My childhood memory of the rituals associated with death in the Clonmacnoise area, and the story of the last keener, (perhaps) from the area? Pádraig Turley

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`Arising from the Covid-19 virus due to government advice regarding public gatherings a private funeral will take place, but may be viewed on the Church website.`

This notice is now a regular feature of obituary notices in current newspapers and website dealing with death notices.

The story I wish to relate deals with an earlier time, from the early 50s, and I hope to recreate an image of the funeral process back then in west Offaly. It was a time when the medical condition of a sick person or indeed a visit by a doctor to such a person was not the only omen that death was imminent. A much more reliable harbinger of such an event was when a report came in, that the `banshee` had been heard. My grandfather, Michael Claffey originally from Bloomhill, near Ballinahown, totally believed in the banshee. He was a well-read literate man, yet if someone was ill in the parish, he would not show much concern until it was reported that the cry of the banshee had been heard. Once that occurred, it was good night Vienna, as far as he was concerned. He would then just wait for the inevitable, which from my memory always seemed to happen.

The Banshee

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Who or what was the banshee? The word is derived from the Irish bean sí, meaning fairy woman. This is a female spirit who heralds a death in a family, usually by wailing. In west Offaly one heard of folk hearing the banshee but never of actually seeing her. The description of the banshee seems to vary from region to region. She may be dressed in a red or green cloak, have long hair and a ghastly complexion.

It was said that she only followed certain families. Walter Scott in Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft published in 1836 said it was stated that she only laments the descendants of pure Milesian stock.

In the millennium publication Clonmacnois: St. Ciaran`s People we find a piece on the banshee by the late Dan Edwards, where he relates a story he was told when he was thirteen years old by his grandfather Pat Cloonan then aged 90 years. Pat told him that the banshee was a small woman dressed in white, and that she cried after certain families, namely any families who had the prefix `O` or `Mac` before their names. In this story Pat told how a man had found a beautiful comb which he gave to his wife. That night and on subsequent nights the banshee appeared outside the window of their little house, wailing and crying. Eventually on the advice of the local priest he left the comb on the window sill. That night the banshee arrived as usual, she saw the comb, grabbed it and was not seen or heard of again. Pat said a lot of people dropped the `O` and   `Mac` from their names to avoid the crying of the banshee and her prediction of death. I think most folk would identify this practice with those who converted to the Protestant faith.

Belief in the banshee waned and gradually died out in the mid-20th century.  A cynic might be tempted to say that the arrival of the rural electrification scheme contributed greatly to the demise of the banshee. This scheme certainly put paid to a lot of ghosts, who used to roam around the countryside at will. The wailing or shrieking may well have been barn owls or vixen. However to folk of my grandfather`s time she was a real and ominous presence.

The Keener

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Bidney Doorley

Another feature of funerals back then which has ceased or rather faded away, was the role of the keener. There is one particular practitioner from the area I wish to tell you about, and that was a lady from Creevagh named Bidney Doorley. Creevagh is the adjacent townland to Clonmacnoise as one comes from the Shannonbridge road. However before I deal with Bidney, let us have a word about the process and indeed the ritual of keening.

Keening has been described as a vocal ritual performed at a wake or graveside. It comes from the Gaelic word caoineadh, meaning to cry. As well as in Ireland the ritual was common in parts of Scotland. In parts of Leinster she is called bean chaointe i.e. keening woman, in Scotland she is bean nighe i.e. cleaning woman and in Wales she is termed chyraeth i.e. a ghostly spirit. Keeners are always female.

B.C.C. Radio 4 did a piece on this subject some years back. The presenter was one Marie-Louise Muir. She described listening to a recording of keeners thus: `It shocked and surprised me how difficult I found listening to those archive recordings. To my ear, as an orchestral, classical trained musician, they were off-note. That unsettled me. It`s akin to nails being scraped down a blackboard. Every atom of your body cringes against it. You just recoil. You`re recoiling from the horror of loss, but the music is incredible. It`s expressing how you are feeling. Having gone through it with (the funeral of) my own father this may sound crass, but you`re also strangely euphoric because you`ve gone through a lot. To be in a room where your father breathes his last breath, you`ve never experienced that before. Then everybody, your family, the community piles in on top of you for a Catholic wake. Pots of tea and sandwiches are brought in. There`s almost this party atmosphere. Everybody`s dropping by. You`re giddy from lack of sleep, with grief. Everything`s upended because you`re having a party but the main person isn`t there. To bring keening into the middle of that must have felt like you were breaking some kind of trance. That was in a way why it was so harsh-it must have been hard to penetrate the grief.`

Speaking generally on death Muir said `Our grief is now too contained. We rely on taking anti-depressants. We go to grief counsellors, but these people in a way letting it all out, having a good scream, coming from the feet up. A good cry, a good purging.` Marie-Louise Muir`s father had been Mayor of Derry and a member of the S.D.L.P.

