Text: “May you be in heaven 15 minutes before the devil knows you’re dead”
Background: M is an American of Irish ethnicity that, during her childhood, enjoyed the bountiful wisdom of her Irish grandmother. M was also raised in an Irish Catholic household.
Context: M recalls this proverb being said by her grandmother when she would commit venial (small) sins. It means that you can commit these venial sins and enjoy your life to the fullest extent as long as you are cunning enough to slip past the devil on Judgement Day and make your way to heaven.
Analysis: Like many other Irish proverbs, this proverb takes on a more comedic perspective of the Catholic faith. Rather than taking Catholic doctrine seriously, it proposes an excuse for sinful behavior. Although based in and in reference to Catholic theology, the proverb advises sin if you are able to escape the ultimate punishment: hell. Such a perspective can be explained by a more modern and ethnic-approach to Catholicism. Since Irish Catholics have a long history of fighting for religious freedom against Protestant forces, present day Irish Catholics have implemented their religious history as part of their identity. Therefore, although many may no longer be truly devout in their faith, they still identify with Catholicism almost as an ethnicity of sorts.
MH is a third-generation Irish-American from Battle Creek, MI. He now splits his time between San Francisco, CA and Pasadena, CA, where he lives with his wife and 18-year-old son.
MH talked about the origin of some of his furniture, which has been passed down a couple generations:
“My mom grew up in a poor Irish family during the Great Depression, and they were a big family and she would go on to have a big family herself, which was pretty typical of Irish Catholics at the time…so during the Depression, they were always breaking up these huge estates that had gotten too expensive for families to maintain, and they’d have these estate sales where they’d sell really nice and valuable pieces of furniture, like beautiful wooden tables and dressers, really nice armchairs and Oriental rugs…and so my mom’s family bought a lot of this furniture for dirt cheap at these estate sales. Eventually she grew up and married my dad and the moved to Chicago when they first started having kids, but now they needed to buy larger houses, and they could afford to after the war. But instead of needing to buy new things, they were given some of the old furniture by my mom’s family, so the really nice pieces that originally came from estates went back into really nice houses that my parents had to buy to hold all my brothers and sisters. And now I have some of this pieces in my own living room, and the tables and things are so much better quality than what’s being sold today, because they were build to last for generations like this. So I’ll probably end up passing them on to my own kids, when they buy their own big estates!”
Many families pass down meaningful objects with stories or important family history behind them. While furniture isn’t necessarily what you’d imagine when you picture those sentimental moments, they can still be considered folk objects when you think about the cultural implications – the biggest story for MH is about his Irish-American heritage, and what it meant for his family in America during the Great Depression. “Being Irish from a big family went from being a negative to a positive,” he told me, and today he and his siblings are proud of their roots.
Debbie, a family friend from a suburb of Chicago, told me about her mother-in-law’s wake in Ireland. Debbie’s husband was born and grew up in Ireland. Though he immigrated to the United States, the majority of his family remains in Galway, Ireland. Debbie’s mother-in-law passed away in March 2014. She told me about the Irish waking process this past February after my grandma’s wake. Learning about Irish Catholic wakes was particularly interesting because I was able to compare it to an American Catholic wake and funeral–a process that was fresh in my mind.
Well they did take her then to a building, the other way. But they had like 200 people, they did a mass in the house, and they did a wake. And then we took her the next day to be waked in a regular funeral parlor.
I mean when they brought her home, I was like, Oh my God! I mean you hear about this.
They brought her home and she spent the night. They made sure that there was always somebody with her. And they brought her home around three o’clock in the afternoon. We had mass that night and we took her out the following day at 3:00. And brought her down to where she was going to be waked.
All the sons carried her on their shoulders. You know, they have the smaller caskets. And, yeah, it was really…One girl in the family kept trying to turn the heat up and I’m like, “Please don’t turn the heat up in this room. Not for for 24 hours.” Yeah but it was really interesting. You know what, it was nice. The grandkids and great grandkids were able to talk, were able to touch. And the talk that we had around the casket was really interesting. It’s the way it used to be. I was taken aback, but it was a very nice experience especially for the family.
Debbie’s initial shock at her husband’s family’s practices reveals how different these Irish Catholic practices are than American Catholic practices. As Debbie expressed, the Irish waking practices are “interesting” and “nice” to Catholics in America who do not have the same waking practice. Debbie’s story reveals that it is important for the family to talk about the family member who has passed away. Their practices also reveal that it can be therapeutic to touch the person that died. Sharing stories in the presence of the casket may be even more therapeutic than sharing stories after the wake as is common among American Catholics. I believe that the fact that her mother-in-law was never left alone suggests that Irish Catholics believe you are not alone in death. As Debbie said, it seems like a nice experience.