‘Lament for the Dead in Early Irish Tradition: A Gendered Genre?’

Published on: Author: Megan Leave a comment

On February 24, 2016, the Centre for Scottish and Celtic Studies welcomed Alexandra Bergholm (Helsinki) to discuss ‘Lament for the Dead in Early Irish Tradition: A Gendered Genre?’ Below is this listener’s brief summary of the lecture.

Alexandra began by describing the lament as a funerary ritual expression or articulation of a significant experience of loss. The lament was important in both the private and public spheres, played both secular and religious roles in both the formal and informal spheres. She explained that the primary purpose of this paper is to illustrate these different aspects of lament and draw some of them together. To limit the scope, she focused on lamentation as a ritual articulation of mourning and set it against the larger complex of death-related ritual activities which function to redefine and re-establish the relationship between the living and the dead.

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While mortality is a universal human experience, different societies react to death in a variety of different ways. Alexandra took an anthropological and sociological theoretical approach to contextualize mortuary practice in relation to other aspects of the wider society. The concept of mourning that she utilised refers to the conventional behaviour and stages of grief which are bound to the norms of society. She explained that these historical sources do not convey actual emotion, but instead represent what was expected in those situations due to the social norms of that period. As such, the ritual lamentation that these texts portray can be viewed as either reflecting a tradition that was recognised and accepted as part of actual practice or as a literary device to add dramatic effect and narrative development. In either case, Alexandra argued that lamentation represents more than a comment on someone’s death.

The lament is a universal language of grief that provides a structure for a reaction that is difficult to articulate otherwise. In Irish death culture, this is usually provided by the keening women who, up until the modern period, assumed the responsibility of performing public laments at different stages of the mourning process. From the early 16th century into the 19th century, the keening women have been described in texts and letters by outsiders as the actions of “primitive” and “superstitious” barbarous native Irish. During this period, the lament was described as a feminine, excessive response to grief, while the grief of men was portrayed as reserved and dignified in the form of an elegy. The study of the lament has become increasingly gendered, so much so that the lament has been used as a source for the study of female experience during these periods. As one shifts from the 17th century to focus on the 7th century, Alexandra argued that the gendering of the genre is not necessarily appropriate.

The introduction of the practice of lamentation in Irish tradition is attributed to Brigit/Brig, daughter of Dagda, in  the native pseudohistorical tradition; this suggests that keening was viewed as a verbal art form. In a particular passage in the Collectanea, Tírechán used a term associated with keening with the masculine plural form, which suggests that it was not only women keening. Communal lamentation is portrayed as having additional significance in Tírechán’s account. The size of the mourning crowd appears to have corresponded to the social status of the deceased.

Alexandra also addressed three Irish penitentials which are attributed to the mid-seventh to the late eighth and early ninth centuries AD. This includes the Canones Hibernenses (which is not a penitential, but actually a series of decrees directed at clergy or monks), the Bigotian penitential, and Old Irish penitential. The Canones Hibernenses includes keening in its list of various sins. She suggested that this source does not condemn keening, but instead that in order to retain ritual purity, the clergy should avoid keening because of its close association with and the presence of the dead. In the past, these passages have been used to associate the act of keening with women, although Alexandra demonstrated that more information can be derived from these penitentials. She pointed out that keening was listed after anger in these penitentials. This would suggest that a certain kind of keening is destructive, specifically that which lead to revenge and sins committed in anger. Finally, lamentation was viewed as shameful and a sign of disbelief in God’s divine plan and the Christian afterlife, because if they truly believed that their loved ones had achieved eternal life, they would not mourn the dead with such a reaction. Therefore, these penitentials relating to keening should not be viewed as condemnation of lamentations as a whole, but against excessive manifestations of feelings of hopelessness or bitterness and anger.

Manifestations of mourning are usually portrayed in epic literature and the Bible as specific ritualised behaviours, which include: the mourners tearing their garments, wearing ashes on their head, walking barefoot, rolling in dung, beating their breasts, tearing at their hair and beards, letting their hair hang loose and uncovered, and lacerating their faces. The laments recorded from the 18th and 19th centuries are associated with different ritual behaviours, stock scenes and images that are paralleled in earlier Irish texts. These include descriptions of the handsome appearance of the deceased, the description of his deeds and connections, and, if his death was associated with violence, cursing of his enemies. These motifs recur in early Irish texts, such as the early 8th century ‘Emer’s Lament Cry’ and Cú Chulainn’s lament over Fer Diad. In these texts, lament appears to display bonds of obligation and affection, much in the same way it would have declared the dead’s social worth in actual mortuary practice.  Cú Chulainn’s lament also reinforces the fact that keening was not restricted to the realm of women in early Irish literature. In fact, in medieval texts the male emotional lament is often a central theme.

In conclusion, the texts addressed in Alexandra’s paper indicate that the ritual lament for the dead has been perceived as a medium that has conveyed the complexity of the experience of grief. In the study of the tradition of death, an emphasis is often laid upon lamentation as part of the the exclusively female experience. Especially with the early Irish sources, treating the lament as a feminine attribute devalues the male expression of grief and downplays the effect death has on all members of the community. It is important not to lose sight of this aspect of analysis.

Summary by Megan Kasten (PhD Researcher)

Our seminar series continues on 1 March 2016 with Chris McMillan (Glasgow) to discuss ‘The Scots in Ulster and the “Colonial” Enterprise of Thomas Devereux, Earl of Essex, 1573-75.’ This will be held in Room 202, 3 University Gardens at 5.30pm.

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