The Aran Islands by John M. Synge; Maunsel & Company, LTD, Dublin, 1911
After Mass this morning an old woman was buried. She lived in the cottage next mine, more than once before noon I heard a faint echo of the keen. I did not go to the wake for fear my presence might jar upon the mourners, but all last evening I could hear the strokes of a hammer in the yard, where, in the middle of a little crowd of idlers, the next of kin laboured slowly at the coffin. Today, before the hour for the funeral, poteen was served to a number of men who stood about upon the road, and a portion was brought to me in my room. Then the coffin was carried out, sewn loosely in sailcloth, and held near the ground by three cross-poles lashed upon the top. As we moved down to the low eastern portion of the island, nearly all then men, and all the oldest women, wearing petticoats over their heads, came out and joined the procession.
While the grave was being opened the women sat down among the flat tombstones, bordered with a pale fringe of early bracken, and began a wild keen, or crying for the dead. Each old woman, as she took her turn in leading the recitative, seemed possessed for the moment with a profound ecstasy of grief, swaying to and fro, and bending her forehead to the stone before her, while she called out to the dead with a perpetually recurring chant of sobs.
All round the graveyard other wrinkled women, looking out from under the deep red petticoats that cloaked them, rocked themselves with the same rhythm, and intoned the inarticulate chant that is sustained by all as an accompaniment.
The morning had been beautifully fine, but as they lowered the coffin into the grave, thunder rumbled overhead and hailstones hissed among the bracken.
In Inishmaan one is forced to believe in a sympathy between man and nature, and at this moment, when the thunder sounded a death-peal of extraordinary grandeur above the voices of the women, I could see the faces near me stiff and drawn with emotion.
When the coffin was in the grave, and the thunder had rolled away across the hills of Clare, the keen broke out again more passionately than before.
This grief of the keen is no personal complaint for the death of one woman over eighty years, but seems to contain the whole passionate rage that lurks somewhere in every native of the island. In this cry of pain the inner consciousness of the people seems to lay itself bare for instant, and to reveal the mood of beings who feel their isolation in the face of the universe that wars on them with wind and seas. They are usually silent, but in the presence of death all outward show of indifference or patience is forgotten, and they shriek with pitiable despair before the horror of the fate to which they are all doomed.
Before they covered the coffin an old man kneeled down by the grave and repeated a simple prayer for the dead.
There was an irony in these words of atonement and Catholic belief spoken by voices that were still hoarse with cries of pagan desperation.
A little beyond the grave I saw a line of old women who had recited in the keen sitting in the shadow of a wall beside the roofless shell of the church. They were still sobbing and shaken with grief, yet they were beginning to talk again of daily trifles that veil from them the terrors of the world.
When we had all come out of the graveyard, and two men had rebuilt the hole in the wall through which the coffin had been carried in, we walked back to the village, talking of anything, and joking of anything, as if merely coming from the boat-slip, or the pier.
One man told me of poteen-drinking that takes place at some funerals.
‘A while since,’ he sais, ‘there were two men fell down in the graveyard while the drink was upon them. The sea was rough that day, the way no one could go to bring a doctor, and one of the men never woke again, and found dead that night.’