the caoine (keen, literally ‘crying’ – the Irish version of the ritualised lamenting with which some cultures still express grief in public). He was barely in his teens when he published this.

Croker went on to publish Fairy legends and traditions of the south of Ireland (1825) ‘the first book purporting to contain material collected from oral tradition in the British Isles’, which was translated into German and published by no less a luminary of the world of folklore than William Grimm.

'Och! then 'tis myself is glad to see you' (MS 4571 folio 5)

‘Och! then ’tis myself is glad to see you’ (MS 4571 folio 5)

There were two key criticisms made of Croker. The first was that he was not always entirely frank about who had done most of the work for his publications; in the case of Fairy legends, he had managed to lose the manuscript just before publication and several friends contributed material to save the day. A much more serious criticism was that not alone had he little knowledge of Irish history, and none of the Irish language, he found the ‘superstitions’ about which he wrote deeply unattractive. This does not a good folklorist make. Later critics allege that Croker’s work ‘contributed to the development of the stereotypical view of the Irish as fey, impractical, wistful, and jocular’.

'An Irishman loves fighting well, whiskey better, and dancing best of all' (MS 4571 folio 4)

‘An Irishman loves fighting well, whiskey better, and dancing best of all’ (MS 4571 folio 4)

Trinity College has a few of Croker’s scattered papers including a little notebook which contains some of the illustrations used in his Legends of Killarney. This book was based on the work of a friend of Croker’s, Adolphus Lynch, whose name appeared on the first edition of Legends but not the second.

The text of Legends is of the snide and condescending ‘Tim Ryan, my jewel, and is that you, your ownself, that I see with my own two eyes’ variety. It is matched for the most part by the attitude expressed in some of the imagery. However it seems clear that there was more than one hand at work in the illustration of the book because the funeral procession, shown here, is observed objectively, not un-sympathetically and with more skill.

Renowned artist and fellow Corkman, Daniel Maclise (1806-70) is said to have illustrated this publication but he cannot be supposed to have been the author of all of the pictures, given the poor quality of some of them.

The drawings in the manuscript notebook are on separate pieces of paper, which have been pasted onto the pages. The quotations which accompany them make it clear that the note book was constructed after the publication of the published book. It is possible that the images were traced from the published book; the paper is thin enough to allow this. It is also possible that they are originals and if so it would be very desirable to identify the author of the best one.

Quotations are from the Dictionary of Irish Biography

Jane Maxwell

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