A Wake

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 here, however 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.

Geo_III_Irish_oak_wake_table_c1800_02aFig. 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 poteen or whiskey 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 dignitaries.

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).

Geo_III_Irish_mahogany_wake_table_c1760_01a_Thomas_CoulbornFig. 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).

John_Nott_Sartorius_1755-1828_The_Stirrup_Cup_c1784_01aFig.3. John Nott Sartorius, The Stirrup Cup, circa 1784.

True hunt tables are horseshoe-shaped and infinitely more practical for their purpose (fig. 4).

Gillows_mahogany_hunt_table_c1810_01aFig. 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.

wake_table_Mountainstown_Co_Meath_01aFig. 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).

Geo_II_Irish_mahogany_gateleg_table_underside_c1740_01aFig. 6. Circa 1740 circular drop leaf table gate with nicely made knuckle joints.

gate_hinge_01aFig. 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’s rail is tenoned  into a vertical member that has a turned 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.

Geo_III_Irish_mahogany_wake_table_c1800_05aFig. 8. Common means of wake table gate attachment.

Geo_III_Irish_mahogany_wake_table_c1780_01aFig. 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.

Jack Plane

About Jack Plane

Formerly from the UK, Jack is a retired antiques dealer and self-taught woodworker, now living in Australia.
This entry was posted in Antiques and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

24 Responses to A Wake

  1. John Courtenay says:

    A fitting tribute. And an interesting one.


  2. John Kissel says:

    Sad news… Deepest sympathy.

    Fascinating post


  3. hughjengine says:

    Before blacking out, I’d wondered after the low turn-out at the wake, but a history of such cunning gin stunts would explain all.
    A similar view to Fig. 6 did greet me the following morning as well!


  4. Katya says:

    Eloquent through and through.


  5. Tim Caveny says:

    I lost my Marcia in ’09, also very near Christmas. I still find myself doing things specifically because I think they would please her. My condolences, for what they may be worth.


  6. D.B. Laney says:

    Puddins’, both black and white. Barrels of porter. Jugs o’ punch. Noggins of whiskey. Laughter, singing and (occasional) tears. Could there be a better “send off?” I can’t imagine one.


  7. Eric R says:

    One of your best posts in my opinion.
    Very interesting and informative.
    And I’m sure Virginia watched you as closely as you watched her.


  8. Some traditions are certainly worth preserving, and passing along. Thank you sir, and my condolences.


  9. Paul Knapp says:

    The Irish not only have a better way with death, they often have a better way with words. Thank you for such a beautiful post.


  10. curt says:

    What a great and simple discourse, and such a sad occasion to prompt it. Your comparison of English and Irish funerals mirrors my experiences here in the States, where so much of the grief response is held as private, if not problematic.
    Prior to this I’ve not heard of the wake table, and now I want to make one to replace our dining room table.


  11. Wesley Beal says:

    Thank you so much for sharing – this is a really fascinating post.


  12. Warwick says:

    My condolences
    Nice post
    Lovely tables


  13. TobyC says:

    My heart goes out to you my friend,… remember all the good times.


  14. A great post and a good life shared.
    My Pop’s wake was the occasion for my first real drink. I loved him and I was sad but the memory is a happy one as all his son’s and daughters, my uncles and aunts talked up his exploits to laughter that was infectious. He was the first to go and the day helped form my views on death and seperation.
    Sorry to blather on but your very eloquent post brought the memories flowing.
    Thank you for sharing some of Virginia’s story with us.


  15. mysticcarver says:

    I love historical furniture references. Lovely tables .


  16. carter choate says:

    Well done, well said.


  17. Paul Bouchard says:

    Sorry to hear that. The tables are beautiful. Lovely, simple form and function.


  18. stevenrey56 says:

    Curiously I began reading your blog on 22 November starting with “It’s on a somewhat gloomy note that I begin this blog…” and today I finished, almost like a sad ending to a novel. But I won’t drag everybody down. Instead, I’ll raise a glass of fine Irish whiskey to you and your Virginia. While you may guard your personal life, we see enough glimpses of it to care about you. I’m looking forward to your posts to come.


  19. James Pallas says:

    Thank you for sharing. An Irish wake is a fine tradition that needs to continue. A wonderful way to celebrate a life well lived. I remember many as I grew from just barely understanding to really understanding. A great way to take the fear out of loosing one you love for little ones and older ones alike. A. Salute to you and Virginia sir.


  20. Sitting in hospice, vigilant. Hours, days?. How much can one frail body endure? A wee dram in the morning coffee, get on with the business of living…thanks and most heartfelt condolences.


  21. LD says:

    “May there always be work for your hands to do,
    May your purse always hold a coin or two.

    May the sun always shine warm on your windowpane,
    May a rainbow be certain to follow each rain.

    May the hand of a friend always be near you,
    And may God fill your heart with gladness to cheer you.”


  22. Pingback: Picture This LXXVIII | Pegs and 'Tails

  23. Pingback: Picture This CI | Pegs and 'Tails

  24. Pingback: Wakey-wakey! | Pegs and 'Tails

I welcome your comments

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s