The keen is a function performed at an Irish wake. Performed is the correct word, for the caoine or caoineadh is a mourning ritual in the form of a prolonged vocalised cry or wailing of grief. Most often it is a chorus of lamentation conducted by a group of women, mixed with the air of a chant and the air of a tone song but raw and more real, mimicking as it does authentic sounding sad cries and anguish wails.
One cannot overlook the ‘chorus’ aspect, and the keening performance is also notable in the ritual of the ancient Greece mourners called goetes. In Ireland the keen was traditionally performed by professional keeners or undertaken by those with the gift. The caoine is considered and ancient tradition and ascribed supernatural origin – having being first sung by invisible spirits over the graves or death spots of early Irish heroes.
Its function as a continued tradition is threefold; the caoineadh na marbh (lament for the dead) as a sort of sacred improvised chant marks the loss and sends off the dead – the ritual validates the deceased and initiates their journey on to the otherworld or next portal. The second function of the lament is that those performed cries elicit out spontaneous or suppressed cries, that the fake tears provoke the real tears of the bereaved and attendees – the cathartic function. Finally, between the performance shared and the outward expression of genuine grief undertaken and collectively experienced, it also has a community-reinforcement role – the sharedness and the commonality of humanity in grief, importantly marks the deceased as part of a community and guides the community through the loss and in continuance as a bonded group.
In relation to our personal pain and suffering, we often strive to contain it, to limit it and even to hide it. We may seek to suppress the feelings with anti-depressants and other medicants, we may even go numb to it all. I am not saying go off your meds but the power of a lament is the purging of the pain, the draining from the eye. It is not just the primal scream or emotional release of it but the alternative to numbness or hopelessness that it brings which is invaluable.
We often fear to go there in case we can’t get back, but that suppression or denial is avoidance and not resolution and resilience. Sure no one wants to perpetually suffer but we can’t just bury everything, there needs to be that moment of keening too. It is not wallowing; it is the acceptance and the prompt to get beyond. The keen may not end the grief process from everyone just as a cry later today may not expunge all your sorrows but the experience of it is a going there and a getting back – That’s resilience building.
To be resilient is literally to bounce back, that implies a down before the up. You have to go through it to recover from it. You have to flex the muscle to build it. The keeners bring you there safely. You will not keen for ever. A personal keen, a dedicated short cry for your woes that is the prompt of the proverb ‘An rud a ghoilleas ar an gcroí caithfidh an t-súil é a shileas – What pains the heart must be washed away with tears’. You will vent the pain from the heart and then move on without that burden of unresolved grief or perpetual background sorrow. Marked, acknowledged, processed. That’s the power of a good cry every now and then.