Understanding the Irish Wake and Its Unique Traditions

Published June 1, 2020
friend comforting and advising

Irish wakes combine both Pagan and Christian traditions that provide loved ones with an opportunity to gather and process the loss of someone important to them. Irish wakes are steeped in traditions and customs that honor the life of the individual who passed away.

What Is an Irish Wake?

Irish wakes typically last two to three days and take place before the funeral. During the wake there are customs that highlight both the mourning of this loss and the merriment that the deceased individual is going on to heaven. Traditionally, before the wake, women would bathe and dress the body of the deceased individual before returning him or her to a coffin placed in their home, otherwise known as being laid out. Funeral homes may also take care of this step before returning the body to the home for the wake period.

What Is the Third Birthday?

The day someone passes away is called their third birthday. This birthday is filled with mourning, as well as celebration as the person moves on from this life and enters heaven. The first birthday is the individual's birth, with the second being their baptism.

What Happens During an Irish Wake?

During the few days of the wake period, visitors come to pay their respects to the deceased and their immediate family in the wake home. Unless the death notice or obituary states that the wake is private, anyone who knew the deceased is informed, typically through word of mouth, of the passing. The wake home may be the home of the deceased, or the home of an immediate family member. Viewing of the body is considered respectful, so you can expect to see most, if not all guests, stopping to have a moment with the deceased individual.

Group of people on a wake

At the wake individuals will share stories, recite poetry, play games, dance, sing songs, pray, and mourn the loss of the deceased individual. Food and drink, including alcohol, is typically served during these few days as visitors trickle in and out. Close family and friends will likely stay at the wake and offer to watch over the body until the body is taken to the funeral home the next day. Those who did not know the deceased well tend to visit around 5 p.m. and stay anywhere from 20 minutes to a few hours.

Irish Wake Traditions and Practices

Old traditions can still be seen being practiced at Irish wakes today. Typically what traditions are upheld will be determined by the family of the deceased individual. Some common traditions and customs include:

  • To show respect for the deceased individual, clocks are stopped at the time of passing.
  • Mirrors are covered or turned around so the soul can more easily enter into heaven.
  • Flowers are placed on a deceased child's body.
  • A pipe may be placed on a deceased male's body, along with pipes placed throughout the wake room.
  • Male visitors may be encouraged to take a puff of the pipes filled with tobacco to discourage visits from evil spirits who shy away from smoke.
  • The body is draped in white linen with white and/or black ribbons.
  • The body is not left alone for a significant amount of time and traditionally a woman would sit by the body.
  • Crying, wailing (keening) would begin after the body was prepared and returned back to the wake home.
  • Candles are lit at the foot and head of the deceased individual.

Typical Prayers and Songs at an Irish Wake

During the wake, loved ones may gather to share stories, sing, pray, and mourn this loss. Individuals may pray privately while viewing the deceased individual in the casket, or as a group. The Rosary is usually said a few times, typically around midnight before visitors leave. The Glory Be, Carrickfergus, and My Lagan Love are typical songs and prayers heard at an Irish wake.

Dress Code for an Irish Wake

Although dress code is typically left up to the family, traditionally mourners wear black business attire to the wake, as well as the funeral. Keep in mind that it is better to dress modestly for the wake and funeral as a sign of respect.

What to Bring to an Irish Wake

If you attend an Irish wake, it is respectful to bring the immediate family a gift. Alcohol, food, and/or flowers are typical gifts that may be given at Irish wakes. Offering gifts to the immediate family is a thoughtful and respectful gesture that shows them your support during this time.

Understanding Irish Wake Traditions

Irish wakes are filled with unique customs and traditions that honor the individual who passed away, while creating a supportive environment for those in mourning. The use of all or certain traditions will vary based on the family's wishes.

Understanding the Irish Wake and Its Unique Traditions