Death and the Irish: a miscellany

Published in Book Reviews, Book Reviews, Issue 2 (March/April 2017), Reviews, Volume 25

SALVADOR RYAN (ed.)
Wordwell Books
€25
ISBN 9780993351822

Reviewed by: John McCafferty

Professor John McCafferty is Director of the Mícheál Ó Cléirigh Institute, UCD.

As Catholicism continues its long decline in Ireland and political discourse around the future shape of the island keeps changing, many people find themselves having to find fresh markers of identity and self-expression. One of these expressions is to be found in the widely held—almost universal—contention that the Irish ‘do’ death very well. Even as formal religious practice ebbs, the recognition of death and the celebration of associated rituals are spoken of, often in a self-congratulatory way, as real achievements of the inhabitants of this island. Quite separately, and often quite quietly, the long process of dethroning political narrative from its place as the unquestioned and unquestioning monarch of all Irish history continues.

This collection, expertly edited by Salvador Ryan, offers 75 miscellaneous reflections on the sights, sounds and ways of dying and commemorating death from the fifth century right through to the present time. That this is crammed into just under 300 pages is in itself a miracle of compression and erudition. This collection is a riposte to those who still want all Irish history to be the deeds of ‘great men’ of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries just as much as it is a thoughtful and clever response to smug banalities about Irish people and their supposedly healthy attitude to life’s last chapter. It is also great fun. There are elephants here, horses, contaminated booze, tubercular hymn-writers, cannibals, visions and poems, hush-ups and forgotten massacres. It is appropriate, too, that, just as with the subject of death itself, this review has neither the space nor the capacity to convey all the complexity and variety of experience that this collection has to offer. In many respects, the real achievement of this endlessly engaging miscellany is to beat so many fresh paths into the dark undergrowth of the unavoidable topics of death and dying that it is hard to imagine that it will not stimulate readers to think more about this sometimes unthinkable matter and, in doing so, start a process by which many new researches will be undertaken into life’s close. This is one area of Irish history and experience where no one can really argue that there is a paucity of record and comment. There is in fact—and the sheer variegation shown in the 75 contributions is starkly eloquent evidence—a full measure of information about the last things of life, and that measure is pressed down and overflowing.

Anyone who opens this volume can see that Salvador Ryan has quite deliberately cast his net widely, because this isn’t just a history book; it is also archaeology, folklore and sociology, and Celtic Studies and English literature and history of art, and lots and lots about things that most of us have never really thought about. Surprise and delight and chills are to be found at every turn of the page. This collection evokes more variety of emotion as the reader dips in and out and in again than several days’ binge-watching of even the best streaming serials would do. Undertakers, doctors, banshees, clergy and morticians are all there ‘in their long coats’, to use Philip Larkin’s memorable phrase, and they are to be expected. The Famine is there, and so are state funerals; so are the condemned men of 1916 waiting for their quietus in Kilmainham. But then so much else of the paraphernalia and practise of death is represented: Muslim prayers; memorial cards; roadside memorials; the cillíní; smoking; the lost world of the heraldic funeral; Traveller ways; keening in Australia; Irish Jewish funeral societies; death notices; joking; crying; moaning; laughing; spending; and drinking. This is death—as it has been and is now—viewed from as many angles and perspectives as would fit in a manageable volume. Could more have been said? Are there groups and outlooks not represented here? Of course there are. But the very fact that such questions even arise is a testimony to the success of the book in sparking questions about a matter that so many people treat as taboo or tacit or terrifying.

When reading a collection like this there can be a temptation for the reviewer to gravitate towards the entries on the period of their own specialisation and form their judgement based on a narrow band of contributions. It didn’t happen here. That’s because death is a fate that awaits every one of us, so this volume just can’t be cherry-picked. It is impossible not to be interested (even unwillingly) in every facet of demise and its consequences. That gives Death and the Irish a unique feel. Here is an experience so universal that fifth-century inscriptions are as immediate to any reader as the funeral that we find ourselves looking up today on www.rip.ie. There is also an impenetrable quality about death, since any purported information from beyond the grave is both scant and contested. That impenetrability keeps the reader hooked and looking for more. Not many books illuminate something that most of us prefer to keep at arm’s length so well, so quietly and so generously. Even if death scares you beyond all measure, there’s no need to be scared by this book. In fact, the only thing that might really scare you is the degree to which you’ll enjoy it.

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