Arts

Date with death: The Ring a toned-down version of decadent Irish wake tradition

Irish wakes are simultaneously sad and social, occasions for drinking and singing. But courting? Kevin Toolis, author of a new book on Ireland's attitude to death, recalls participating in a modern version of wake tradition that, though ancient in origin, isn't nearly as decadent as in centuries gone by

"Seamus, being dead, made no objection to our revelry. Nor did the old men who sat all around us. As if this teenage renewal was part too of Seamus's departing"

"SHALL we go back to the wake for the craic?" It was some opening line for a teenage date. I was 15 and standing on the floor of the Wavecrest Ballroom on an island off the Mayo coast. It was just past 2am and in my arms was the warm enticing body of Sinead, my would-be girlfriend.

The offer had come from Eamon, an older brother of one of Sinead's female friends, and more importantly the owner of a car that we could all pile into and avoid the seven-mile walk home.

The 'craic' in Irish usually means laughter, fun and games, but the offer of further teenage rollicking with a corpse in the room was unknown territory for me. The decision was made by Sinead.

"Why don't we?" she said directly, a stab of lust in her green eyes. As a dating proposition, going on to the wake did have certain irresistible attractions; my time with Sinead would go on; there was nowhere else to go on the island at 3am and, as teenagers after a hard night's dancing, we were ravenously hungry.

Soon, nine or 10 of us were piled in Eamon's Ford Cortina and driving towards the wake house. Inside, the house had a raw poverty. We turned sharp right into what must have been a front sitting room but now held the coffin, rows of seats, and a dozen or so seated mourners. The air was thick with cigarette smoke.

With Eamon as our lead we shuffled towards the corpse, a Seamus. We shook hands solemnly with the dead man's two middle-aged stoutish daughters, garbling our "Sorry for your trouble" before an obligatory mumbled prayer at the head of the open coffin. Even as these things go Seamus wasn't looking great. In his final illness his liver must have packed up and his skin had the vivid yellowish look of the heavily jaundiced.

There was a leaden atmosphere in the room, a dry-eyed exhaustion. We soon gathered that Seamus, even in his daughters' grief, was being classified as a happy corpse.

"Sure, isn't it happy for him..." leaving unsaid the final words of relief, "... and for us that he is finally dead".

After our own pretend prayers and faux sympathy we sat down in a group, just feet from the yellowed corpse in the midst of surrounding mourners, an influx of tipsy, giggling teenagers.

When the sandwiches came round we tucked in, scoffing plate after plate until more were brought. Eamon, straight-faced, called out for a refill of tea by saying his throat was "almost as parched as Seamus' there".

The real craic, also known as prumsaí on the island, a form of courting at wakes, was just about to begin. From his pocket Eamon produced a small button and held it out in the palm of his hand. "Let's play the Ring."

It was a teenage dating game, a version of Spin the Bottle. We held out our pressed-together palms and Eamon went down the line and secretly slipped the button into the hands of one of the players. Unknowingly at 15 I had stumbled into one of the oldest rites of humanity. The Ring was a wake game, an ancient death ritual first mentioned in the eighth century BCE poem The Iliad.

Led by a male cleasái like Eamon, a master of misrule, wake games are a defiant usurpation of death's power, the prevailing social order of priests and authority and a vibrant proclaiming of the present pleasures of the flesh.

Our version of the Ring was pretty tame in comparison to the orgies once recorded at 18th century Irish wakes but it too involved some real pain, and sexual forfeit.

The object of the game was to guess who among us held the button. The penalty for a wrong answer for a boy was a bone-jarring blow on the back of your knuckles by Eamon, whose metal-like fist inflicted searing pain. The penalty for a girl was five minutes outside in the dark, with a boy chosen by Eamon.

Locked into this dating game, we burst out in suppressed laughter at another girl or boy's crimson embarrassment at a wrong answer. We flirted. We teased and mocked, sniggered and guffawed and sought a way to clandestinely pair up with the boy or girl of our desire.

Seamus, being dead, made no objection to our revelry but neither did his daughters. Nor did the old men, farmers in flat caps, who sat all around us, who waked along with us through that night. No-one said a word. Not even a hostile glance. As if this teenage renewal, these ancient rites of prumsaí, was part too of Seamus's departing.

Unconsciously the wake was also training us too for our own death. Like the older mourners all around us, we too, although teenagers, were being trained to see the sight and touch of the dead as nothing strange – just the very ordinary dead.

Playing the Ring while waking along with the dead has a price. The back of my hand ached for days afterwards, bruised from wrong answers. But it was worth it. Because out in the moonlit dark at the back of Seamus Gallagher's wake house, paying forfeit, I first laid my lips on Sinead's tremulous mouth. The dead man inside in the box had only heightened rather than deterred our hormonal urges.

:: My Father's Wake: How the Irish Teach Us to Live, Love and Die, by Kevin Toolis is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson. Kevin will be reading from My Father's Wake on Saturday October 14 at 1pm on board the Belfast Barge, as part of the Belfast International Arts Festival (belfastinternationalartsfestival.com). Tickets here

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