The Irish Tradition of Keening

Talk by Marian Caulfield

The importance of ‘Keening’ / Caoineadh na Marbh (in the past and today), in the connection to the Ancestors and the Otherworld and the healing of grief.

Marian Caulfield – Tutor/Researcher at UCC and lament workshop facilitator

Lamenting is sophisticated ‘cry/singing’ tradition which has been performed around the world mostly by women for many centuries during ‘rites of passage’ such as funerals. In Ireland, laments were called ‘Keening or ‘Caoineadh na Marbh’ and the women who composed and performed them had a very important spiritual function, which was to ease the passing of the soul to the next world and to aid the healing of grief for those left behind. In their keening compositions, they prepared the soul of the departed for the final journey into the world of their ancestors, the ‘otherworld’. Simultaneously, the keeners announced to those ancestors, of the coming of the newly departed soul, into the world in which they reside. Lament carried the soul through this final journey, cradled by the sad sound of the ‘cry/singing’ of the mourners. The mourners in turn released their sadness in grief through the lament process. The keening tradition was handed down from generation to generation by oral transmission and practice. However, in the last few centuries, having been stigmatized and seen as an embarrassment, the practice of lament composition has been lost. Marian Caulfield explains how she and others around the world, who are interested in this tradition, are re-imagining it and have begun to teach the skill of lament composition once again, for the release of grief and for re-connecting with those gone from our lives, through sound and emotion.

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