Keening the dead: ancient history or a ritual for today?
journal contributionposted on 2019-05-10, 10:09 authored by Mary McLaughlin
In his 1909 work ‘Rites De Passage’, Arnold van Gennep acknowledges that a ritual often contains ‘rites within rites’. So, it was with the ancient ritual of the Irish wake, at the center of which was another ritual, that of the keen, the Irish funeral lament. The past tense is used tentatively here, as in this article the author explores the resilience of the ritual and how, rather than becoming extinct, the keen seems to spend periods of time underground before erupting again in a new form, attuning itself to a more contemporaneous social situation. Drawing on ethnographic and bibliographic research undertaken between 2010 and 2018, the author traces some of the history of the keen within the ritual of the Irish wake and funeral and gives instances of how it is being reconfigured in the 21st century. This continuation of the ritual, albeit in a new format, seems to speak to a deep emotional and spiritual need that may not be satisfied by more conventional religion in Ireland. Finally, the author considers the keen’s relevance and place in Irish society today
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