The “American Wake”

Three things in life, so to speak, transcend all international boundaries and are something we just can’t avoid during our lives no matter how hard we try. Ding, ding…What are death, taxes and dirty laundry?  Yup, you got that right. And let me tell you, the Irish can certainly relate to the first one given their famine history and mass emigration to the US and other lands. The “American Wake” was an Irish tradition where a gathering was held the night before the eldest son would leave for America, or the Promised Land as they thought (I don’t think that is the thinking nowadays). The idea being the son would go to America where money was to be made and send it back home in the hopes of supporting the rest of the family or to provide other family members with the means to make the trip over as well. My great grandfather, according to a cousin still living in County Armagh, was waked in this fashion before he emigrated to American but I’m told it was perhaps for a different reason as to why he made the trip – something to do with marrying a cousin? We won’t get into that.  Bottom line, a boatload, pardon the pun, of Irish left in this fashion, a majority of which were never to return. For the last 30+ years, a lot of the younger Irish lads used this thing called a J1 visa to come over for up to a year to work and experience life in the US. How long that will last with the current regime in charge is anyone’s guess, but I digress…

The more traditional kind of wake in Ireland is still a bit different than those held in America, although as with all traditions, they tend to change with time. The historical traditional wake, where there was an actual death, vice the more ceremonial wake for the emigre, usually involved the deceased being laid out for viewing for a couple days in their home before the actual funeral and burial. There was an old belief that the person could possibly come back to life so they needed to keep vigil over the body for a couple days just to ensure there was no chance of an awakening. In the meantime, there were different types of games, from card playing to riddles and tongue twisters, to things like contests of strength, horseplay and rough games to keep the mourners occupied. There would of course be drinking during the odd hours to celebrate the life of the deceased. The drinking part seems to be one of the traditions that has carried on, both in Ireland and back home in the US. There are still quite a large percentage of wakes today, especially in rural areas of Ireland, where the deceased is waked at home. I’m pretty sure that practice is long since gone from the US but you never know…out in the sticks it may still be happening.

In America, in my family anyways, there was always a big party after the funeral to celebrate the life of the deceased and provide a chance for all to reminisce about the life of the loved one.  The only bad part for the deceased, other than dying of course, was they miss out on the party and all the kind words (hopefully) said about them.  One note on death and dying in Ireland….a nice thing they do is actually read death notices on the radio over here. While it probably wouldn’t be possible in a big town, it is nice to see how the Irish pay respect to those who die in the local community.

So as not to dwell on such a gloomy subject, I thought I might lighten it up a bit and talk about everyone’s favorite person – the tax man. As mentioned, taxes are a fact of life and if you try to avoid them you’ll most likely end up in jail. Some of the taxes in Ireland are kind of hidden from site since the Value Added Tax (VAT) is included in the price of products before you buy them, which just means everything is a certain percentage more expensive then it would normally be, supposedly. I won’t attempt to describe the different VAT tax rates but it can be as much as 23% for certain items. The good news for the intrepid traveler is that you can get the VAT back at the airport as long as you have the right form and can present the item and receipt to the tax man at the airport.  The key thing to remember here, based on our own experience, is not to pack the item you want VAT tax back on in your checked baggage (try and say that 3 times fast). If you do, you’ll be out of luck.

Taxes other than that are pretty reasonable in Ireland with property tax rates a fraction of what you’d pay in the US. There is a stamp duty when you buy a place but it’s a one shot deal that isn’t too bad relatively speaking. There is an annual motor tax that can be a bit expensive depending on the size of the car you drive but usually isn’t more than 300-400 euros for most considering car sizes in general are much smaller and more economical than in the US (read that to mean don’t bring your big American gas guzzling, high octane vehicle over here unless you want to pay big bucks for tax and fuel). So there is good news if you do decide to move to Ireland in that the tax man, for the retiree anyways, isn’t nearly as bad as our favorite Uncle in the US and for the tourist, you can get the VAT tax back if you make an effort to do so. Taxes on earnings in Ireland is a whole other story which thankfully I don’t have to deal with.

