Keening – What happened our culture of crying ?

Article published in Corks Evening Echo August 2018

In Ireland, how many of our customs, local knowledge and even language have been lost in favour of speed, a promise of ease, choice and comfort?

Today we mourn in silence and praise an image of smiling success. Yet depression, anxiety and suicide are at an all-time high. We appear to have made progress, but at what cost?

We may have grown in stature on the world stage, but we are still human. There is plenty to cry about. Through the dedication of a trio of Cork women, one of Ireland’s most misunderstood cultural forms — our lament tradition, also known as ‘keening’ — is receiving a fresh burst of interest.

“Today, when there is grief and sadness, when someone dies or when we experience loss or a traumatic event, our modern response is to enhance strength,” says Marian Caulfield, Teaching Assistant in the Study of Religions Department at UCC.

“Today, everybody’s trying to say ‘You’re OK, be strong’. At a graveside, people are trying to stop the crying and calm the person down,” says Marian.

What is clear is that we are uncomfortable with crying.

“When you cry, you cry alone,” she observes. “Yet when we look to the physiological side of crying, we see that at a primal level it sets the milk flowing in the mother. Crying is a very raw thing. Crying is calling for someone to take care of us. And yet we do cry alone. There is shame about crying.”

Marian first introduced Lament as a therapeutic tool among mental health professionals and health service users at the Critical Voices In Mental Health conference at UCC last November, to rapturous interest.

“Crying in words through song” is how Marian describes Lament.

Dr Triona Ní Shíocháin, a scholar of Irish and Music at UCC, locates the Irish lament tradition firmly within the oral tradition. She describes keening as a “highly sophisticated method of composing developed by women over generations”.

No keen was the same as any other and while there was a definite structure, they were improvised and composed in the moment by these skilled ‘mná caointe’ or keeners.

The loss of the keening is part of our colonial story, she says, but also linked to a loss of status for women in Irish society.

“Before the famine there wasn’t the same Vatican-sponsored Catholicism, but the Church wanted to civilise, regularise and control traditional practices. The keening women were the female authority and had been very highly regarded. There are descriptions in Irish folkore of a ‘briathar cath’ or ‘war of words’ between the mná caointe and the priest. “The keening woman often seemed to win,” she notes.

It is clear that these women had authority and a key role to play in the ritual of honouring the dead — but another agenda took over. The keening tradition was replaced with mourning in silence.

“Anois, tá an saol ró ciúin ( life is too silent)”, she says.

Such was the interest among the mental health professionals and mental health service users that there was a waiting list for the workshop that followed in April last.

“By the end of the day you will be different by this experience,” Finnish lament facilitator Tuomas Rounakari announced, as he opened the workshop.

“Everybody said how it’s wonderful to have a space where you don’t feel judged — felt safe to let tears flow. People with stories there did howl, did cry. Some sound came out of me that I didn’t realise I was capable of making. We were all equal, all there for the same reason and all supported by the sound of the other voices in the group humming a lament refrain with you, and holding your sorrow with you” and crying “until it was ready”.

Although the Irish lament tradition has long fallen out of use, lament is truly a worldwide phenomenon. For the past 20 years, the Finns have been cultivating a revival, honouring sadness as a part of life where facilitators such as Tuomas Ruonkari encourages people: “Don’t be scared to feel the emotion — feel it, make your own lament”.

In Finland, there is even a government organisation dedicated to the revival of the lament tradition. People are encouraged to “Cry until it’s ready”, crying together, with the support of the group in a safe space where sadness is also welcome.

Dr Triona Ní Shíocháin has observed that there is a structure to these laments. The sound carried the dead from the life to the other world. Mná caointe shared a list of genealogy, calling the ancestors to meet the spirit of the dead, and then they would talk to the ones who are waiting on the other side, relaying the whole life of the deceased.

Usually the domain of women and a key element in the ritual of passage for the dead, Lament invites relief, release and a cleansing of emotion.

In Michelle Collin’s radio documentary Sounds Of Grief on RTÉ1 Radio 1, she interviews cultural anthropologist Professor Jim Wilkes who describes how a Finnish lament workshop proved to be more effective than other therapeutic modalities he had experienced. He was putting his experience of the loss of his sister from leukaemia into words, as a lament where he was invited to address his sister directly.

Another testimony to the power of lament is in the observations of one Fr Eddie, who had lost a wife and child before entering the priesthood. “It thought my heart was going to break… I was told not to upset the children, not to cry. I think it was a good thing (the keening), it gave people a chance to get rid of the pain and the sadness that was building up inside. Today, when the pressure comes now they go to the doctor and get an injection or tablets to get over it.”

Slowly, perhaps, we might be learning to cry again. The first thing is to have permission to cry. We cannot bring Ireland’s lost cultural form of keening back, but it is clear that inspiration can be taken from this ancient practice and that Ireland’s lost keening tradition, this “crying through song”, may yet again find acceptance and welcome.

“What I have found to be an even more central theme is the need to “be with each other in grief,” Michelle observes. “The permission to express and the importance of grief is witnessed.”

“I felt that so much had been released,” said Marian, “It was the best night’s sleep ever.”

Through calculated assaults on culture and memory, the indigenous language and ancient traditions of Ireland came to be associated with being backward and ignorant in the Irish psyche.

“We started internalising the colonial oppression” says Triona.

Now, perhaps, through gathering and re-learning to cry together, in song, some of that weight can be lifted.


Photo by Kat Jon Unsplash

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