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Keening is mentioned in J.M. Synge`s classical tragic play Riders to the Sea. Cathleen the daughter of Maurya, who has endured eight deaths in her family, say of Maurya `An old woman will soon be tired with everything she will do, and ins`t it nine days herself is after crying and keening, and making a great sorrow in the house?`

The Lament of Art O`Leary

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Of course the most famous keen has to be Caoineadh Art Uí Laoghaire (The Lament of Art O`Leary.)  Art O`Leary from a noble Irish family was educated on the continent, as Catholics were forbidden an education due to the Penal Laws. He had served as a Captain in the Hungarian Hussars, a Regiment of Empress Marie Theresa`s Army of Austria-Hungary. This is a keen composed by his wife and has been described by Declan Kiberd as the greatest poem written in either Irish or English during the 18th century. The poem is one of the greatest laments ever written in the Irish language. Eibhlín composed it on the subject of the death of her husband which occurred on 4th May 1773. It details the murder at Carraig an Ime, county Cork at the hands of a British Official Abraham Morris. There had been bad blood between Art and Morris. The dispute came to a head when Morris offered Art five pounds for his horse. According to the Penal Laws, Catholics were proscribed from owning horses worth more than five pounds, so Abraham Morris was entitled to do this. When Art refused, Morris as a Protestant had him outlawed. Once declared an outlaw he could be shot quite ‘legally’. This poem was composed ex tempore and follows the rhythmic and social conventions associated with keening and the traditional Irish wake. Part of this caoinaeadh takes the form of a verbal contest between Eibhlín and Art`s sister. The acrimonious dialogue between the two women shows the disharmony between the two families, as Art and Eibhlín had eloped.

Francis Barton Gummere, the noted scholar of folklore and ancient languages, theorized that kerning or vocalized grief was the beginning of poetry.

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Art O’Leary from the Cuala Press edition by  Jack Yeats

Bidney Doorley

Now let us return to the Bidney Doorley whom I believe may be the last keener in the area of Shannonbridge/Clonmacnoise. It would appear she was born in the year 1877. I could not trace a record of her birth but in the 1911 census her age is given as 35, oddly in the 1901 census her age is stated to be 34 but this would appear to be an error. She was born Bridget Doorley, to Edward Doorley and Bridget Doorley nee McManus. She had two brothers Peter and Edward, both of whom will feature later in this story. Edward is the only one whose birth was registered, his birth taking place 10th February 1877. According to the census returns none of them could read or write. Edward emigrated to the New York for a time. Bidney and Peter lived in Creevagh, where they had a tiny farm and ran a small shop. They were by no means well off, but somehow or other eked out a living. Bidney was a keener, and this would bring in the occasional few bob. The encounter with Bidney I wish to relate happened on the early forties so I am relying on information I received from my mother. One day, Bidney arrived up to see my grandfather Michael Claffey who lived in the townland of Clerhane. Some person had died in Corrigeen, a little hamlet on the banks of the river Shannon, which sadly had to be evacuated due to persistent flooding. As a slight aside here, Michael Donegan  with help from Gussie Claffey wrote a nice piece on the demise of Corrigeen in the February 1980 edition of the Shannonbridge Star.

When she arrived she was in a bit of a quandary. Her problem was, she wanted to know if she should keen the deceased. What she actually said was `should I cry them?` This may look a trivial difficulty today but back then it was very serious. There could be any number of reasons why a keener would decline to keen a deceased. Most of them, in the end would boil down to some row or other, no matter how distant that particular tussle might have been. From research it seems that the possibility the fee/gratuity might not be forthcoming might also be in play.

She was very bothered, so the kettle was put on, and the usual remedy to calm down Irish folk of that generation, or indeed any generation, was produced, a very strong cup of tea. I can`t rightly recall all the pros and cons of the discussion but the end is not something to forget. She stood up suddenly, and declared `do you know what, I won`t keen them, sure did not their people have to be put in coffins with pitch forks during the famine?` She then marched out and that was that.

Peter Doorley`s work ethic:

Bidney ran a small shop in Creevah, where the Kajon B and B is currently located. She used to live with her brothers Ned and Peter. Peter was a labourer and would occasionally do the odd day`s work for local farmers. Our neighbour Tom Gaffey, a farmer and my grandfather Michael Claffey, a farmer and quarry owner, used to tell this story about Peter. One day my grandfather needed a man for a day`s work, so he cycled down to the Doorley household to ask Peter for a day`s work. As it happened Tom Gaffey arrived at the same time also looking for Peter. Bidney went into defensive mode for Peter, `ah sure poor Peter, God help him, he will have to make halves of himself.` To which Tom Gaffey responded `well if he does not work harder for me than the last time, I`ll make halves of him.` Tom Gafffey like my grandfather was originally from Bloomhil, Ballinahown.  There were numerous such stories about the Doorleys.

Next week: The story of Ned Doorley