IF you have never been to a real Irish wake, and just watched the movie version, then you probably think a wake is just another Irish piss-up; a few maudlin drunks gathered around a coffin. But you would be mistaken. The wake is the oldest rite in humanity, once practised in some form by every culture on earth, reaching back beyond the fall of Troy to our Neolithic ancestors and further still.

A real wake has a real dead body and the sight and touch of a corpse, a dead one-of-us, is both transcendent and tangible proof of the mortal limit of every human life, our common kinship.

A wake is the best guide to life you could ever have. To put it crudely, if we, as individuals, are the mortal hardware, then the wake is the software our forebears used on the rest of the network, a series of protocols and rites, to code death and communally survive the mortality of any one unit. An enacted How-To-Live-Beyond-Death manual, with some variants, to be shared out amongst the gathered mourners.

Suppose you thought death was like a marathon that one day you knew you had to run. Or you had to help other people – your family, people you love – run their marathons. And it was totally compulsory, no getting out of it. Nor was there to be any warning on when the race was called. You just had to drop whatever you were doing and start running the whole 26 miles that second. Now, instead of pretending it was never going to happen, don't you think it might be useful to get in a little practice beforehand?

Well, a wake is a bit like preparing for that death marathon, and even the training, whether you fumble and fail a few times, will make you not richer but wiser and more thoughtful. More human. The first step is to get started with a few practice laps early on. First on other people's deaths and then on your own. Just like fathers and mothers have been doing on the island through the rite of the Irish wake for the last few thousand years.

I had an early insight into one of the oddest wake traditions as a teenager on a remote island off the coast of County Mayo in Ireland.

I was 15 and standing on the floor of the Wavecrest Ballroom. It was just past 2am and in my arms was the warm enticing body of Sinead, my would-be girlfriend.

"Shall we go back to the wake for the craic?" said Eamon, an older brother of one of Sinead's female friends, and more importantly the owner of a precious car that we could all pile into and avoid the seven-mile walk home.

The "craic" in Irish usually means laughter, fun and games, but the offer of further teenage rollicking with a corpse in the room was unknown territory for me. The decision was made by Sinead. "Why don't we?" she said directly, a stab of lust there in her green eyes.

As a dating proposition, going on to the wake did have certain irresistible attractions; my time with Sinead would go on; there was nowhere else to go on the island at 3am and, as teenagers after a hard night's dancing, we were ravenously hungry.

Soon, nine or 10 of us, Mairead, Maureen, Mick, Patrick, Sean and Sheila, were piled in Eamon's Ford Cortina and driving towards the wake house.

We arrived at one of flat concrete-roofed island houses dating from the 1950s. It was a square box with a central door and, like lighted eyes, windows on either side.

Inside, the house had a raw poverty. Unadorned painted walls, lino on the floor, a turf and ashes bucket by the door next to a pair of turned-down woman's wellingtons. We turned sharp right into what must have been a front sitting room but now held the coffin, rows of seats, and a dozen or so seated mourners. The air was thick with cigarette smoke.

With Eamon as our lead we shuffled towards the corpse. On the way we shook hands solemnly with the dead man's middle-aged stoutish daughters, Rose and Breda, garbling our "Sorry for your trouble"s before an obligatory mumbled prayer at the head of the open coffin.

I had been to wakes before and, encouraged by one of the girls ahead of me, I reached out and lightly touched his forehead and felt again that visceral jolt of the ice-cube-in-a-rubber-glove of a corpse's flesh.

Above Seamus's head, in an echo of how the ancient Greeks lighted tapers next to their own dead, was a makeshift shrine with three lighted candles, a chorus of plaster cast saints including the Virgin Mary, and a nine-inch baby Jesus dressed up like a prince as the Child of Prague.

Seamus wasn't looking great. In his final illness his liver must have packed up and his skin had the vivid cartoon yellowish look of the heavily jaundiced. Incongruously, he was dressed in a beige suit with newly bought dark blue carpet slippers – to be soft on his feet, we were later told, in his new projected heavenly realm; there having been no matching brown slippers in stock on the day.

Looking down on Seamus in his coffin, the most striking thing was his nostril hair, which comically hung down in two walrus-like tusks from his bloodless nostrils. Seamus's layer-outer had also forgotten to trim the old man's facial hair, which sprouted from his ears in wiry mini-forests.

There was a leaden atmosphere in the room, a dry-eyed exhaustion. Seamus's corpse had either been hanging around for too long or his daughters were now too exhausted to shed further tears on his behalf. We soon gathered that Seamus, even in his daughters' grief, was being classified as a happy corpse, as in: "Sure, isn't it happy for him," leaving unsaid the final words of relief – "... and for us that he is finally dead."

In life, Seamus Gallagher had been a misery, a crabbity old bastard who had suffered a withering stroke a decade before, and whose tenacious grasp on life, and never-ending demands, had long ago drained away the well of filial love. The final shuffling off of his mortal coil was indeed a blessing from God. An answer to his weary daughters' nightly prayers.

