She immigrated to the U.S. and settled in New Jersey. She never lost her brogue.
“Even after five decades, she could still make a mean soda bread,” said her daughter-in-law Nancy Thorpe.
When Eileen passed away, her family wanted to give her a sendoff that reflected her life, passionately and proudly Irish as it was. But, to their shock, nowhere in the U.S. could they find any Irish funeral goods.
Eileen had requested that she be cremated. Her family could not find anything that resembled a Celtic urn.
“We looked everywhere, absolutely everywhere,” said Nancy Thorpe, “and the answer was always the same, absolutely nothing. We were shocked.
“Even funeral directors were saying to us, ‘If you find anything, let us know.'”
What happened next was a perfect example of Irish pride and American enterprise: Thorpe and her sister-in-law Mary Ellen Triola sourced Irish funeral goods and in March 2002, inspired by Eileen Thorpe, they started a business, The Irish Wake.
Americans have turned more and more toward personalized funerals in the last decade, according to a Massachusetts funeral director, Wayne Brasco.
Brasco’s business, Brasco and Sons Memorial, has used The Irish Wake as a source for Irish products “for about 25 families since March,” said Brasco, speaking from his funeral home in Waltham.
Once they spotted this gap in the market, Thorpe and Triola sourced a range of Irish goods from both Ireland and the U.S.
From Ireland comes Galway Crystal urns, Mullingar pewter, Belleek porcelain, and Ferguson linen from Banbridge, Co. Down.
There are Irish flags for coffins and Connemara Irish rosary beads. In Vermont, Thorpe and Triola found a couple who make pottery with Celtic designs, perfect for urns as well. And in Texas, they found carved Celtic crosses.
“We’ve had a tremendous response,” said Thorpe, “especially in the heavily Irish communities, New York, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia. We have casket drapes, candles, crosses, framed tributes — everything an Irish family needs for a proper and poignant goodbye.”
She explains the sudden success of this cottage industry by pointing to the strength of Irish culture in the U.S.
“People of Ireland, their homeland is very dear to them,” Thorpe said. “They’re Irish forever. They are Irish in life and they are Irish in death. They want to surround themselves with things from the homeland.”
About 80 to 85 percent of The Irish Wake’s business is wholesale to funeral homes, Thorpe said.
A certain amount comes direct from customers, often by coming across the company on the Internet.
Thorpe said that the company keeps at least five of everything in stock, and items can be overnighted to funeral homes almost anywhere in the country.
“It was a leap of faith,” she said. “But we had so much encouragement from people in the industry.”
Brasco agreed. “They spotted a hole in the market and filled it very well,” he said. “It’s the tendency nowadays to have a more personalized funeral. It makes [people] feel they’ve participated more and put more into it.”
Recently, Brasco said he had taken care of a family whose departed loved one had been “a great casino and lottery buff.”
“Everyone who came to the funeral got a lotto ticket,” he said.
“Twenty years ago, forget about it,” Brasco continued. “Back then it was the cookie-cutter funeral for everyone.”
Although The Irish Wake has done a decent line of business with cremation urns, Brasco said it was the one culture in the U.S. of which he was aware, that “would come around to cremation last.” It is gradually becoming a more popular option among his Irish American customers, he said.
For Thorpe and her sister-in-law Triola, The Irish Wake has been an unusual windfall, and they emphasize that its inspiration is from Eileen Thorpe.
“She is smiling down on us,” Thorpe said. “Because if we’d dare put her in anything other than a Belleek porcelain urn, she’d be haunting us right now.”
The Irish Wake website is www.theirishwake.com.