Funeral Practices in West Offaly and the funeral of Ned Doorley. By Pádraig Turley

Louis Darcy, former Offaly county hurler, another altar boy rostered for Ned Doorley’s funeral


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The story of the funeral of Ned is one worth relating. This is a story I was always aware of, but was inclined to take it with a grain of salt. However, recently I received a communication from Shannonbridge native James Killeen, currently residing in Illinois, which virtually tallied with the version I had. Ned was the last survivor of the Doorley family when he died in Tullamore Hospital. My uncle Joseph Claffey and the undertaker Kieran Flannery volunteered to go to Tullamore, to pick up the corpse. James tells me that he and Louis Darcy (former Offaly county hurler)and Leslie Price were the altar boys rostered to be on duty to assist the Parish Priest Fr. Frank Donoghue, who having served in Brooklyn, NY, liked things to be done pronto.

The funeral was expected in Shannonbridge at 8.00 p.m. Everything was ready and in order, candles blazing. It did not arrive at 8.00 p.m. or indeed 9.00 p.m. or 10.00 p.m. Needless to say Fr. Donoghue was getting very edgy. There was no sound or sight of the funeral. James tells me that post war traffic in the area was about one motorized vehicle every forty minutes. So in the silence one could hear a car approaching from as far as Moystown, a distance of 9 km. Sometime after midnight James says, one could hear the grinding of the old 14.9 hp Ford engine somewhere around Blackwater, about 2 km away.  On arrival Kieran Flannery, the undertaker announced they had a breakdown in Ferbane, and as it was a Sunday night, they had difficulty sourcing the part.

Eventually the truth emerged, and it was that my uncle and Kieran Flannery parked the hearse at the rear of the ballroom in Ferbane and danced the evening away. James feels that Ned, who was a character, would have gotten a good laugh out of this story. The version of the story I had, was that when they returned to the hearse, there was a group of travellers, called tinkers back then, kneeling around the hearse and reciting some prayers.

James Killeen one of the altar boys on duty to receive the funeral of Ned Doorley.

An insight into the type of character Ned was can be glimpsed from this story from Kieran Egan. Sometime after Bidney died, a revenue commissioner, clearly unaware of Bidney`s demise arrived at the little shop looking for Bidney. Ned said she is not here and when asked where she might be, he gave the revenue man precise instructions, go outside, turn right, travel for about one third of a mile, he would then reach a school building, go straight past that, and a few hundred yards further on you will see a large iron gate, open that, go inside, and you should find her there. These instructions led him to the cemetery, of course.

I can only imagine what would happen today if such an occurrence was reported. Joe Duffy would get a week out of it. Kieran Flannery later moved to Athlone where he established a popular public house.  His daughter Anne still carries on the business.


The death of someone in the area set off a train of activities. If the Priest had not been summoned in time to give the last rites, that is the Sacrament of Extreme Unction, he would be ‘sent for’ to lead prayers over the deceased. Invariably the first of many rosaries would be recited. The corpse would then have to be laid out, that is prepared for burial. Shrouds were available from Killeens in Shannonbridge, and indeed up to recently one could see a large box on the top shelf in Killeens marked Habits. This was very important and it was essential that everything was shipshape. In the area there was always the fear of a visit from Mrs. Ellen `Plucksy` Larkin who lived in Shannonbridge, who, almost in the manner of a hospital matron, paid visits to the corpse houses, and would not hold back if she felt something was not up to scratch. I recall folk being almost scared on this visit.


The wake used to last typically three days. It is said this was based on the Jewish tradition of not sealing the grave for three days lest the deceased revive. There was also a reasoning believed to the be a myth now, that there was a fear the deceased could be in a catatonic state from lead poisoning got from drinking from pewter jugs. Another tradition was that all clocks should be stopped at the time the deceased passed. In some places folk close curtains, draw blinds and cover mirrors. Sean O`Casey in the play Juno and the Paycock we hear Captain Boyle tell Joxer Daly `the blinds is down` indicating a passing of sorts. When I came to live in Dublin in 1955 and indeed for many years thereafter the blinds/curtains would be drawn on the road/street where the deceased resided. Also close relations wore a black diamond on their sleeve for one year.

For the wake certain mandatory items had to be procured. Bottles of stout, clay pipes, snuff, Mick McQuaid tobacco, Gold Label tea, and a bottle of whiskey, which was for the grave diggers, were purchased. Tea and bread dolloped with country butter would be served, triangular sandwiches had not yet reached our locality. You tend to hear of Irish wakes as being great craic, however my memory of them was that they were quiet sombre.

Athlone born writer John Broderick who felt Ireland was a good place to die but not to live in.

You will find some musings from literary and theatre folk. Shannonbridge native George Brent, who had a successful Hollywood career said `I once heard of an Irishman who said he`d die happy if he could only live to see his own funeral.` Brian Behan said `I don`t like funerals. In fact I may not even go to my own one.` James Joyce mused `Funerals in Ireland are so jolly they should be called funferalls.` Athlone native John Broderick in a rather backhanded compliment said `You can always get a good funeral in Ireland but it is not a good country to live in.`

I remember the first corpse I saw. It was a local lady Bridget McNamara, a lady my mother used to call into visit while she was ailing. She and her husband Willie, lived in Cloniff, with Captain Kelly. Willie McNamara was a labourer, James Killeen remembers he worked for Ned Donnellon a carpenter/handyman in Shannonbridge and also with Tommy Halloran on the County Council crew.

