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Keening | Celtic Cultural Minute

"The Aran Fisherman's Drowned Child" (1851) by the Irish painter Frederic William Burton, which appears to show paid keening women in the doorway.
Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons
"The Aran Fisherman's Drowned Child" (1851) by the Irish painter Frederic William Burton, which appears to show paid keening women in the doorway.

Keening is a traditional form of vocal lament and mourning for the dead in the Gaelic Celtic tradition, a ritual performed in Irish or Scots Gaelic at the wake or at the graveside. The word keening comes from the Gaelic word Caoineadh – Kwyeen -ift – to cry, to weep

Keening is an ancient artform as well, one that is steeped in the depth and beauty of the Gaelic musical tradition. Keens contained raw, unearthly emotion, spontaneous words and poetry, crying and elements of song.

Structure was provided by banging on the coffin and on the ground, and the repetition of familiar refrains and vocables. Vocables are repeated sounds and utterances that allow a pause and feeling to flow. They are heard within very old songs in both Ireland and Scotland.

There was not an established keening ‘text’; instead, the singer is expected to improvise as feeling dictates. As a keen was dedicated to the departed, it would never be the same twice. But there were certain themes, including listing the family history of the deceased, offering praise for them and their life, sharing how beloved they were, and the utter heartbreak of those they’ve left behind. This part would be known as the dirge, or the verse. The dirge was accompanied by the vocable sounds and by the gol, or the cry. This cry or wail of lamentation was often described as eerie, otherworldly, a sound of raw, unbearable grief from deep within the body.

Many believed the act of keening enabled the deceased soul to leave the body, and thus that keening was a required ritual, thus giving it huge importance. Keeners were generally experienced elder women, much respected for their skill. These keening women paid the community’s respects to the deceased and expressed grief on behalf of the bereaved family.

Sadly, the Catholic Church discouraged keening, regarding it as a pagan practice, and one focusing too much on physical grief and on our mortality, rather than the happy Christian afterlife. The influential role of the keening women in their communities was likely regarded as a threat to the patriarchy of the Church, as well.

And so, keening declined from the 18th century on, and became almost completely extinct by the middle of the 20th century. Only a handful of authentic keening songs were recorded from traditional singers.

But as with so many folk customs in the Celtic lands, today there is a renewed interest in keening - in restoring, recreating and recording the unearthly chants and ancient music.

Maeve Gavin is founder of The Keening Wake Project, a group of artists and researchers dedicated to archiving and sharing the keening tradition. After a recent keening workshop, Gavin had this to say:

“As I sat with these women, I saw that the song poem is a raft for the grief, allows it to land somewhere, to be both simultaneously expressed and transformed. And the group of women droning and humming around the one song crying her story, for all to see and know, a raft for all of us. We all have grief songs. What a beautiful old way to hold oneself and to be held in grief.”

For Celtic Cultural Alliance, this is Kate Scuffle. Slainte.

(Original air-date: 4/7/22)

An actress, producer, writer and educator, Kate is the Managing Director of Selkie Theatre, and was the founding Executive Director of the award-winning Theatre Outlet. At The Outlet she produced several innovative performance series featuring new drama, music, dance and spoken word, as well as the Outlet’s Educational Outreach programs.