Fios na mban. The role of women in death and burial customs in Erris in post-famine Ireland: evidence from the archive of the Irish Folklore Commission
O'Donoghue, Marguarita Veronica
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This thesis examines the role and contributions of women to mortuary ritual in Erris in the post-Famine era. The written evidence for the project is based on the oral testaments of both women and men mainly but not exclusively in Irish and recorded by various collectors on behalf of the Irish Folklore Commission (1935-1970) (now the National Folklore Collection). A secondary aim of the project is to bring into the public domain this rich vein of material, much of it hitherto unpublished and written in the Irish language, the first language of many of the narrators. One of the central arguments of the thesis is that women derived their authority and agency from their close association with the realms of the supernatural and the spirit world, central to which was the Cailleach or Female Divine. Through illustrative narratives from the archives of the Irish Folklore Commission pertaining to Erris, the thesis examines the basis of this female power and the ways in which women could access it for benign and malign intent. Having established this premise, it continues to exand on aspects of women’s role and contribution to death and burial customs in Erris, where they were perceived as ritual specialists in washing, waking and lamenting the dead. Through an examination of narratives, it examines the sense of caritas and sacredness embodied in the rituals of washing and cleansing of the body in readiness for its journey into the spirit world. The project examines the protocols and etiquette surrounding wake attendance and hospitality, through which the community expressed its respect for the deceased while offering comfort and support to the bereaved. It also explores the variety of uses to which the caoineadh - lament could be mobilised to provide not just a cathartic expression of loss, but to code gendered rhetorics of loss and anger, resistence and subversiveness within the mourning formalities. A further theme explores how the close associations between women and otherworld forces fulfilled tacit or unexpressed social and psychological roles within the community, providing individuals with valuable support and comfort in times of distress and misfortune. It also examines ways in which women strove to exercise autonomy in death even where they could not do so in life. Finally, it examines contestations between mná chaointe- paid criers and members of an increasingly powerful clergy in a bid for control over the rites of passage from this world unto the next. The thesis concludes with an exploration of the various areas of contestation between the vernacular and the official for control over the communal and traditional customs of waking and burying the dead. These included the clergy’s requirements for monetary remuneration for spiritual services, an area that brought them into conflict with paid criers and with other members of the community. The project concludes that the increasing power of the Catholic Church, coupled with social and religious events throughout this period, marked the inevitable demise of the caoineadh, and with it women’s autonomy and agency within mortuary ritual in vernacular traditional culture in Erris.
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