Friday, April 1, 2011

Questions for Curatorial - Keening

Is keening a mourning ritual practiced only by Irish Catholics?

Traditionally performed at Irish wakes and funerals during the 19th century and centuries before, keening consisted of high pitched, discordant songs sung in Irish, which eulogized the dead. While the practice appears to have been more common in Ireland, it was also performed in Scotland. Keening was usually performed by mna caoine [“na keen” or keening woman], old women either related to the deceased or specially hired to keen.

Keening seems to have predated the introduction of Catholicism to Ireland. Indeed, keening and drinking at the wake were rituals that the Catholic Church tried to forbid, since Catholic officials felt that they cast Irish Catholic immigrants in a negative light (and because the rituals themselves were holdovers from pagan practices).

What is more, keening was one of the Irish rituals that native-born Americans pointed to as an example of Irish racial.  George Templeton Strong[1], the prominent nativist New Yorker and member of the Union Club, kept a meticulous diary during the 19th century.  In an entry dated July 7, 1857, he describes coming upon a construction accident on
Fourth Avenue
in which the earth has caved in on a number of Irish laborers.  In typical nativist fashion, rather then commiserating with the plight of the deceased laborers and commenting upon the working conditions that might have led to such an accident, Strong focuses instead on the reaction of the Irish women on hand, and its reflection on the “Irish” character.  He wrote:

Seeing a crowd on the corner, I stopped and made my way to a front place. The earth had caved in a few minutes before and crushed the breath out of a pair of ill-starred Celtic laborers. They had just been dragged, or dug, out, and lay white and stark on the ground where they had been working, ten or twelve feet below the level of the street. Around them were a few men who had got them out, I suppose, and fifteen or twenty Irish women, wives, kinfolk or friends, who had got down there in some inexplicable way. The men were listless and inert enough, but not so the women. I suppose they were “keening”; all together were raising a wild, unearthly cry, half shriek and half song, wailing as a score of daylight Banshees, clapping their hands and gesticulating passionately. Now and then one of them would throw herself down on one of the corpses, or wipe some trace of defilement from the face of the dead man with her apron, slowly and carefully, and then resume her lament. It was an uncanny sound to hear. . . .Our Celtic fellow citizens are almost as remote from us in temperament and constitution as the Chinese.
[1] George Templeton Strong also famously commented after the draft riots, that “I would like to see war made on Irish scum as in 1688,” a specific reference to William of Orange’s campaign against the Catholic James II in Ireland, which culminated in the defeat of James’s Irish and French troops at the Battle of the Boyne.

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