Trad/roots: With impeccable timing, keening makes a return to the Irish stage

With Covid-19 stalking the land, Kevin Toolis's Wonders Of The Wake was a timely reminder of how we dealt with death as a community in Ireland in times gone by. And speaking of which, the arts community in the north should surely be cared for, in similar vein to south of the border

Wonders of the Wake author and former Irish News journalist Kevin Toolis
Robert McMillen

WITH banshees looking forward to lots of overtime in the next few weeks, it was inspired if unintentionally timely that the last show at the Lyric Theatre before it voluntarily closed in the face of the Coronavirus outbreak was Wonders of the Wake, Kevin Toolis's elegy in song and poetry to the lost art of keening.

Outside the Lyric flowed the Lagan, a river which features in Ptolemy's Geography which was compiled in the 2nd century AD. The river name is thought to connect with the Old Irish word loeg which means “a calf" so, given its antiquity, had the Lagan heard the sound of keening hundreds of years ago? (The first written mention of keening goes back to the 16th century)

Funereal and burial customs would have changed over the years from that of Belfast's earliest inhabitants who first found sustenance in the hills above its unwelcoming, marshy ground to the coming of Christianity and its stuttering victory over Paganism.

For some 400 years, though, when a person died, especially in rural areas, an bhean chaointe – the keening woman – would be called upon to… well, it's hard to describe the sound of keening.

The Irish Traditional Music Archive in Dublin has two examples of it but the actual sound is unknown to most people. (If you want to get an insight into keening, you should try and get your hands on Pádraigín Ní Uallacháin's magisterial book A Hidden Ulster, wherein she describes the different types of keening as practised in south-east Ulster).

However, the ancient modulation and intonation was recreated by the Féile Women's Choir at the Lyric last Sunday in an amazing performance that made the hair stand up on the back of one's head, a sound, as Kevin points out, that has not been heard in Ireland for 100 years.

Something similar had been common in ancient Greece but they seem to have got it from the women of Syria.

Fast forward to Ireland and the days when it was OK to speak ill of the dead. Bottles of stout hadn't given way to cups of tea and whiskey still took preference over cake and sandwiches.

The decorum was, shall we say, less sombre back then as games were played, practical jokes carried out, perhaps a little bit of courting went on, all in view of the deceased.

However, the mood would have changed with the calling of the bean chaointe who would sing solo or with other women in an atavistic outburst of sorrow at the passing.

The Wonders of the Wake reflected the more recent style of waking. Given the day that was in it, it was more Sunday Miscellany than Finnegan's Wake (the ballad) but it nevertheless gave us a fascinating inside into the Irish psyche and their approach to death.

As well as the Féile Women's Choir – which I felt were under-utilised – the songs and music were provided by the ever-wonderful Henry Girls and by Niamh Parsons while Kevin Toolis himself recited the poetry, which ebbed and flowed through time itself.

The songs were well chosen from Caoineadh na dTrí Muire/the Lament of the Three Marys (the three who were present at the crucifixion according to the Gospel of St John, Mary Magdalene, Mary of Cleophas and Mary the mother of Jesus) to Amhrán Mhuinise, in which the female writer of the song asks that her body be brought in a boat to her home place at Muínis so she could be buried there.

The newly composed songs fitted in nicely with the scheme of things but performance ended with A Parting Glass, one of those songs that once heard, stays in your mind for ages afterwards – as will Wonders of the Wake.

:: We're all in this together – well, some more than others

THE Coronavirus is wreaking havoc on society in all kinds of ways as I write this, with the situation getting worse before it gets better, we are being told.

While some people are in mortal danger due to the virus, others face having their means of supporting themselves and their families taken away from them.

Among the most vulnerable of these are people who work in the arts – it's always one of the most precarious professions but the untold harm that Covid-19 is bringing is beyond imagination.

In times of crisis, people turn to the arts and especially music to give them relief, sustenance, courage and to raise the spirits when they seem to be faced with unsurmountable challenges.

We saw the self-isolating singing on their balconies in Italy and Spain in an act of communal solidarity and in defiance of the Covid-19 scourge. Because you can't monetise that it is thought to be worthless, when the polar opposite is the truth.

Here at home, Colm Mac an Iomaire and Liam Ó Maonlaí were among the artists who gave free concerts on Facebook, giving real meaning to the phrase “we're all in this together.”

But with theatres, pubs, venues and arts centres all closing due to the outbreak, the livelihoods of thousands of musicians, standard bearers for the nation, are in danger.

That goes for trad musicians from Ballycastle to Dingle but things are different on each side of the border, as fiddler Dónal O'Connor points out.

Writing on Facebook, he says that the government in the Republic is supporting recently unemployed and self-employed workers through The COVID Pandemic Unemployment Fund to the tune of €203 per week for six weeks.

“Unfortunately, no such support is being offered by the government in the north,” says O'Connor.

“It's vital that Stormont ministers and political parties are lobbied to change this. Doorstep your local politician, email, text or tweet the minister for communities, the minister for finance etc.”

There is also a petition that one can sign which calls on the British government to support self-employed workers during the current crisis. It's at

Enjoy reading the Irish News?

Subscribe now to get full access