KINDRED LINES: Newspaper death notices

Published in Features, Issue 5 (September/October 2018), Volume 26

By Fiona Fitzsimons

We all generate documents as we go through life, a ‘paper trail’ that is a record of key events. Ironically, the greatest amount of evidence is often left at the time of death. In nineteenth- and twentieth-century Ireland, death was one of the busiest times of life, with its own protocols to draw in the deceased’s family and community. After 1837, as the Irish population became more mobile and literate, printed notices gradually superseded word of mouth for notification of the next of kin. Each of the rituals and customs surrounding death generated a separate announcement.

Occasionally you will find accounts of the wake. Family, friends and neighbours gathered to wake the corpse on the two nights after the death, before burial on the third day. It was a last chance to acknowledge the dead. A ‘tobacco priest’ would pass around clay pipes, tobacco and snuff.

Heavy drinking was customary at wakes. In the nineteenth century whiskey and wine were the beverages of choice, replaced in the twentieth century by porter. Games played at wakes were bawdy, and storytelling impugned the clergy. Consequently, wakes were condemned by all churches as occasions of sin. Catholic clergy warned young women that attending a wake was a ‘reserved sin’.

We tend to find accounts of wakes when there were fights or accidents resulting in serious injury or death. In Longford in 1843 the wake of local woman Betty Martin was the occasion of a shoot-out between mourners and the Irish Constabulary. Wake-goers had rowed out to Inchenagh Island in the Shannon estuary to stock up on poitín, only to find the ‘Revenue-men’ breaking up the still. There was one fatality, and 800 barrels of malt were captured. The Limerick Chronicle of 29 January 1845 reported ten dead and 50 injured at the wake of Mrs Mary Shaughnessy of Athlunkard Street. In 1927 church ‘removals’ were introduced to try and end the practice of wakes—you couldn’t ‘wake the dead’ without a corpse.

Other newspaper notices associated with death include obituaries. These were generally only published for members of the establishment and for clergy. Sometimes a local newspaper might publish an obituary for someone prominent in their community. Funeral write-ups were common in local newspapers. Typically, they identify the chief mourners and all others who attended the funeral, with names and defined relationships, and often the numbers in attendance. Funeral write-ups provide some of the richest evidence for family history. Acknowledgements were usually published in the first months after death. The deceased’s family publicly thanked priests who helped with the funeral, doctors and (rarely) nurses. The genealogical evidence is very limited.

Above: In memoriam card of Patrick Nolan, Bangor Erris, Co. Mayo—such cards became popular in Ireland from the early twentieth century. (Mary Ann Bolger)

In memoriam notices became popular in the early twentieth century. They mark the anniversary of a death, and usually name the person(s) posting. In some instances, anniversaries were observed as long as any family member who knew the deceased in life remained alive. Joe Duffy’s research for his book Children of the Revolution found that some family members placed in memoriam notices for over 70 years after the death.

Over 200 years the conventions around published death notices changed subtly. Contemporary death notices date from the 1970s, and are an amalgamation of the factual death notice of old and the earlier ‘funeral write-up’.


Fiona Fitzsimons is a director of Eneclann, a Trinity campus company, and of findmypast Ireland.


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