John B Keane: The prized art of doing up corpses isn’t what it was

THE doing-up of corpses is no longer the prized art it used to be. In America the victims of the deceased have to pay through the nose for post mortem facials and I read of a case where one €1,000 was paid to make an old woman presentable shortly after she had bowed out of what is known as this world.

THE doing-up of corpses is no longer the prized art it used to be. In America the victims of the deceased have to pay through the nose for post mortem facials and I read of a case where one €1,000 was paid to make an old woman presentable shortly after she had bowed out of what is known as this world.

The art of dressing corpses, as it is called in West Limerick and North Kerry, is not altogether dead and there are still a few practitioners. The best known of these is Moll Sanders, who used to live in Duagh but now lives in Listowel with her son-in-law and daughter. She was reluctant to talk about her profession but finally she spoke at length.

Moll told me that dressing corpses goes in the families and that her own grandmother and mother were skilled in the art. Laying out corpses is a far different and far less arduous task than dressing. Almost anybody with a regular stomach, according to Moll, can lay out a corpse, but those deft touches to face and hands and hair and clothes can only be properly achieved by a dresser. There was no cash payment but it was generally held that there was great luck following those who were good dressers. In addition there was a special place near the fire on the night of the wake and it was seen to that a dresser’s glass was never empty if she was that way inclined.

There was another famous corpse dresser near Moyvane but some years ago she was dressed herself for that long journey into the hereafter. It was said of her corpses that they were more alive than dead and one old lady done up by her looked so attractive that a drunken mourner proposed to her in a moment of forgetfulness. In life the woman in question failed to receive one offer of marriage because of an ugly face. In death she looked gorgeous or perhaps I should say heavenly

In Ireland male corpses are rarely done up apart from a shave and a combing of the hair and the customary prayer book under the chin.

Famous case

THE most famous tale of a corpse is that of the late Kate Finucane of Asdee. Dr Brendan Kennelly, the brilliant Ballylongford poet, has already immortalised Kate Finucane in a volume of his earlier poems. Here is what happened.

Kate was aling for some weeks, and finally she gave a great sigh, turned over in the bed and passed away. Doctor and priest were sent for, and and both pronounced her dead. She was dressed and laid out by a relation of hers, who was reputed to be as old as the hills. Since Kate lived alone there was nobody to tidy up or receive visitors except the old crony who dressed her.

Kate lay there looking content and relaxed, but dead as a doornail. The evening she was to be taken to the chapel saw the house filled with neighbours and several relations, who had come all the way from Ennistymon in the county of Clare.

What happened next is now a chapter of a local history in Asdee and Ballylongford. There was no-one there to make the tea for the Ennistymon relations except a band of young girls, who did nothing but giggle and ogle the young men.

Suddenly Kate Finucane sat up on the bed, rubbed her eyes but never said a word. Everybody was astonished and none dared move. They were rooted to where they sat and stood.

“Ochone” said Kate Finucane, and she rose from the bed.

“Oh!” she moaned when she saw the Clare crowd with no one to wet the tea for them.

Kate went to the hearth and took the kettle from the hob. She rinsed out the teapot and found the tea canister. She made a ring of amber coals and thereon she placed the teapot to give the tea a chance to draw. She went to the dresser and laid the table with cups, saucers, sideplates and cutlery. She produced a loaf of bread and a pound of butter cut several slices from the loaf. Then she nodded civilly in the direction of the Ennistymon relations, indicating that they were to sit down.

There was no word.

She simply heaved a great sigh and returned to the bed, where she stretched herself out and folded her hands, not forgetting to entwine her beads about her fingers. There was a maternity nurse present at the wake and she was requested to examine Kate to see if she was alive or dead. She did as she was asked and she propended Kate Finucane to be dead without any doubt whatsoever.

Poetic praise

JOHN BOURKE, the Grange poet, writes to tell us that he is after spending three months in the Regional Hospital in Limerick. He is warm in his praise of the staff. Indeed, most people who have to spend time in the Regional have the same thing to say.

Anyhow, John, at the request of Silver , has written a few verses of appreciation:

“I have been a patient at the Regional Hospital for the past three months an operation to wait;

My admiration for the doctors, nurses and staff there was undoubtedly great.”

Here is how he describes nights nurses:

“Those white-clad apostles of the medical profession like ghosts of the dead

Answering duty’s call they tip-toe to every bed.

As those nurses work in the silent night at their private quarters you could hear their merry laugh.

As hours drag on and at long last arrives the great day staff.”

He singles out Sister O’Leary for special praise:

“But the lady of the house, a lady true and real, was Sister O’Leary.

Everyone’s troubles were her troubles and she tried to please and heal.”

Then finally he has something to say about the surgeon: “There is one more tribute I surely must insert, a word of praise to Surgeon Kennedy, Ireland’s greatest operation expert.”

What a happy situation we would find ourselves in if all ex-patients were as grateful to those who healed them.

Jesse James

AN ABBEYFEALE man writes to ask if it is true that Jesse James’s father was born in Asdee. Yes, it is true, and up until a few years ago Mass was celebrated annually in Asdee Church by the renowned Father Ferris, the P.P., for the souls of Jesse and Frank James.

Five years ago Geoffrey Newsome of the Daily Express came to Asdee to do an article on the background of the James brothers. He did a very searching piece of writing and that article which appeared is possibly the most authoritative one on the family history of the James’s.

Until a few years ago there were relations of the notorious outlaws living in Listowel and in Ballybunion. All have now gone away to England and America but there is still one lady in Listowel, Mrs Joe James, who lives at O’Connell Avenue and whose late husband would have been a first cousin of Jesse and Frank James.

Joe James was a tailor but his brother, Paddy, was a renowned trainer and brother of horses. I remember him well, in fact his daughter, Kathleen, who is an old friend of mine, now lives in Limerick. No outlaws, apart from the Robin Hood, achieved the international popularity of Frank and Jesse James. All of what they stole was put to good use not for themselves alone but those who were down and out and distressed from financial worry. Jesse and Frank gave up the outlaw business shortly before Jesse was assassinated. Under the name of Mr Jaward he set up house with his wife but a bullet in the black cut him off in his prime.

AT THE TIME of writing I have a cramp in my hand from filling Census forms. In compliance with the questionnaire I asked one man of seventy four what time he finished school.

“The day I started,” he told me.

“What’s your religion?” I asked.

“Put down Hindu,” said he.

“You could be prosecuted” I reminded him, “for giving false information.”

“They have no jurisdiction over Hindus ,” he told me, “between here and Ballylong or tween here and Ballylongford.”

The late-great John B. Keane was a Limerick leader columnist for over 30 years. This column first appeared in our edition February April 24th 1971.