So what’s left…to quote the talented Don Henley from Eagles fame, “It’s interesting when people die, give us dirty laundry”.  See link for the song in case you haven’t heard or want to hear again:

How profound and sadly true. Dirty laundry is another one of those facts of life that never end unless you live in a nudist colony of course – ok, not happening in this climate.  Doing laundry in Ireland can be a fairly lengthy process that is best done either late at night or early in the morning. Why you ask? Being the frugal expat living on a retiree’s pension, I am always trying to save a euro or two. As electricity is pretty expensive over here and rates from midnight to 9:00am in the morning are about half the day time rate, it only makes sense to do as much as you can during those hours – am I right? Only problem is the washing machines themselves are pretty tiny as compared to back home – figure 3 pairs of jeans max can fit and that’s pushing it if all 3 are mine. Add to that, the typical load takes about 90 minutes to wash and about the same to dry and you could be doing laundry night and day.

See the problem here? What a lot of the Irish do is hang laundry out to dry. Now in good weather this sounds like a great option but if you know anything about Ireland, the weather can be a bit, shall we say, gloomy at times. Enter the clothes horses for use inside the home. Just set them up next to the radiator during the cooler weather or use the specially adapted ones that actually connect to the radiators to dry your smaller items. One other solution is this thing called a hot press. A hot press is a room most houses in Ireland have that contains the hot water heater. It is normally on a timer to go on during the night, when the electricity is cheaper of course, for use the next day. What these creative lads do is build shelves in the room to hang laundry. It may not be the fastest solution but certainly works in the inclement weather. We use the room daily ourselves to dry our towels. They can actually come out warm and toasty on a cool (they say fresh) day here.

It’s no wonder there are so many similarities between America and Ireland since so many of the Irish emigrated to American after the great famine – I feel much more at home in Ireland than during any of the 4 years we lived in Germany. The Irish brought their traditions with them and passed them down through the generations. And while traditions certainly change with the times, I do find it interesting to see how they evolved throughout the years in Ireland and in the US. The pace of change seems much slower here for obvious reasons. We did had the opportunity to visit a museum in County Mayo that showed what life was like back before the famine and the hardships the Irish endured. While I know a lot of them didn’t know any better, I can certainly understand why so many decided to make the long voyage to America in search of a better life. It made me really appreciate what we have today and realize just how soft we’ve become over the years. I can’t even imagine that kind of lifestyle with no electricity, plumbing or god forbid, cable.


This week’s Irish phrase for your edification:

PHRASE: Ni lia tir na nos
PRONOUNCED: nee lee-ah tear no-iss
MEANING: every country has it’s own customs


And yet another poem from a lad in the Men’s Shed this week I thought appropriate.

“Untitled” by Gerry Dalton

Raindrop’s down my window race

Each droplet quickens its liquid pace

Gathering to form a pool below

Where rippled memories begin to show

Into this pool I now am cast

Memories surface from a time long past

Precious memories show crystal clear

Memories rippled by each stray tear 

Raindrop’s down my window flow

Memory droplets of long ago


For other blog posts, follow the link below:


















4 thoughts on “The “American Wake”

  1. My, my Mr. Jaybo – me thinks you’re becoming quite enamored with the “Shed Poetry”. 😉☺️🤓👍🏻👏🏻 And why not? Mr. Dalton seems quite the poet. 😉👍🏻👏🏻 Has he published any collections, or is this all “one-off” material published only during get-togethers at the Shed? Three interesting (and agreed – inevitable!) topics this week. And like every week, I was completely immersed by your descriptions; I hope the “intrepid travelers” are taking notes, because you really do give outstanding advice!! 🤔😳😧😌 My fave this week was the comparison of traditional wakes; I always thought the “post funeral” ones were a nice way to remember someone as they passed on. Naturally, being half Italian and Half Irish, I too attended many of these events in my early years, but as you aptly pointed out – they don’t seem to be “in fashion” these days. What a shame. 😏🤔😐 Again, thanks for another great installment on your travel blog and please hug Kathy and Rudy for me – hope all is well my Brother. Sláinte!! ☺️😄😉😳🍺🍻🍷


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