American Wakes

In former times, when a person was forced to emigrate, it was usually to the English-speaking countries of England or America.  While there was some chance that the emigrant could return from the former, there was very little hope of the American emigrant ever darkening the Irish shores again.  It was as if that person was about to die, and, so his/her last day on earth was celebrated with the appropriately named, ‘American Wake’.  Not surprisingly, there was much chatting as well as drinking various brews to ‘drown the sorrows’ and wish the person bon voyage.  Nonie Golden née Mannion, formerly from Lisheenaheltia, supplies the following notes on such a ‘wake’.

When people were going to America from Lisheenaheltia, the whole townland came into the house that night and no one went to bed.  They stayed up all night until the person left in the early morning to go to the train in Ballymoe.  This would bring them to the ship in Queenstown (now Cobh) in Cork.  They would have a huge trunk on top of the sidecar going to Ballymoe.  They were very lonely leaving and they used to call the trunk, “the coffin”!

Meanwhile, John Keaveney of Kiltullagh, writing in Glan to Glan, (Summer 1977 edition) records the following:

They used to have the American wakes back then and they’d get the half barrel of sixteen gallons or whatever was in it and they would get that for about thirteen bob (shillings).  When people would be going to America, they‘d go around visiting to the neighbours before they left and have a handshake.  Of course, some of the neighbours would not be able to go out, but then in the night time they’d come in and collect a few bob and the porter would come and they’d be there till clear daylight.  In the morning, they had no way to go but the horse and cart bringing them to the station in Tuam.


By Nonie Golden and John Keaveney