Death, Dying and Drink in early twentieth century Waterford

In popular representations of Irish culture, few things are more celebrated, while all at once, shrouded in mystery than our death rituals. Between removals, wakes, masses and burials, there is scope for rich tradition and variation in seeing off our dead. Famously of course, the Irish wake has taken on something of a life of its own, immortalised in song and story, from Finnegan’s Wake to Johnny Jump Up, two songs where the life-giving properties of whiskey are extolled in raucous fashion.

In Finnegan’s Wake, Tim Finnegan, laid out and all his friends assembled when:

Mickey Maloney ducked his head when a bucket of whiskey flew at him
It missed, and falling on the bed, the liquor scattered over Tim
Bedad he revives, see how he rises, Timothy rising from the bed
Saying “Whittle your whiskey around like blazes, t’underin’ Jaysus, do ye think I’m dead?”

Meanwhile one sorry soul from Cork’s Poor Law Union went through this unfortunate experience:

A man died in the Union by the name of McNabb
They washed him, they laid him outside on a slab
And after O’Connor his measurements did take
His wife took him home for a bloody fine wake

 

Well, about twelve o’clock and the beer it was high
The corpse he sits up and says he with a sigh
“I can’t get to heaven, they won’t let me up
‘Till I bring them a quart of Johnny Jump-Up

While both songs present something of a comical vision of the wake, nevertheless, underlying this humour both songs manage to get to the heart of something important in how the Irish did, and still do, wake the dead before burying them. The wake, and the drinking often done at them, was a central part of the experience, it seems, from some sources. As Noel Hughes, one of those interviewed by Kevin C. Kearns for his book Dublin Tenement Life, had it:

“And everyone would come. You got people who came that didn’t know them. If they heard there’s a good drink they’d come and have a drink. Didn’t know them but they’d know they were going to get a couple of bottles of stout.” [1]

As well as these fabled songs, and the oral testimonies like those collected by Kearns, with the availability of a new source online, from Thompson’s funeral home, of their records from the 1870s right into the early twentieth century we can learn something more again about the practices of death, dying and drinking in early Ireland, and specifically early twentieth century Waterford.

Entries from 1910 for instance show us that drink was an important element of the arrangements made by many people. In the case of the death of Mrs. McTigue from Roanmore, as well as the elm coffin, the hearse, horses, broughams, and habit to cover her face, the account book of Thompson’s notes an order for two dozen stout at the price of five shillings. [2] A few pages down it is noted in the details of the arrangements for the death of Catherine Barry, also of Roanmore, that as well as the hearse, broughams and other more typical expenses of the funeral, there was to be supplied by Thompson’s five dozen stout (at a cost of 12s 6d), two dozen and four minerals (3s 8d), a bottle of whiskey (3s 6d) and a bottle of wine at two shillings. [3]This specificity wasn’t always present with some entries noting simply the addition of “drink” which was sometimes as much as £1 16s or figures such as 17s 6d, as was the case in the death of John O’Brien of Buttermilk Lane in 1915. [4]

When Nicholas Quinlan of Green’s Lane was to be buried later that same year, no expense was to be spared with a “best oak coffin” and driver to Ballybricken at £10. In addition, there was ordered four bottles of wine costing 3s each, with another two bottles of wine prices at 2s each, and finally, a dozen bottles of Bass ale. [5]

In the new year, when Patrick Sutton, who had been resident with the Little Sisters of the Poor, passed away and was to be buried by Thompson’s, part of the funeral expenses included the rather more modest half pint of whiskey (1s 8d), a bottle of “stout and rum” priced at sixpence and further three bottles of stout at a cost of ten and a halfpence. [6]

As with the kind of coffin in which people were buried, so too the kind of drink bought as part of the funeral arrangements said something of the people’s social standing, as the last two examples illustrate most effectively.

As well as buying drink to lubricate those waking the bodies, one woman, Pauline Jones, relates in the film Barrack Street, so-called “crying women” could be bought to attend a wake to cry for the deceased, getting four women for 6d. Jones reckoned that “they’d be half drunk, anyway…” and when asked about what prayers they said, Pauline suggests that “they probably did, made up prayers of their own if I know them, I can imagine….”, she finishes by saying that “the louder they cried and the further they were heard, it was a good wake.” [7]

Such business of course, and such open policy as to who attended wakes as indicated by the testimony of Noel Hughes above, could often lead to trouble, and even legal action. One such example from Waterford in the early part of the twentieth century comes from a court case reported in the paper between John Breen of Bridge Street, and Thomas Dunphy a blacksmith from Ballybricken, a son-in-law of the deceased, and Jane Flynn, the niece of a late Captain James Harpur. Breen was seeking the return of a sum of money, £2 4s 6d, for goods bought by Dunphy and Flynn as part of the wake for Captain Harpur. However, Jane Flynn insisted that all of the money used and spent was not for the benefit of Harpur’s wake but for Dunphy and his friends, including three dozen bottles of stout. The court found in favour Breen and the cost of paying fell to his niece, the damage between the family members was not, of course, recorded. [8]

Drink, then, was a vital and sometimes controversial part of the waking of bodies in Waterford in the early twentieth century. This isn’t the only thing which comes through from the records of Thompson’s funeral directors about the nature of death and burial in early twentieth century Ireland, so keep an eye out here for more in the coming weeks.

 


 

[1] Kevin C. Kearns, Dublin Tenement Life: An Oral History, Dublin: Gill and MacMillan 1994, p.200

[2] Thompson Funeral Books, 1910-1918, June 12 1910

[3] Thompson Funeral Books, 1910-1918, June 23 1910

[4] Thompson Funeral Books, 1910-1918, April 19 1915

[5] Thompson Funeral Books, 1910-1918, December 23 1915

[6] Thompson Funeral Books, 1910-1918, January 6 1916

[7] Mark Power (dir.), Barrack Street, 2013, see 20:36 to 21:08 in particular.

[8] Munster Express, January 11 1908

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5 Comments

Filed under Death, Irish History, Social History, Twentieth Century

5 responses to “Death, Dying and Drink in early twentieth century Waterford

  1. Good piece David, one thing though, Johnny Jump Up is cider not whiskey. As Christy sang;

    I went in and I called for a bottle of stout.
    Says the barman, “I’m sorry, the beer is sold out.
    Try whiskey or Paddy, ten years in the wood.”
    Says I, “I ‘ll try cider, I hear that it’s good.”

    Chorus:
    Oh never, oh never, oh never again,
    If I live to be hundred or hundred and ten
    For I fell to the ground and I couldn’t get up
    After drinking a quart of the Johnny Jump Up

    And whatever about whiskey o.d. ing on cider would be a terrible way to exit.

    • Donie,

      That’s a fair point though as I understand it, the potency of johnny jump up comes from the fact that it was cider kept in whiskey casks. I heard Jimmy Crowley tell it like so at a performance a number of years ago, and given he passed it on to Christy, I’m inclined to take Jimmy Crowley’s word for it!

      Hope you’re well and any how and thanks as ever for reading and commenting 🙂

      David

  2. Fascinating post! Who’d have thought …..?

  3. Pingback: A Deathly Business: Thompson’s Funeral Home, 1874-1929 | The Dustbin of History

  4. Pingback: A Deathly Business: Thompson’s Funeral Home, 1874-1929 | David Toms

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