PP: The Irish have so many sayings, proverbs, stories, myths, stuff like that. A lot of them are about death. It’s a very death centered culture, but they don’t look at it as necessarily a bad thing, it’s more about a celebration of the person’s life. That’s why they have parties at wakes instead of all mourning, and they sometimes give the body a cigar or whiskey. So a lot of the sayings they have are about the afterlife. It’s also because they’re mostly Catholic, or at least used to be and that sticks in the culture too.
TK: What’s an example of a saying about death?
PP: It’s something like, “May you be in heaven an hour before the devil knows you’re dead.” If you think about that one it seems to be referencing the Catholic belief that heaven and hell are both outcomes after you die and that even if you were destined to go to heaven there’s a possibility the devil could grab you anyway. So if you get to heaven safely and then he finds out then it won’t matter.
TK: Did you hear this a lot growing up in Ireland?
PP: I think actually I heard it more in America. We [Ireland] had a big tourism industry, it was called the Celtic Tiger, and people would come over and learn about our folklore, our myths and stuff like that and it became really popular in America for a while. So a lot of the “Irish blessings” along with the stereotypes about Irish people that we have here in America are kind of exaggerated, it was a way for Irish people to sell their way of life to tourists, and part of that was exaggerating their interest in death, or their interest in alcohol, or any of those stereotypes.
TK: But there is some truth to the death ones.
PP: I think so. When I was growing up we were a very religious family. It was sad when someone would die but we also celebrated the good times we had with that person and we knew we were going to see them again in heaven so it was never like a final thing.
THE INFORMANT: The informant is a middle-aged woman who spent most of her adolescence and college career in Ireland and has since emigrated to America. She is very fond of the old Irish traditions and proud of the rich cultural heritage of her home country. She does admit that Ireland can be an overly tight-knit place and is unwelcoming to outsiders, and the main reason she left for America was a sense of feeling restless and slightly unwelcome due to the fact that she was not born in Ireland (even though her whole family is from there, she was born in South Africa).
ANALYSIS: This is a very well-known saying whose origins are not readily apparent. As the informant noted, much of Irish culture has been appropriated or exaggerated for an American audience, who generally associate Ireland with leprechauns, fairies, beer, potatoes…cultural touchstones that do not truly represent the full extent of Ireland’s history or contemporary present. Research suggests that this blessing does indeed have very strong ties to the Catholic religion. Traditionally, it was said that (especially for those who did not get a chance to make a confession before their death) the devil would make a last-minute attempt to have a dying person renounce their belief in God and join him instead in Hell. This blessing was meant to be a way of protecting someone from the devil’s preying on them in this way. The “hour” is usually a “half-hour,” which shows the traditional Irish wit: technically, if such a thing were necessary it could happen in an instant but the “half-hour” is unnecessarily long just to make fully sure that the dead soul makes it up to heaven long before the devil is even aware they could possibly be turned to his side.