After our own pretend prayers and faux sympathy we sat down in a group, just feet from the yellowed corpse in the midst of surrounding mourners, an influx of tipsy, giggling teenagers.

In the tradition of the wake, we were soon offered tea and sandwiches and plates of cigarettes, spread out in a circular pattern on an open plate, passed round. We mumbled thanks but I watched dumbstruck as Patrick, one of the other boys, brazenly swiped two extra fags for later. Emboldened by Patrick, a couple of the girls filched extra fags too for themselves.

When the sandwiches came round we tucked in with the famishment of teenagers scoffing plate after plate until more were brought. Eamon, straight-faced, called out for a refill of tea by saying his throat was "almost as parched as Seamus's there".

Squirming at Eamon's blatant mockery of the corpse we practically pissed ourselves trying not to burst out in open laughter. Weirdly, Eamon's testing demands were met with a bland, unseeing acquiescence by Rose and Breda. An extra cup of tea for Eamon soon arrived.

The real craic, also known as prumsaí on the island, a form of courting at wakes, was just about to begin. From his pocket Eamon produced a small button and held it out in the palm of his hand. "Let's play the Ring."

No-one bothered to explain the rules but it was obvious everyone in the company, apart from myself, had played the game before. It was a teenage dating game, a version of Spin The Bottle. We held out our pressed-together palms and Eamon went down the line and secretly slipped the button into the hands of one of the players.

Unknowingly at 15, I had stumbled into one of the oldest rites of humanity. The Ring was a wake game, an ancient death ritual that was first mentioned in the 8th Century BCE Iliad when the Greek warrior Achilles celebrates the death of his lover Patroclus with funeral games.

Like the wake itself these ancient pagan sub-rituals have lasted longer in Ireland, passed down from generation to generation, than anywhere else in the Western world.

Wake games, involving mock marriages and sacrilegious versions of Catholic sacraments, were once common at Irish wakes and often involved strenuous trials of masculine strength and libidinous sexual play.

Led by a male cleasái like Eamon, a master of misrule, wake games are a defiant usurpation of death's power, the prevailing social order of priests and authority and a vibrant proclaiming of the present pleasures of the flesh. Their message is as old as death itself: we are all passing through this mortal life so better now to seize the sweet joy than hesitate.

The coldness of the corpse does have its own perverse existential aphrodisiac; nothing so encourages the animal within us, the hunger for sexual consummation, the need for the comfort of another warm body, than death's present denial. We affirm ourselves in heat, lust and flesh.

Our version of the Ring was pretty tame in comparison to the orgies once recorded at 18th-century Irish wakes but it too involved some real pain, and sexual forfeit.

The object of the game was to guess who amongst us held the button. The penalty for a wrong answer for a boy was a bone-jarring blow on the back of your knuckles by Eamon, whose metal-like fist inflicted searing pain. The penalty for a girl was five minutes outside in the dark, with a boy chosen by Eamon.

Locked into this dating game we burst out in suppressed laughter at another girl or boy's crimson embarrassment at a wrong answer. We flirted. We teased and mocked, sniggered and guffawed and sought a way to clandestinely pair up with the boy or girl of our sexual desire. And smoked ourselves blue on the ever-abundant cigarettes.

Seamus, being dead, made no objection to our revelry but neither did his daughters Rose or Breda. Nor did the old men, farmers in flat caps, who sat all around us, who waked along with us through that night. No-one said a word. There was not even a hostile glance. As if this teenage renewal, these ancient rites of prumsaí, were part too of Seamus's departing.

In the Anglo-Saxon world the very sight of the dead is forbidden, outlawed, pixellated away even on the television. The Irish wake runs with an older wisdom. Rather than denying death, the wake reaches out to embrace the bereaved, the living and the dead in a series of rites.

Seamus Gallagher's wake, in the very presence of his corpse, was just another part of life, as his former home played host to another gathering of the living and their hungers.

Freed from the crippling pseudo solemnity of the Anglo-Saxon funereal rite, there is more laughter and joy, more prumsaí, at an Irish wake than at many an Irish wedding.

Unconsciously even in our prumsaí, the wake was also training us too for our own death. Like the older mourners all around us, we too, although teenagers, were being trained to see the sight and touch of the dead as nothing strange – just the very ordinary dead. A mirror too of our own future dead selves.

Playing the Ring while waking along with the dead has a price. The back of my hand ached for days afterwards, bruised black from a string of wrong answers. But it was worth it. Because out in the moonlit dark at the back of Seamus Gallagher's wake house, paying forfeit, I first laid my lips on Sinead's tremulous mouth.

The dead man inside in the box had only heightened rather than deterred our hormonal urges.

This is an edited extract from My Father's Wake: How The Irish Teach Us To Live, Love And Die by Kevin Toolis, published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £16.99

Kevin Toolis will be singing the wonders of the Irish wake today (September 24) at the Wigtown Book Festival http://www.wigtownbookfestival.com/

© KevinToolis 2017