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A celebration of life and death


POWERFUL SHOW Kevin Toolis reciting during a performance of Wonders of the Wake with Freda Hatton (centre) and Mags Gallen (right). Pic: Conor Greenan

Westport musician Freda Hatton talks death, music and the wonders of wakes

Anton McNulty

The subject of the Irish wakes and funeral rituals was never something that Westport-based harpist Freda Hatton thought too much about. But now she finds herself taking part in ‘The Wonders of the Wake’, a show based on Kevin Toolis’ bestselling book ‘My Father’s Wake: How the Irish Teach Us to Live, Love and Die’, in which the BAFTA-winning writer examines the theme of death and the Irish culture that surrounds it.
“It’s Kevin’s show … he’s the man to talk about the actual show; he put it together … but I’ll talk away to you,” the Westmeath native told The Mayo News. But as she talked, she ended up exploring how the Irish wake played an important part in her own family’s grieving process following the death of her mother.

“One of my brothers [Kenneth] lives abroad, and when we were organising the funeral he was asking do we need to have a wake per se, and if that was a bit of an imposition. We went through the wake and funeral in a very traditional manner, which was always going to be the case in my home, but he was longer out of Ireland.
“But once we went through it all, my sister-in-law came to me and asked, ‘Did he talk to you?’. She commented that the funeral had such a profound effect on him that he was nearly at the point of saying let’s move back home to Ireland. He found the whole process of the wake and funeral very healing and therapeutic and supportive. All these people coming and willing to pay their respects but also to stay up half the night out of respect for my mother and in support of us.
“When my brother was questioning these things I was thinking ‘Are you crazy? Of course there is going to be a wake, and of course the coffin will be open’. There was an element of his life being different now. His home is now in Holland, and his base is in London and he is working all over the place.
“Funerals over there are a very different experience, and it reminded him of how important they are and how good we are at celebrating death. At home, the neighbours would be on top of you landing in with the sandwiches, and it’s brilliant, they take over. You are grieving and you have to organise a funeral, but these mighty women are in the kitchen taking over.
“I think a lot of us do take it for granted. I know when you do go through it yourself it really resonates and hits home how lucky we are,” she explained.
Good marriage
‘The Wonders of the Wake’ was first performed in Achill in 2018. A celebration of the the ancient rite of the Irish wake in song, Celtic laments, poetry, storytelling and harp, it has since been performed all over Ireland and the UK. Next month it returns to Mayo with shows in Belmullet and Castlebar.
“It is a mixture of literature, instrumental music and singing and some wailing and keening like the old mná caointe, which are prevalent in Irish folklore,” explained Freda, who will also be joined on stage by singer, musician and fellow Westport resident Mags Gallen.
“My input will be playing the harp and slow airs connected to death, like ‘The Flight of the Earls’, while Mags sings on death and grieving.
“I do think the idea of using poetry and music is a good marriage. Not everyone will sit listening to poetry for an hour but the interwoven literature and music works well for a general audience and livens it up. Of course there are a few lively tunes, because it is not just about the keening, it is a celebration as well.”

Support in death
Freda has been living in Westport for the last six years and having produced a number of shows in Mayo, she is now working on the Galway 2020 European Capital of Culture Programme. She is also a regular on the music circuit in Westport, often playing in Matt Molloy’s and The West Bar.
Last month, the west of Ireland lost one of its greatest traditional musicians following the death of Dessie O’Halloran at the age of 79. Freda joined scores of musicians on Inis Bofin for the great singer and fiddler’s funeral, which she described as a celebration of life.
“He didn’t have a wife or children, but the support of the musical community was really obvious. To go into the funeral home and have Matt Molloy around him playing a tune and have great singers like Eleanor Shanley hanging around the coffin….
“There were very few sad tunes, it was ‘Let’s celebrate this man who has had a real impact on traditional Irish music and on our lives’. There were lively dance tunes and songs, and two sessions coming back on the boat from Bofin, one upstairs and downstairs. It was really a celebration of life.”

The Wonders of the Wake will be performed in Áras Inis Gluaire, Belmullet, on November 16 and in The Linenhall, Castlebar, on December 4.