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The quick and the dead: Sexuality and the Irish merry wake

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In the traditional Irish ritual of the merry wake, death and sexuality were tied closely together. The mourning for the deceased was accompanied by excessive feasting and drinking while wake games of an overtly sexual nature were performed in the presence of the corpse. This voluptuous, uninhibited behaviour exhibited during the death ritual echoes the state of the mná caointe or keening women who inhabited a liminal realm between the living and the world of the dead for the duration of the mourning period. This ‘divine madness’ allowed keeners to express the collective outpouring of grief through their voices and bodies, and lead the community in a public expression of sorrow and lament. This article will examine the significance of the mná caointe in the wake ritual, in particular the power of the female voice in transcending the strictures of the world of the living and the brief period of licence which then ensued. As well, it will explore the connection between the role of the keener and the anarchic nature of the merry wake amusements, where the embodied voice leads the community to a place where the social order is suspended, and the chaotic nature of death is confronted.
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Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Queensland Conservatorium, Griffith University, Brisbane,Queensland, Australia

Publication date: 2012-08-01

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