Sunday, 5 September 2010

Book review: Irish Wake Amusements

O frabjous day! I've put my back out. Aren't I lucky?

Woe, woe is me! I'd probably be throwing myself dramatically onto a conveniently placed piece of furniture at this point, so I can sob loudly and pathetically for effect, but that would hurt. And also mean I'd have to be standing up. Or at least sitting somewhere strategic...Neither is an option right now.

But while I have nothing better to do than lie around feeling sorry for myself, at least I have some reading time on my hands. Which leads me to my next review:

Irish Wake Amusements
Seán Ó Súilleabháin

I read Ó Súilleabháin's other book, Irish Folk Custom and Belief a while ago and really enjoyed it, so I had high hopes for this one. Overall, I wasn't disappointed. As far as readability is concerned.

This book is short and sweet again, written in the same conversational style, and well referenced. It's a good, quick read that covers all of the basics of the subject, plus a bit more, although as with the last book, Ó Súilleabháin could have probably written something four times the size and still not covered anything. I have to say, though, this book doesn't feel as broad-brushed as Irish Folk Custom and Belief did, so I've come away feeling a lot more satisfied this time.

It's not the cheeriest of subjects to read about, but it's an interesting one, especially for someone like me who's been brought up in a very different sort of environment, where death is sidelined and kept quiet and solemn. Not so here.

Ó Súilleabháin keeps a tight focus on the basics - what happens before the wake starts, what happens when people join the wake, the kind of hospitality that is given and expected from the family of the deceased, and then goes on to the main part of the book - the wake amusements. He splits them all up into different types of amusements or games and devotes a chapter to each one, and then goes on to look at the reaction of the Church and how they tried to clamp down on the practice over the centuries - with little success - followed by an examination of the origins of customs. It was at this point that some of the problems became apparent with the book, since it wasn't so much an attempt at looking at the possible origins, but more defending folk's behaviour in these bygone times. They didn't know any better, these rustic folk, is the general gist, but in these enlightened times, we are all good Christians now, and do it properly...

This is a very sanitised version of events, in amongst all the detail. Having read elsewhere on the subject I've seen mention of far ruder and rougher games being played at Irish wakes (in E Estyn Evans' Irish Folk Ways, who says they're far too obscene to commit to paper) than Ó Súilleabháin describes here, and it seems that Ó Súilleabháin is actively trying to play this element down. There is the occasional mention of lewd or obscene behaviour, or the potential for it, but no details. It's almost as if you can tell that such things are mentioned in hushed tones, if that's possible in print.

Clearly, Ó Súilleabháin is writing to a particular audience. Clearly, someone who's read the book before me also thought that Ó Súilleabháin wasn't being entirely honest about everything - at one point, Ó Súilleabháin comments that modern wakes, where they are still practised, are devoid of drunkenness. "I'm sorry, but that's bollicks!"[sic]  writes my anonymous friend in the margin. I have to agree.

It's a shame that the book falls a little short on this point, but overall it does have a lot of good stuff to offer (and to be fair to Ó Súilleabháin, he's not the only one who didn't want to go there). One of the most useful aspects of the book is the detail that Ó Súilleabháin gives for all of the games that he lists, because, as he points out, few of them are specific to wake occasions. Most of them are the general sort of parlour games that can be found on any festive occasion, and so from a Gaelic Polytheist perspective, they can be referenced when trying to add a competitive or simple fun element to festivities at Lùnastal (for example). Some of them are well known already - Blind Man's Buff, Hide the Slipper, variants on games like Simon Says, and so on. This is especially good for me, looking for inspiration for involving the kids, but as Ó Súilleabháin points out, these games were traditionally for anyone but the elderly.

Like any book, it can't be taken at face value, and with this caveat in mind it's a very informative, and useful, book to read if you want to do some research in this area. Unfortunately, it's definitely one of those books you'll have to get from the library, because for such a small book it comes with an incredibly hefty price tag as far as I've seen. Count yourself lucky if you see it going cheap, and snap it up.