One of Ireland’s best-known traditions is the Irish Wake. Ireland’s rich history of both Paganism and Christianity has led to a unique funeral practice that’s often misunderstood by outsiders.
To those who have never been to an Irish wake, these events appear jubilant and profoundly sad simultaneously. This culture of both mourning and merrymaking has survived to modern times. The Irish have a unique perspective on death that reveals itself in their wake tradition.
Jump ahead these sections:
- What’s an Irish Wake?
- What’s the Difference Between a Traditional Irish Wake and a Modern Irish Wake?
- Irish Wake Traditions
- What Do You Say at an Irish Wake?
- Toasts for an Irish Wake
- What Should You Bring to an Irish Wake?
- What Should You Wear to an Irish Wake?
- Irish Wake Frequently Asked Questions
Whether you’re attending an Irish wake or you’re simply interested in this one-of-a-kind practice, keep reading. We’ll uncover what happens at an Irish wake, including customs, songs, and etiquette.
What’s an Irish Wake?
An Irish wake involves allowing family and friends to pay their last respects to the deceased with an open casket, rituals, prayers, music, poetry, food, and drink.
The Irish wake tradition goes back further than Pagan times. Unlike other Western traditions, Irish funerals can go on for days, especially in the case of an older person dying. While traditions are slowly becoming more modern, Irish wakes still take place in the countryside and other parts of the world with large Irish populations.
In Irish tradition, the day someone dies is their “third birthday.” The first birthday is their actual birth, the second is their baptism, and the third is when they enter the kingdom of Heaven. With this final “birthday” comes a new celebration for the loved one.
The most well-known part of the Irish funeral process is the “wake.” This name supposedly comes from the lead that was historically in pewter mugs used for drinking stout. Lead poisoning would cause a sleep-like state that’s said to look similar to death until the person wakes up a few days later.
While this is likely just a rumor, it’s interesting to see how this tradition survived through generations. All of the traditions tied into Irish wakes relate to this concept of the deceased only being gone temporarily. While wake practices differ across Ireland, attending an Irish funeral is something you’ll remember for a long time to come.
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What’s the Difference Between a Traditional Irish Wake and a Modern Irish Wake?
How do traditional Irish wakes compare to modern Irish wakes? As you might expect, things have changed a lot over time. These are still occasions for mourning the loss of a loved one, but most families have adapted traditions to suit our modern world. While this largely depends on the location of the wake as well as the family’s wishes, most of today’s wakes have made these changes:
- Funeral home: Instead of having the wake at home, modern Irish wakes are usually held at the funeral home, church, or other venue.
- Duration: Traditional Irish wakes could last days as the community visits to comfort the family. This is usually limited to a few hours or a single day before the funeral.
- Merriment: Drinks and food were plentiful at traditional Irish wakes, but this is mostly reserved for close family only nowadays. While this is still largely a celebration of life, it’s no longer common for whiskey to be poured so generously (if at all).
- Professional mourners: Keening is the art of wailing that was common at traditional Irish funerals. Having people loudly lamenting your death was a sign of respect, but it’s largely fallen out of practice.
- Live music: Celtic music was traditionally played on bagpipes during a wake or funeral service. Now, it’s much more common for there to be classical music, prayer, or recorded music vs. a live performance.
- Nighttime vigil: In the past, a nighttime vigil was held to honor the deceased. This also served a practical purpose in ensuring people were actually dead in the days before modern medicine. In today’s world, a vigil is only held for devout Catholics.
Irish wakes today resemble modern wakes and visitations in other parts of the world. With large Irish communities blending into other nations, like the United States, it’s less common to see strict observances like those in the past. While some families still find comfort in more traditional Irish wakes, there’s also a lot of practicality in the modern adaptations.
Ultimately, it’s entirely up to the family. Many traditional Irish wake traditions below have fallen out of practice. While they might still be a part of a tradition in more rural parts of Ireland, it’s unlikely you’ll come across them in bigger cities or Irish communities across the globe. Modern-day traditions make it possible for people to mourn how they feel most comfortable, even if that means skipping the wake altogether.
Irish Wake Traditions
Now that you understand the unique history behind Irish wakes, it’s time to take a look at the many traditions. While these can vary according to the local area, there are a lot of things that make Irish wakes the experience they are.
