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October 2021

Folklore associated with dying in the west of Ireland

Journal/Book: Palliat Med. 1999; 13: 57-62.

Abstract: The warm welcome for modern advances in the care of the dying should not exclude the past in which there is much to be learned from the skills of our ancestors. A bilingual two-year qualitative research project into traditions associated with dying and death was undertaken. Research began in the archives available in the internationally recognized university folklore departments of Ireland and Scotland. This was augmented by 40 indepth personal interviews with Gaelic- and English-speaking residents in rural communities of both countries, recalling local customs and practices in the care of the dying. This paper reports the Irish experience; the collection of data in Scotland continues. From this study, several main themes emerged. Death was seen and accepted as a natural continuation of life, simply a step into the spirit world. In view of people's oneness with nature and the spiritual world, death was not to be feared. Traditions were unique to each area even down to the precise number of candles used at the sickbed. People understood the signs and symptoms of dying and were skilled in alleviating the distress of both relatives and the dying; and, in this, language was important in capturing and expressing the philosophy of these people. The acceptance of death as the one truism of life was facilitated by the strong faith and prayer of people for whom, in the celebration of death, humour was never far away. In their grief, the community was supported by the loose formality of the wake (torramh), funeral procession, keening (caoineadh) and music. In all these, the men and women of the community and its leaders had distinct and respected roles to play.

Keyword(s): Attitude to Death. Folklore. Human. Ireland. Palliative Care. Terminal Care. Thanatology


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