why the tradition died out

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Until the middle of the last century, whistling was often heard at an Irish wake. However, how and why did this Irish tradition die out?

Keening is an ancient Irish tradition that involved women, and exclusively women, crying out loud in grief and anguish to mourn the dead.

This tradition remained in Ireland for centuries, but by the middle of the 20e century, it was largely an old and outdated practice.

Let’s take a look at the origins and development of the snitch over the years and why exactly it died out in Ireland.

What is desire? – an old Irish tradition

An ancient Irish tradition.
Credit: commonswikimedia.org

Keening was a vocal ritual performed at wakes or graves by women in Ireland, as well as less primarily in Scotland when mourning the dead. It all started around the 16the century and was made exclusively by women.

The word itself is the anglicized version of the Gaelic “caoineadh”, which means “to cry”. Women gathered at a funeral or woke up and moaned in grief.

Sometimes women were paid with a glass of whiskey to mourn the dead with these vocal cries of anguish. Women did this whether or not they knew the deceased person. Essentially, some were paid actors.

While many believe the tradition has its roots in Ireland, it actually derives from various other cultures around the world.

The story of vivid – from outside Ireland

The old tradition of snitch.
Credit: jenikirbyhistory.getarchive.net

Acts similar to the snitch have been described in literature for centuries. Homer, the ancient Greek poet, wrote of mourning women who wept loudly at the 12e at 8e centuries before our era.

Moreover, in the 5e century BCE, the Greek historian Herodotus described something similar to the desire of Egyptian women and Spartan women.

The ancient Roman poet Virgil also referred to spirited type behavior in the epic poem “Aeneid”, which was written in the 1st century before our era.

These precursors to the snitch often involved many similarities to Irish ritual. These include loud moans and cries, physical movements like rocking and clapping, disheveled looks, and chest thrusts.

Why did the tradition die out? – church disapproval

Why has vivening disappeared?
Credit: pixnio.com

Once woven into Irish tradition, the practice has almost completely disappeared. The end of the snitch came in the 1950s. The Catholic Church began to voice its disapproval of the tradition, as it said it came from paganism.

They would consider it inappropriate. The families began to fear that engaging in the practice would appear retrograde and that they would be looked down upon.

However, modern theorists argue that the real reason the church didn’t want goons at funerals was because the priests didn’t want them overshadowing their sermons, especially because they were women.

The end of tradition – an exploration of the end

The women wept at the graves.

Presenter Marie-Louise Muir explored the end of tradition in a 2016 BBC Radio 4 documentary titled ‘Songs for the Dead’.

In the documentary, Muir explains how priests began to feel uncomfortable with the presence of funeral devotees coming to take over the grieving process after the priest laid prayers over the body.

She said: ‘Can you imagine the awkwardness of the keenest coming in and giving in – the priest having to give in to what I suppose he might have considered an almost pagan custom? Where does the priest sit?

Muir thinks the lack of tradition in modern Ireland has actually led to our difficulty with mourning and grief.

Of this, she said, “Our grief is now too contained. We rely on taking anti-depressants. We go to a bereavement counselor, but these people, in a way, just let it all out, have a good cry, coming from the feet up, a good cry, a good purge.

Even if you didn’t participate in the snitch, it was a totally cathartic experience. It was like putting a voice to the grief.

Passionate songs today – ancient practice through modern music

While the snitch has now almost entirely disappeared. However, there are still many enduring examples of enthusiastic Irish songs.

These songs are often played at modern funerals. These are beautiful pieces of music to mourn the passing of a loved one.

These songs include Aine Minogue’s ‘Song of Keening’. An Irish singer and harpist, Minogue uses her intrinsic knowledge of the snitch to improvise and relate to it in the traditional style.

Another fine example is ‘Grief’ by the late Eithne Ní Uallacháin. She was a magnificent and gifted singer and flautist. This particular song drew elements from an old lament called “Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire”.

Now the snitch is largely gone. However, you can still find the practice at a more traditional Irish wake in some parts of the country among certain families.


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