There are a few practices particular to Irish wakes. The first has to do with household clocks. If the deceased person passes away at home, it’s tradition to stop the clocks at the time of death. This lets wake attendees see the time of death, and it’s a sign of respect.
Another practice is the treatment of mirrors. In Irish folk legend, mirrors are gateways to other worlds. Some believe that the soul travels through these mirrors.
To stop this, mirrors in the home point towards the wall. This allows the soul to pass on to Heaven uninterrupted. All of these practices add to the symbolism of Irish wakes.
In Ireland, the funeral prayers are traditional Catholic prayers. While the family might choose their own eulogies during the wake, the funeral mass will likely focus on familiar prayers for the departed.
These will either be in English or Gaelic, and the most common Irish prayers are:
- May you see God’s Light
- The Glory Be
- The Lord’s Prayer
- The Angelus
Music is very common in Irish funeral ceremonies. Music is often sung or played on popular instruments, often the bagpipes.
It's common to hear Catholic funeral songs, particularly during the mass service. Outside of religious music, songs are based on folk traditions. Common Irish wake songs include:
- Down By the Salley Gardens
- My Lagan Love
- The Curragh of Kildare
With such a rich literature tradition, it’s no surprise that many Irish wakes and funerals include poetry. From traditional Celtic proverbs to well-known ballads, there are a lot of options for families to choose from. Popular Irish memorial poetry is:
- “She Is Gone (He Is Gone)” by David Harkins
- “Let Me Go” by Christina Rosetti
- “Remember Me” by Margaret Mead
- “A Prayer for my Daughter” by W. B. Yeats
Irish eulogies are also common at wakes. These define the part of the wake used to offer condolences. Irish eulogies, also called “keening,” coming from the Gaelic word for “the Irish cry.”
In these eulogies, the speaker shares the qualities of the deceased as a way to express his or her grief. Keening isn’t clearly defined, but it falls between a prayer and a poem used to share the pain associated with loss.
One of the most well-known keening is “The Lament for Art O’Leary.” Written in 1773 for Eileen Dubh Ni Chonail. It goes:
“My steadfastly loved one…
I found you dead before me by a little low furze bush
Your blood was streaming from you
And I did not stop to wipe it, but drank it up from my palms…
My love and dear companion…
Rise up and come home beside me…”
Food and drink
Food and drink are a large part of Irish wakes. During the wake, people usually bring food to the grieving family’s home. Alcohol is also brought during this time. Tea and sandwiches are served during the wake visitation hours, and it’s not uncommon for whiskey to be poured into the evening.
Sharing meals and drinks is a way to celebrate the life of the departed. It also brings some relief to those mourning. Like many traditions, food and drink are a way to heal and bond.
Location and duration
There are clear processes for a traditional Irish wake. First, the deceased’s body is “laid out.” Historically, this was when the body was cleaned, dressed, and placed in a coffin for display in the home. Today, funeral homes handle these steps. Either way, the body almost always returns to the home for the wake period.
During the wake, the body is not supposed to be left unattended for too long. Usually, a woman stays with the body throughout the day. After the wake, the body travels to the funeral service.
Mass is the following day, and the coffin stays in the church overnight. After the funeral mass, the body takes its last journey to the cemetery where it’s buried.
Finally, after the burial, it’s normal for the family to host a lunch or memorial for those who attended the funeral. Celebrations and merriment can continue into the evening.
What Do You Say at an Irish Wake?
It can be difficult to find the right words at an Irish wake. Honoring the decedent and their family is the best way to show support. However, you don’t want to say the wrong thing accidentally. Words carry a lot of meaning, so learn what’s best to say at an Irish wake.
As a guest
As a guest, your goal at an Irish wake is to be there for your loved one. Whether you were close to the deceased or their family, this is an opportunity to say final goodbyes and find peace. Your message doesn’t have to be complicated or overly personal. When in doubt, keep your words simple. For example, any of the following are appropriate for an Irish wake:
- I’m sorry for your loss.
- Your loved one was an amazing person. I will miss them dearly.
- I’m thinking of your family at this time.
- It’s clear you loved him/her so much.
- He/she was a light in this world.
- Is there anything I can do for you during this time?
