The American Wake
County Kerry
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The American Wake

A unique event then occurred which took place daily over all of Ireland for 75 years. Jerry and millions like him paid their last respects to their parents while they were still alive. A wake for the living, known to those who had one, as the "American Wake." It started in Ireland, which was the first place in the world where adult children were forced by economic and political circumstances to leave their parents and relatives, which for the vast majority, would not only be the last time that they would not only see each other, but in many a case might be the last time that they might even hear of each other due to the vagaries of ocean travel and the uncertainty of life in a new land with little reliable communications, especially for the poverty stricken and often illiterate immigrants from Ireland.

"The American Wake began at night time, in the house of the emigrant, and continued through the night until the early hours. The young emigrant would have previously visited friends and neighbors letting them know of the impending departure. All who were close were expected to attend.

They often were not occasions for merriment, but somber gatherings with serious conversation and advice for the young emigrant. In areas of acute poverty no refreshments were offered, but on rare occasions, a few neighbors brought a small quantity of poteen, but generally the dancing was absent.

Women noted for their ability to keen (wail or lament) would be called upon to acquaint listeners with the virtues of the emigrant and the suffering brought upon the parents by the departure. This eulogy was given in a high pitched wail, resulting in a room full of keening women and weeping men. For 'when money was scarce, travel slow and perilous, illiteracy widespread, and mail service highly uncertain and destinations only vaguely perceived, the departure for North America of a relative or neighbor represented as final a parting as a descent to the grave.'

In less poverty-stricken areas, the American Wake proved itself a more festive occasion. Baking, cooking and cleaning were all part of the preparations. Neighbors frequently contributed food and a half-barrel of porter or stout was available for the men. The kitchen furniture was moved and seating was provided around the walls for neighbors and friends. Song and dance followed, only to be interrupted by offers of tea, and stronger beverages. Jibs, reels, quadrilles, hornpipes, and Irish step dancing were the order of the day. The older people seated themselves around the hearth, while the younger ones took to the floor.

The next morning, the emigrant was accompanied by friends and family to the train station or the dockside for his embarkation." (Kelley, et al., Blennerville, The Gateway to Tralee's Past, pp. 147-50)

The sorrow of those left behind was equally acute as it was for those leaving - - -

Come back!

Come back! Back to the land of your fathers!

Let us hear once more the sound of the soft Gaelic in our halls;

the laughter of your children beneath our roots,

the skirl of the bagpipe and the tinkle of the harp in our courts,

the shout of our young men in the meadows by the river,

the old, heart-breaking songs from the fields,

the seanchas here where our broken windows stare upon weed-covered lawns.

Come back!

Come back!

The days are dark and short since ye went;

there is no sunshine on Ireland and the nights are long and dismal.

And there in the moonlit abbey by the river rest the bones of your kindred.

The group, most likely accompanied by other relatives and neighbors, no doubt traveled by local stage coach the half dozen miles or so to Tralee and there purchased a train ticket to the City of Cork in the County of that name in the southwest corner of Ireland.

Cork's ocean port was called Queenstown in those days, named so by the English masters in tribute to the 7 1/2 minute or so visit by Victoria to Cobh in the 1850's. After Ireland became a country in its own right, Queenstown was renamed Cobh, Gaelic for "Cove", pronounced identically.

Thanks to Ray Marshall for this contribution.


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