Definitions

Keening

Keening

[kee-ning]

Keening is a form of vocal lament associated with mourning that is traditional in Scotland and Ireland.

Etymology

"Keen" as a noun or verb comes from the Irish Gaelic term "caoineadh" (to cry) and references to it from the seventh, eighth and twelfth centuries are extensive. The Scottish Gaelic term comes from the same origin, as the two languages are closely related.

History

Written sources that refer to the practice in Ireland reappear from the sixteenth century on. It should be noted however that the principle of improvised vocal lament is in no way reserved to Ireland (the term keen is also used with reference to Scottish tradition) 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.

In legend certain great Irish families (which ones depends on who is recounting the legend) have a ghost or a fairy woman who will come to keen at the death of a family member. This is the origin of the myth of the banshee.

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. Although some recordings have been made and the practice has been documented up to recent times, it is generally considered to be extinct.

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