If you have a special story of the deceased, this is also the right time to share it. Visitations and wakes are less formal than funeral or memorial services. Many families host them to connect with those who know their loved ones best. You can share a favorite memory, story, or special moment that might bring peace to the family.
To begin, you might say, “I’ll always remember when…” or “My favorite memory of his/her kindness is…” Avoid being too upbeat, but keep your message genuine. When you use this opportunity to share something real, you add to the legacy of the deceased.
As a loved one or family member of the deceased
This can also be intimidating if you’re hosting a visitation or Irish wake in honor of a deceased loved one. This is a chance for loved ones and community members to visit your home or funeral venue and offer respect in an informal setting. Your job is to simply be present and welcoming during this event. It’s normal to struggle with your own emotions, and nobody expects you to be an over-the-top host.
However, if you can, remember to take this time to thank your guests. If you’re feeling a bit uncomfortable, your guests are too. Use this opportunity to share kind words about their presence. Remember, they’ve taken time out of their schedules to be with you in this moment of need. That’s worth everything. You might say something like:
- Thank you so much for being here.
- I know you didn’t know him/her well, but your presence means so much to me.
- Thank you for keeping us in your prayers and thoughts.
- We appreciate having so much support.
- Thank you for your sympathy.
The more personal, the better. Funerals and Irish wakes are largely about the living. As the direct family of the deceased, this event is mostly for your benefit and support. Use it to find comfort and support in those you trust the most. They’ve chosen to be there for you, and that is a beautiful gift.
Toasts for an Irish Wake
Whether you’re planning a wake for a family member or attending one, Irish wakes are known for their toasts. This is a chance to raise a physical or metaphorical glass to the deceased, wishing them and their family peace and comfort. For many, a toast is a way to say final goodbyes. It can be healing to find the right words.
There are many traditional Irish toasts to choose from, which have been used repeatedly to guide families through loss. These might be based in local culture, folklore, or tradition. They can also be invented on the spot. Like most things about grief, there are no official rules to follow. Consider what words make sense to you, and share them when appropriate.
Examples of Irish toasts
Not sure where to begin? If so, you’re not alone. These traditional Irish toasts below have been used for decades. They’re a great way to fill the silences when you’re unsure what to say. Honor the family and the deceased with one of these traditional well-wishes.
- May the Irish hills caress you. May her lakes and rivers bless you.
- May the souls of all the faithful departed rest in eternal peace.
- May joy and peace surround you in your time of need.
- The grief of our loss might be with us for a long time, but the joy of our memories last forever.
- Those we love walk beside us every day.
- Cheers to [Name]! Still loved, still missed, and very dear to us.
- May [Name] rest in eternal peace. We will never forget him/her.
Do any of the toasts above stand out to you? Each of these above is easy to personalize with your well-wishes for the family. Funerals are a chance to say final goodbyes. Make each moment count.
What Should You Bring to an Irish Wake?
If you’re attending an Irish wake, it’s best not to go empty-handed. While the only thing you need to bring is yourself, this doesn’t always feel like enough. It’s respectful to bring a gift to the immediate family. However, don’t worry about finding something complicated or extravagant. The focus should always be on practicality and respect.
What you choose to bring to an Irish wake depends on how well you know the family. If you don’t know the family well, you should bring something simple like a sympathy card. This would be placed on the table beside the casket or in another designated spot. Alternatively, you could bring a small bouquet or a wreath.
If you feel closer to the family, you can bring something practical like tea, biscuits, sandwiches, or other things that are easy to prepare. A sympathy meal that’s easy to prepare helps the family during a stressful time. Lastly, those especially close to the family might bring chairs, crockery, teapots, or other practical items to support a larger guestlist during the wake.
No matter what you bring, leaving a condolence card is appropriate. This doesn’t have to be overly complicated. In fact, it’s usually best to keep your message short and sweet. Here are some simple ideas for what to write in a sympathy card for an Irish wake:
- I’m sorry for your loss. [Name] was a special person.
- I hope you’re surrounded by love and support during this difficult time.
- Wishing you and your family all the best. I know how hard this is.
- Losing someone you love is never easy. Let me know if you need anything.
- I’ll be keeping you and your loved one in my thoughts.
