Keening is a form of vocal lament associated with mourning that is traditional in Ireland, Scotland, and other cultures. In some cultures it is customary for women to wail or keen at funerals. Keening has also been used as a form of civil disobedience or protest where more direct forms of political action would not be permitted by authorities.
Written sources that refer to the practice in Ireland and Gaelic Scotland reappear from the sixteenth century on. It should be noted however that the principle of improvised vocal lament is in no way reserved to the Gaelic world 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 chaoineadh) who was often paid for her services.
After consistent opposition from the 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.
- Breandán Ó Madagáin, Caointe agus Seancheolta Eile [Keening and other Old Irish Musics] (in Irish), IE: Cló Iar-Chonnachta, 2005.
- Marcello Sorce Keller, “Expressing, Communicating, Sharing and Representing Grief and Sorrow with Organized Sound (Musings in Eight Short Sentences)”, in Stephen Wild, Di Roy, Aaron Corn, and Ruth Lee Martin (eds.), Humanities Research: One Common Thread the Musical World of Lament, Australian National University, Vol. XIX (2013), no. 3, 3–14.