Caoineadh na dTrí Mhuire

Keening of the Three Marys
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Throughout Ireland these ancient songs were felt to function both as prayers and as direct substitutes for the caoineadh more...

Throughout Ireland these ancient songs were felt to function both as prayers and as direct substitutes for the caoineadh (‘keening’, women’s funeral lament) which was suppressed by the British administration in Ireland. It belongs to a broad tradition of song that goes back to the middle ages. This song about the Passion of Jesus comprises, alternately, questions and lamenting ‘ochónes’ (expressions of grief). See videos below for versions by Iarla Ó Lionáird and Seosamh Ó hÉanaí (Joe Heany).

Keening is a form of vocal lament associated with mourning that is traditional in Ireland, Scotland, African, African-American, and other cultures. It comes from the Irish/Scots Gaelic term “caoineadh” (to cry, to weep) and references to it from the seventh, eighth and twelfth centuries are extensive.

Written sources that refer to the practice in Ireland and Gaelic Scotland reappear from the sixteenth century on. It should be noted however that the principle of improvised vocal lament is in no way reserved to the Gaelic world and that laments are documented from various cultures around the world.

The Irish tradition of keening over the body at the burial is distinct from the wake – the practice of watching over the corpse – which took place the night before the burial. The “keen” itself is thought to have been constituted of stock poetic elements (the listing of the genealogy of the deceased, praise for the deceased, emphasis on the woeful condition of those left behind etc.) set to vocal lament. While generally carried out by one or several women, a chorus may have been intoned by all present. Physical movements involving rocking, kneeling or clapping accompanied the keening woman (“bean caoinadh”) who was often paid for her services.

After consistent opposition from the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland (Synods opposed the practice in 1631, 1748 and 1800) that went so far as to recommend excommunication for offenders, the practice became extinct; the Church’s position is however unlikely to have been the sole cause.

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Peter, Apostle,
Have you seen my bright love?
Alas, and alas-o!
I saw not long ago
Surrounded by his enemies.
Alas, and alas-o!

Who is that good man
Upon the Passion Tree?
Alas, and alas-o!
It is your son, Mother,
Don’t you recognise me?
Alas, and alas-o!

Is that the wee son
That was nourished at Mary's breast?
Alas, and alas-o!
Is that the son
That was born to me in the stable?
Alas, and alas-o!

Is that the son
I carried for three quarters?
Alas, and alas-o!
Darling little son,
Your mouth and your nose are cut,
Alas, and alas-o!

Blunt nails were pushed through
His feet and his hands.
Ochón agus ochón-ó!
And a spear pierced
Through his beautiful chest.
Alas, and alas-o!
Alas, and alas-o!

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