There’s no right or wrong thing to bring to a wake as long as you’re respectful. The family might specifically request something they need, like food, donations, or flowers. No matter their wishes, make sure to keep them in mind. In the past, it was traditional to bring alcohol to an Irish wake. This has largely fallen out of practice, so it’s best to stick to a card or flowers when unsure.
What Should You Wear to an Irish Wake?
Finally, keep in mind that an Irish wake is a formal occasion. Formal attire is usually expected, unlike celebrations of life and other casual ways to honor the deceased. What you wear to an Irish wake is one of the ways to show respect for the family and the deceased.
This means a dress, long pants, or an appropriate-length skirt for women. You can pair this with a button-down, blouse, blazer, or sweater. Men should wear slacks, a dress shirt, and formal dress clothes. Jeans, sandals, t-shirts, and hats are not appropriate. Do your best to wear black and neutral colors. If you don't have black, gray, white, and navy blue are usually also appropriate.
Never wear bright colors or casual clothes to a funeral or Irish wake. This can be seen as disrespectful to the family, giving the impression that you're not taking the occasion seriously. A good rule of thumb is that it's not right for a funeral if you wouldn't wear it to a job interview.
While there are sometimes exceptions to these rules, always try to be formal and put-together. That means making sure your clothes are neat, tidy, and wrinkle-free. Avoid any distracting makeup styles or accessories. If you know, you'll be outside, dressed appropriately for the weather. A simple coat, sweater, or umbrella is appropriate. When in doubt, ask what other guests will wear and dress accordingly.
Irish Wake Frequently Asked Questions
If you’ve never experienced an Irish wake before, it is hard to know what to expect. These frequently asked questions will help you attend an Irish wake with confidence.
What’s the dress code for an Irish wake?
For an Irish wake, it’s traditional to wear black. Because these funerals can be multi-day affairs, you’ll wear black to the home wake, funeral mass, and burial. For the mass, in particular, it’s important to dress conservatively.
In some parts of Ireland and the western world, black is becoming less of a requirement. However, this will depend on the family’s wishes. Read our full guide to what to wear to a funeral for more guidelines.
What should guests do at an Irish wake in a home?
Family members and guests are welcome to visit during a home wake. When you enter a home for a wake, you should remain to the side of the coffin. You are free to say prayers or spend time reflecting on your time with this person.
Keep in mind that it is considered rude not to view the body. Guests who are not in the immediate family are usually expected to leave the home by 8 pm.
Should guests bring food or drinks to an Irish wake?
Bringing food or drinks to an Irish wake is encouraged. Not only is this a kind gesture to the family who likely is too busy to prepare meals, but it’s a sign of respect.
There are no limitations to what you can bring, but remember everything should be easy to serve and in a disposable container. In the Irish tradition, both food and wine are welcome as sympathy gift ideas.
Do guests bring gifts?
Other than food or flowers, it is not common or expected for guests to bring sympathy gifts to an Irish wake. Instead, guests show their respects by spending time with the family and reflecting on their time with the deceased.
Do people play games or dance?
Aside from the funeral mass itself, Irish wakes are lively affairs. While this will depend on the family’s particular customs, it’s not uncommon to play games or dance, especially late into the evening.
The Irish don’t shy away from whiskey or even homemade alcoholic brews, so these are quite the celebrations.
What are some typical toasts at an Irish wake?
Typical toasts at Irish wakes celebrate life. Toasts are often religious or feature a well-known Irish proverb.
The most common toasts usually reflect on the deceased or wish blessings on the grieving family.
Celebrate Life at an Irish Wake
Unlike other traditions, Irish wakes don’t shy away from all of the emotions that surround the death of a loved one.
From the outside, these can be confusing events, especially considering the high levels of excitement. However, for anyone who’s experienced them firsthand, they’re truly a spectacular way to celebrate a life well-lived.
Now that you know what happens at an Irish wake, you can see why it’s one of the most respected funeral celebrations. Even though these traditions are slowly modernizing, it is still important to understand where they came from.
Learning about traditional funeral practices is a great way to educate yourself about end-of-life planning for yourself and your loved ones.
Cunningham, Kathy. “Wakes in Ireland.” Irish Association of Humanistic and Integrative Psychotherapy, 1995, iahip.org