Moving from England to the North in 1983, there was an awareness that the cultural differences within the island of Ireland were vast; that customs in one place would be greeted with incomprehension elsewhere. Going as a curate to Newtownards in Co Down in 1986, I served under a Rector from Co Limerick. An assiduous parish priest, he would take a holiday in the summer, but little time off during the rest of the year. After Christmas one year, he took a few days to fulfil filial duties.
‘Did you do much when you were away?’
‘Not really; family things. I had to attend a funeral for my father’.
It seemed an odd thing to do; to go to a funeral of someone one might not even know to represent someone else. More than that, sometimes to go to the church twice, for there would be the service to mark the arrival of the coffin the night before and the funeral proper on the following day.
The removal, the bringing of the coffin to church on the eve of the funeral, was something unknown in England and in the North it tended to be a private and family occasion. The first removal I conducted in Dublin caught me off guard; expecting a members of the deceased person’s family to come along for a few brief prayers, and having little prepared, the arrival of 2-300 people from the village came as a shock.
Moving into rural Ireland last year, there has come a realization that Dublin funerals are minor occasions compared with the events here; events that have a power and an impact that defies articulation.
Driving to a house for prayers before the departure of the deceased on the final journey to the church; men in high visibility jackets holding flashlights directed traffic into an adjoining field. Lights strung along a hedge lit the way to the house. Stocky men stood in silence along the drive and around the doorways; every room and every corridor was lined with friends and neighbours. The prayers were said in the awareness that this was a brief prelude.
Leaving for the church, arriving half an hour early was not sufficient to be there before the church was filled, and that before the hearse and cortege had left the house. Another field had been set aside as a car park and the road itself was lined with cars on both sides. When there was nowhere left to park, the middle of the road was filled. Wave after wave of people appeared from the frosty darkness of the March night. The quietness was profound; whispered condolences, handshake after handshake.
How many had been there? Four hundred? Five hundred? Maybe more, they filled the building and stood at the back and crowded around outside. It would not have occurred to anyone to count. Why would anyone have wanted to count?
Standing there and watching, an Englishman, brought up in a rationalist and individualist culture, there was something beyond understanding, something that spoke of an old Ireland of kindness and community and a faith more ancient than the teachings of the church.