John Dunton describes keening, 1698

[John Dunton, an English visitor to Ireland, wrote highly coloured accounts of his experiences.]

It was now bed time, and I was showed a lodging upstairs, which I had no reason to complain of. But I had not been long asleep before I was wakened by a very loud cry and opening my eyes, I saw a great light at my window that was streetward. The sight surprised me thinking the house was on fire and I ran in my shirt to the window where looking out I saw a great bundle of straw before the door on fire and three or four women clapping their hands and sending forth the most horrid yells that I ever heard.

The reason of this as I was afterwards informed was because of a custom used among them. For at the death of anyone they carry out their bed which is commonly of straw ... and set it on fire before the door of the house with such sharp and loud cries as pierced my head quite through to give notice to the neighbourhood of the decease. The house was not long 'ere filled with abundance of women and everyone that entered set up the shout.

... Before we enter the place of burial I protest I saw not one woman with tears in her eyes, though I think more than a hundred were shouting lamentable cries with clapping of hands and all the other expressions of violent sorrow. The corpse was interred with some ceremony ... And when the company was dispersed, the women betook them to the several graves of their friends and there sat some while mourning over them with a low but very lamentable cry, telling the mishaps that befell them since their death.

John Dunton's Letters reprinted in Edward MacLysaght, Irish life in the seventeenth century, Cork, 1950, p.348.


  1. Evaluate the reliability of the above document as a historical source.
  2. Write a brief paragraph on funeral customs of the Irish in 1698, as reported by John Dunton.
  3. Research the tradition of keening in Ireland in general or in your own area.
contents index