I recall being nervous, and really only went in to see her from urging from my pals Joe Holden and Pat Srahan, who were clearly a bit more brave than I. The most striking thing about the corpse I remember was the sheer paleness of the deceased. Having looked up her death certificate I learned she died 2nd December 1953 aged only 46, so I was only nine years old at the time.

The rest of the ritual was very much like it is today. Mind selecting who would go in the hearse with the undertaker was a bit of a conundrum that needed to be tackled with care.

My uncle Joe Claffey who with Kieran Flannery got sidetracked when bringing Ned Doorley’s remains to the Church. St.


One item which was central to a funeral back then was the offerings. The best way for me to explain offerings is to borrow from The Schools Collection on the webpage. On Collection Volume 0745 Page 066 we find this from Rois Ní Dálaigh from Doon, Ballinahown. ` In this district offerings are paid at every funeral. A table is put inside the altar rails and friends stand around it and collect the money. The bell is then rung and people collect in to the church. They come into the church on the front door and go out the side door. Every person gives half a crown. The relatives give higher offerings. Then when all the offerings are paid the priest gathers the money. People give offerings because the relatives of the deceased paid over their friends. When the funeral arrives at Tighting Hill, a place near Clonmacnoise, the hearse stops and the rosary is recited. The funeral proceeds to the grave yard.`  The teacher in the Doon school was T. Hanley.

I recall my own father`s funeral in 1957, when my uncle Joe Claffey, my cousin Joe Egan and I stood at the table when the offerings were being paid. In a chat recently with Gussie Claffey of Creevagh, he reminded me that if one was unable to attend a funeral in person one could send the offerings in an envelope, on which you would write your name and the amount paid. At the Month`s Mind Mass these, now empty, envelopes were given to the family of the bereaved so they would know what each person contributed. This may sound unusual now but of course back then the Priest even read out from the altar the contributions parishioners made towards Easter and Christmas dues. When my mother died forty years later the offerings had ceased.

Gussie Claffey tells me the custom of paying offerings ceased around 1965 during the tenure of Fr. Patrick Masterson. We see in the book `Shannonbridge A History of Raghra c.1600 to c1900` by Brendan Ryan and Laura Price, the funeral offerings were initiated to help the family of the bereaved at a time of extra expense. However, they tell us that by the start of the 1800s the offerings had passed to the clergy and indeed formed a substantial part of their income.


The filling in of the grave is something that has changed. Back then once the coffin was lowered into the grave and the prayers said, folk stood around while the grave was being filled in. I recall how you could hear the clay hitting the coffin. I notice this method has passed out of use, and now once the interment has been attended to, a grass covered mat is placed over the mouth of the grave, which is not filled in until later when all the people have moved off. It is a bit more sanitised. I am aware that just across the river Shannon the old custom continues in Clonburren Cemetery. There a full Rosary is recited while the grave is being filled in.


Another custom that has fallen out of use is where the funeral cortege used to pause at the Coffin Bush on the way to the cemetery. Older folk will recall it was situated just after the turn into Augencabe. Gussie Claffey told me the Coffin Bush was removed in the early 1970`s for road widening. Folk of the older generation back then were none too pleased. There was a belief that this bush marked the spot where the Monks of Clonmacnoise in olden times would take custody of the corpse from the laity and attend to the interment. There was a similar spot on Tullabeg hill as the funeral cortege approaches Clonmacnoise from the Ballinahown side. This was marked by a stone which like the tree was removed for road widening. I understand that some funerals still pause at this location.

Ned the Venerable from Jarrow who described the month’s mind as ‘commemorationis dies’.


A tradition still in practice today is of course the months mind Mass. This is where a requiem Mass is celebrated one month after the death of the deceased.

In medieval England we find St. Bede the Venerable from Jarrow speaking of this day as commemorationis dies. These minding days are of great antiquity and are believed to be a survival of the Norse mine or ceremonial drinking to the dead.

`Minnyung Days` says Blount `from Saxon Lemyne i.e.mind,mynding, days which our ancestors called their monthes mind, their year mind and the like, whereupon their soul (after their deaths) has special remembrance, and some office or obsequies said for them, as Obits, Dirges`.  Sometimes we find that elaborate instructions were given as to how to conduct the commemorative service, quiet often in the deceased Will.  Thus, one Thomas Windsor who died in 1479 left orders as follows: `on my moneth`s minde there be a hundred children within the age of sixteen years, to say for my soul, and candles were to be burned before the rood (cross) in the parish church and twenty priests were to be paid by his executors to sing Placebo, Dirige and other songs.`

The Karan B and B, on the site where the Doorley’s had their little shop.

I am glad to report that back in the early fifties, as is today, the Month`s Mind is a simple event in west Offaly where folk gather to celebrate Mass for the deceased.

For anyone who might like a closer look at the process of keening, you might like to look up a piece on the Midland Tribune of the 31st May 1910 entitled `The Irish Funeral Cry`, if you have access to it. If you don`t have access Offaly History will assist you. I wish to thank Laura Price for this reference.

The following references are also useful:

Breandán Ó Madagáin
Caointe agus Seancheolta eile – Keening and other Old Irish Musics  (2005)
Publishers: Cló Iar-Chonnachta, Conamara
ISBN: 1 902420 97 7

The Bunworth Banshee, from Thomas Croker’s ‘Fairy Legends and Traditions of the south of Ireland.’

There’s also Thomas Crofton Croker’s The Keen of the South of Ireland (1844) which can be read or downloaded here :