It’s time. I lost Virginia on the 29th of December 2014. I seek neither condolences nor sympathy. I have largely succeeded in keeping my personal life from scrutiny (with the exception of a few furniture/celebration-related occurrences), but today’s post, though keenly personal on one level, involves a venerated and significant variety of Irish table.
In many Western cultures, death is semi-taboo: Broaching a recent ‘passing’ (‘death’ is avoided) can be awkward or uncomfortable and is often accompanied by seemingly endless tears. At an English funeral, offering condolences to a widow or widower is usually achieved by muttering some brief, incoherent eulogy while grinding an imaginary cigarette butt into the ground with the toe of a polished-for-the-occasion black shoe.
In (predominantly Catholic) Ireland, by contrast, the death of a loved one is marked with a celebration of their life. Respectful laughter proliferates at wakes as embellished stories involving the deceased are recalled or swapped between attendees who come from every art and part. There is little or no morosity – not even amongst the woman folk who throng the kitchen, preparing sandwiches and other comestibles.
The centre of the ‘good room’ is cleared and The Table (fig. 1) is sent for, upon which the body is laid out for mourners to approach and bid their farewells.
Fig. 1. George III oak wake table, circa 1800. (James Graham-Stewart)
The wake table’s leaves are raised on either side of the corpse and arrayed with sandwiches, gifts of whiskey or poteen and bowls of cigarettes and tobacco. The deceased remains atop the table where they are watched over, day and night, until distant friends and relatives have had the opportunity to pay their respects before the corpse is interred.
Poorer parishes’ wake tables, often the property of the church, were normally made of alder, elm or oak (I’ve also seen one made of rowan), while mahogany tables – or at least mahogany topped, oak-framed tables – were curated or owned by local dignities.
Solid mahogany wake tables (fig. 2) are popular amongst the English who call them ‘hunt tables’ (any association with death would be altogether too icky).
Fig. 2. George III mahogany wake table, circa 1760. (Thomas Coulborn)
The wake table’s portative nature lent it to being moved to the front of the local landowner’s pile come the annual fox-hunt where, with just one leaf raised, a lackey would stand behind it dispensing drinks to the un-mounted while those on horseback partook of the stirrup cup (fig. 3).
Fig.3. John Nott Sartorius, The Stirrup Cup, circa 1784.
True hunt tables are horseshoe-shaped and infinitely more practical for their purpose (fig. 4).
Fig. 4. George III mahogany hunt table by Gillows, circa 1810. (Baggott Church Street Ltd.)
Many large Irish houses remain the repositories of their district’s wake table: Coolcor House, Co. Kildare; Leixlip Castle, Co. Kildare; Bellamont Forest, Co. Cavan; Mount Stewart, Co. Down and Mountainstown House, Co. Meath (fig. 5), amongst others, all retain their wake tables.
Fig. 5. The dining room, Mountainstown House, Co. Meath. (The Irish Aesthete)
I recall many a sumptuous luncheon and dinner, seated at my parents’ wake table which took pride of place in their dining room.
Wake tables equally lend themselves to the more confined dwellings we inhabit these days. Being, on average, only 16″ to 20″ deep, a wake table will stand unobtrusively against a wall like a console table, yet when required to, can seat between eight and sixteen diners when fully open.
Whether of lowly elm or rich mahogany, wake tables follow a standard form, having a narrow fixed top and shallow, elliptical hinged leaves, standing, normally, on a plain four-legged frame with two or four gate legs. In keeping with other square Georgian table- and chair legs, the inner corners of wake table legs are normally stop-chamfered to give a lighter, more airy appearance without any loss of strength.
The frameless gates of other drop-leaf tables of the latter half of the eighteenth-century incorporate properly constructed knuckle joints (fig. 6), though, presumably for economy, the frameless gates of wake tables often have crude finger joints that are an extension of the frame’s central brace (fig. 7).
Fig. 6. Circa 1740 circular drop leaf table gate with nicely made knuckle joint.
Fig. 7. Wake table’s frame brace’s through-fingers form inner part of hinge joint.
Probably the most commonly encountered gate hinge arrangement on wake tables – whether elm or mahogany – is a design peculiar to the wake table. The inner end of the gate is tenoned into a vertical member that has a spigot, top and bottom. The upper spigot engages a shallow hole in the underside of the table’s top and the lower spigot protrudes through a hole in a simple frame brace which is merely screwed onto the underside of the frame (figs. 8 & 9). The arris of the spigotted member adjacent to the frame rail is radiused to coincide with that of the spigots’, while the arris adjacent to the drop leaf remains square thereby acting as a stop, preventing the gate from opening too far. An additional benefit of this type of frame brace is that it prevents the leaves from converging without applying pressure to the gate legs.
Fig. 8. Common means of wake table gate attachment.
Fig. 9. Brace screwed to underside of table frame.
I kept vigil over Virginia, laid out on the elm and oak wake table, until the New Year… for no reason other than I wanted to be certain she had actually gone and hadn’t pulled some elaborate stunt to purloin all the bottles of gin that surrounded her.