Updated: Sep 8, 2020
I am currently researching Irish keening, lamentation for the dead. Keening is an ancient practice of vocal grieving for the dead and is considered to be the oldest surviving vocal tradition in Ireland. The Irish caoineadh was outlawed by the Catholic Church in the 1950's in an attempt to reign in and control a powerful female led practice.
The bean chaointe (keening woman) inhabited a liminal state between the living and the world of the dead for the duration of the mourning period, entering a kind of “divine madness” which allowed the keener to express the collective outpouring of grief through her voice and body, leading the community in a public expression of sorrow and lament. Because the keener could traverse the parallel worlds and use the power of the voice to guide the soul, the Roman Catholic Church decided to abolish wakes with their attendant laments thereby relegating the community to the position of silent watchers. Narelle McCoy, 2009
This "de-ritualizing" of keening is now seeing a reawakening in Irish music culture. Ritualised
crying for the dead is generally associated with women and this seems to be one unifying aspect throughout time and geography. The Irish caoineadh developed into "a highly articulate tradition of women’s oral poetry" and also employed movement, rhythm, specified vocalizations, chants and recitations. This was a fully embodied and visceral practice. There are many theories as to why lamentation is a women's centric practice; it may seem that because women bring life into the world, they also help usher life out of the world acting as the kind of gatekeepers of humanity. Ethnomusicologist Elizabeth Tolbert says "lament performance allows for the creation of women’s ‘affective enclaves’, gender defined spaces of protest, solidarity and affirmation that maintains separateness yet also allows for influence and access to social power..." Lament gives voice to the voiceless.
Lamentation is considered to be a ubiquitous practice, found in traditional cultures throughout the world with the first recorded accounts of lamentation being from 4,000 years ago in ancient Sumer. In Greece there is an unbroken tradition of lamentation dating back thousands of years, although this too was outlawed in the 6th century BC in an attempt to silence the voices of women. It is even found in the animal kingdom. You can listen to this extraordinarily touching episode from On Being about the vocalisations and mourning rituals of animals. The vocal expression of grief, lamenting for the dead, seems to be not only a human phenomena but a biological phenomena and a necessary part of our existence.
In many cultures where lamentation is still practiced there are "professional cryers", who are the women of the community designated to lead the bereaved through ritual lamentation. They act as emotional guides for the living and guides for the dead from this world into the next. Their songs of grief take on specific tones and qualities, unique yet similar from culture to culture. The role of the lamenter is to be able to take a personal experience and make it collective, to journey through grief on behalf of the community and allow others to feel and grieve through them.
The theme of lamentation is a recurring one for me. As a vocalist and performer I have always felt that my role went beyond entertainment, at times even beyond storytelling. That my role was often to journey on behalf of the audience through my voice and emotions.
Recently, during my research into keening, I found these words in a very old recording of keening. The words are Irish Gaelic: Ar maidin Dia linn go deo gus Dia linn faoi dho In English it means this:
God be with us
God be with us forever
The simplicity of this prayer, this plea for comfort in one's darkest hour struck me to the core. During this time of isolation during this global pandemic, so many of us have been utterly alone, uncertain of the future, and collectively facing sickness and death. The power of these words brought me to create this song, Dia Linn. It is my personal prayer, my personal lament during these troubled times.
composition and recording by Julianna Bloodgood
Photo art by Julianna Bloodgood