The Wake

by John Clifford

Written in April 1970, this extract is from the Larne & District Folklore Society Book held in the archives of Larne Museum & Arts Centre.  The book was compiled by John Clifford (1900-1983), Founder Member and Chairman of Larne & District Folklore Society and the first Curator of Larne Historical Centre. 

Photograph of Larne Historical Centre Exhibition (Larne Museum Archives). Mid and East Antrim Borough Council.

Audio version recorded by Karen Clifford (original author’s granddaughter)

The Wake

I was present at what probably turned out to be one of the last wakes to be held in the district where I then lived. It would be about the year 1914 in the townland of Ballygowan, County Antrim. 

The death was a farmer named Charley Bell, whom I knew well and who died when he was about 74 years of age. 

I can remember the very large crowd of neighbours who gathered inside the smallish farm kitchen, everyone was known by everyone else and the atmosphere was one of friendly chatter with no hint of sorrow or sympathy. 

As the night wore on the general tone of the crowd grew more relaxed and care-free and here and there would be heard open outright laughter and merriment at some remark or anecdote told by someone present. 

Nearly everyone was smoking a pipe and even long before midnight it was difficult to recognise faces across the kitchen through the thick haze of tobacco “reek”. 

At such gatherings there were usually one or more local characters who were superb in the art of story-telling and these were much sought after, and it was around such characters that as many as possible of those present – on an occasion like a wake – would tend to congregate. 

Looking back to that age I find it difficult to understand why people in those days could so patiently listen and accept stories and related incidents which they all had heard many times over, and how sincere was their appreciation and laughter.  Simple stories, most of them: like the story of a famous “local liar” who told “of falling asleep as he sat on a reaping machine and when he awoke the horses had not only completed cutting the field but had gone into another one and had it half-finished”. – We had all heard that one count-less times, yet how the house roared at it yet again. 

I noticed how the womenfolk seemed to keep out of sight most of the night, except when they furtively appeared from the direction of the scullery with cups of tea to hand around the men. 

And so the night dragged on and daylight began to show through the kitchen windows; the usual farmyard noises became more incessant outside and finally someone would rise and yawn and stretch himself and announce that it was time to get home, at which – it seemed – the whole houseful rose too and very soon we were all outside in the cool refreshing early morning air – so much cooler and so much more refreshing than the smoky, smelly atmosphere of the overcrowded farm kitchen. 

John Clifford