Note: The Omega Profblog is proud to host this post from fellow Human Situation Professor Sue Collins.
His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.
James Joyce, Dubliners, “The Dead”
In my Irish Catholic community in Canada, a joke used to make the rounds that went something like this: “There are the Irish and then there are the Black Irish. Now, the Irish think only about two things: God and Death. But the Black Irish have stopped believing in God, so they think only about Death.”
For the older generations—my Irish father and those before him—death lurked in all life’s corridors, and a pending death was always announced by the wail of the Banshee. The Banshee is a female spirit, appearing as an old woman with long gray hair, trailing black robes, and a silver comb, which she pulls through her hair as she wails in warning of the death to come. Never pick up a silver comb, we were warned as kids, because then the Banshee will come for you!
My father could tell hair-raising stories about this dread spirit. In the 1850s, he told us, your great grandparents heard the Banshee as they trekked through a Canadian woods, bearing a daughter dying of consumption. Heading for a new home in Canada they would eventually call Galway, they had left the great troubles of Ireland behind but not the troubles of the Irish. One night, they pitched camp, and a death watch began. It was not long before a keening wail floated over and through the tall pines of the wood. When the terrified watchers saw the daughter breath her last, the wailing ceased.
About all matters concerning death, my father’s people loved to tell stories and especially to make jokes. But they were deadly serious in their reverence for the dead ancestors—the long genealogical chain from which no Collins could escape. The ancestors stood watch over our every deed, cheering the good ones and lamenting the evil; taking heart at every birth and welcoming those reborn in death when they crossed over.
When I was younger, it was only by conjuring this memory—this older view—that I was able finally to appreciate the delicacy of Aristotle’s treatment of death and the afterlife in the first book of his Nicomachean Ethics. Do the actions of the living, he asks, affect the happiness of the dead, or are not the dead beyond the vicissitudes—the ever-turning fortunes—of this mortal life? A strange question for a philosopher, perhaps, but perfectly understandable to those for whom the dead are always gathered round, always present, ever watching.