American Wakes

views updated

American Wakes

The American wake—sometimes called the live wake, farewell supper, or bottle night—was a unique leave-taking ceremony for emigrants from rural Ireland to the United States. American wakes took place prior to the Great Famine, but most evidence survives from the late 1800s and early 1900s, when the custom prevailed among Catholics, especially in western Ireland where traditional customs remained potent. Usually held on the evening prior to an emigrant's departure, the American wake resembled its ceremonial model, the traditional wake for the dead, and its most common name signified that many Catholic country people still regarded emigration as death's equivalent—a permanent breaking of earthly ties. Usually hosted by the emigrant's parents, the American wake, like a traditional wake, was attended by kinfolk and neighbors, featured the liberal consumption of food and drink, and exhibited a seemingly incongruous mixture of grief and gaity, expressed in lamentations, prayers, games, singing, and dancing.

Although its format was archaic, the American wake was an adaptation to postfamine Ireland's social, cultural, and political exigencies. Because emigration was potentially threatening to communal loyalties and values, the leave-taking ceremony interpreted Irish emigration so as to ensure that the emigrants overseas would remain dutiful to the community left behind. The songs, ballads, and other rituals enacted during the American wakes represented a stylized dialogue between the emigrants and the parents, priests, and nationalist politicians who governed Irish Catholic society. Songs that expressed the latter's perspective often ignored the economic causes of emigration and accused the allegedly "selfish," "hard-hearted" emigrants themselves of "abandoning" their aged mothers and fathers and, by extension, "holy Ireland" itself. In response, the ballads sung from the emigrants' perspective portrayed them not as eager, ambitious, or alienated from Irish poverty or from parental and clerical repression, but as sorrowing "exiles," victims of British or landlord oppression, who would be miserably homesick overseas until they returned as promised to their parents' hearths. Such songs also excused the emigrants' departures and expiated their guilt by pledging that they would send their parents money from the United States and would remain loyal to their religion and to the cause of Irish freedom. Arguably, then, the harrowing effects of the American wake on young emigrants, at the moment they were leaving home and hence were psychologically most vulnerable, helped to ensure their unusually high levels of remittances, religious fidelity, and nationalist fervor in the New World.

SEE ALSO Great Famine; Migration: Emigration from the Seventeenth Century to 1845; Migration: Emigration from 1850 to 1960; Population, Economy, and Society from 1750 to 1950; Rural Life: 1850 to 1921; Town Life from 1690 to the Early Twentieth Century


Miller, Kerby A. Emigrants and Exiles: Ireland and the Irish Exodus to North America. 1985.

Schrier, Arnold. Ireland and the Irish Emigration, 1850–1900. 1958.

Kerby Miller

About this article

American Wakes

Updated About content Print Article