Sebastian Cahill, class of '23, is a recent graduate of UC Berkeley, where he received a B.A. in English and Comparative Literature. Currently, he works as a news reporter for Business Insider. He hopes to return to graduate school in the coming years to do a Ph.D. program combining his studies of Irish Literature and gender dynamics post-colonialism in Ireland. He resides in the Bay Area with his fiancé and their two cats, Edward and Fish Stick. For our series on undergraduate archival experiences, he wrote about his time researching his honors thesis on the ancient Irish tradition of keening.
Archival research was the highlight of my undergraduate career at UC Berkeley.
For my honors thesis this past year, I focused on the connection between the ancient Irish tradition of keening — also known by its Gaelic name “caoineadh,” or crying — and modern, women-led Irish narratives. I titled it “‘Full in Myself’: How the Remodeled Keen Empowers Irish Women in Literature,” and focused on Anna Burns’s 2016 novel Milkman and Eimer McBride’s 2013 A Girl is a Half-formed Thing. I aimed to find, through exploration of both novels, how each followed the structure of a keen and revitalized the practice in the context of the late 20th century using the novel as a vehicle. I was very fortunate to have Professor Dorothy Hale as an instructor for my course, because she allowed me to build the skills necessary for my project, especially.
To begin an explanation of my research, a word on the structure of the keen — or, more accurately, the composed improvisation of the keen. The Keening Wake, a group dedicated to reviving and preserving the tradition, describes keening as “a vocal ritual artform, performed at the wake or graveside in mourning of the dead. Keens are said to have contained raw unearthly emotion, spontaneous word, repeated motifs, crying and elements of song” (“The Keening Tradition”). Similarly, scholar Joe Heaney suggests the keen is structured by one’s feelings, and a performance’s overall atmosphere (“Part of a Caoineadh in the Conamara Tradition”). The tradition was a professionalized, communal conduction of grief.
I encountered a number of issues at first when researching my project, the foremost one being that there is not a large body of work on the Irish keening tradition. There are even fewer primary sources — the tradition was almost exclusively oral, and later suppressed both by British imperialism and generally moving out of fashion. What followed was a difficult, yet rewarding, process of unearthing the remaining sources. To start, I read all the sources I could find from the period when keening was a more common practice throughout Ireland. Though the tradition was begun hundreds of years prior to these writings, their oral nature left them relatively mysterious to outsiders. There were a number of articles on the keen from the late 18th century, most of which were written from the perspective of the colonizing British — meaning that instead of reflecting the nuances of the tradition, authors wrote about how the tradition was dying off, and suggested that the women who performed them were partially at fault for that death.
Through following articles written in the 18th century, I was able to find some limited records written afterwards, in the 19th century, that described the practice and even included some recorded examples. While those examples were obviously not original, they did much to advance my understanding of the performance of the keen as essential to its purpose. Another essential source was the aforementioned group The Keening Wake, which is composed of women working tirelessly to keep the keening tradition alive, both through education and their own performances. Using these, I was able to compare the novels and their structure to show they were a modern iteration of the keen, and explore the duality of that keening in the contexts of the novel — how the keen is not only a mourning practice contemporarily, but also a radical resistance against colonialism and a refusal to ignore grief.
The research in general took me to the very depths of Main Stacks and the very end of Google Scholar Lists; it took me to beginner’s Irish courses to read Irish language sources when I ran out of English ones; it took me to the depths of the novels’ protagonists. To be able to focus on a topic I cared — and care — deeply about, using Berkeley’s tools to access materials I would otherwise have no idea existed, was the hardest thing I’ve ever completed, and, simultaneously, the single most rewarding experience I had on campus.
“The Keening Tradition.” The Keening Wake, http://www.keeningwake.com/keening-tradition/(link is external).
“Part of a Caoineadh in the Conamara Tradition.” Cartlanna Sheosaimh Uí Éanaí, Irish Research Council, University of Washington, University of Galway, https://www.joeheaney.org/en/part-of-a-caoineadh-in-the-conamara-tradition/(link is external)