As it turns out, the myth that the wake in Ireland came about as a result of lead poisoning suffered by drinkers of stout from pewter tankards is just that! A myth! The story goes that a symptom of this malaise is a catatonic state resembling death, from which the sufferer may recover after a period of a few hours to a few days, to the great relief of those watching for signs of such an awakening.
But the truth is that the wake used to be the custom in most Celtic countries in Europe. Mourners would keep watch or vigil over their dead until they were buried. Ireland appears to be the only country where the custom has survived. But even in Ireland the wake is losing favour and the funeral parlour is replacing the home for the traditional wake. Only in the Gaeltach and some rural communities are the old traditions still practiced.
In a 1996 article written for the Seattle times by Hugh A. Mulligan titled The Death Knell’s Ringing For The Irish Wake, Mr Mulligan shares some of the reasons for its waning and some of the beliefs behind the rituals involved in the traditional Irish wake. If you want to learn more about Irish wakes try this classic book Irish Wake Amusements by Sean O. Suilleabhain. Originally published in 1961 it provides a first hand account of wakes from the author’s youth and is supported by interviews and research conducted in Ireland.