Years ago my father saw the keen, or caoine. It was the 1920s; he was a student at Trinity College. On a trip one Easter, he went a hundred miles west and a whole century back to Connemara and the Atlantic coast of Ireland.There, one morning, he saw the emigrant boat, about to leave for Liverpool. There was a small group of old women gathered on the pier. They were the keeners. They could be hired for a few pennies to come to a wake or a funeral or, as here, to a final emigrant farewell on the Galway docks. As the passengers disappeared on board and the boat drew out—or so my father told me—the old women put their shawls over their heads and began the keen. He remembered it as eerie, powerful, terrible.
. . . All his life my father remembered the keen. But not, I think, as an expression of grief; more likely as a theater of it. It was a ritual that neither resolved nor diminished the anguish of the Irish losing their sons and daughters. But it noted it. The keen’s atonal array of primitive sounds is often mentioned in Irish literature—at the end of Riders to the Sea by J.M. Synge, for instance: keening exists there as a rite that gives unquestioned ritualistic and consensual shape to public mourning. Eaven Boland, Can Poetry Console a Grieving Public?