The Dead Come Alive Hearing Finnegan’s Wake

how a classic Irish folks song stirred a sense of identity

Irish flag colored green, white, orange
Image courtesy of author

As a kid, I never realized the winding road listening to “Finnegan’s Wake” would take me down. First along avenues of Irish clichés then into dark tombs of disappointment, where the truth isn’t better buried. The song may not have been what I perceived as a child, but what I believed it to be seeded the future just fine. So, I find myself taking the good with the bad whenever a needle tickles a record coaxing out every aspect of the tune. To borrow from James Joyce, thanks be to Annah the Allmaziful, Bringer of Plurabilities, for “‘tis as human a little story as paper could well carry.”

No one is born knowing their identity. It comes from myriad sources. While there may be whispers and shadows in our blood, every experience chisels an individual into the shape they occupy.

Though my parents forbade anything remotely rock ‘n’ roll, Irish folk tunes like “Rising of the Moon”, “Whiskey in the Jar”, and “Finnegan’s Wake” slipped under the radar. Yet, even at a young age, I sensed the punk rock spirit in Irish pub songs. Just because the music isn’t distorted guitars and screeching vocals doesn’t mean the message is any less vitriolic or hedonistic. The same seasonings flavor both styles, and “Finnegan’s Wake” serves as solid proof.

Title card reading: Finnegan's Wake
Image courtesy of the author

TL;DR: the song is about a blue-collar drunk who falls off a ladder, and, seeming dead, is given a wake that turns into a drunken riot, during which combative mourners spill whiskey on the corpse, resurrecting the deceased.

“Finnegan’s Wake” concerns a brick layer named Tim Finnegan, who is, to put it kindly, a functional alcoholic. One day his tipplin’ ways result in him falling off a ladder and cracking his skull. Friends and family carry the corpse home to wake. During the gathering, copious alcohol consumption leads to the mourners savagely brawling with one another. As the song says, “‘twas woman to woman and man to man. Shillelagh law was all the rage, and the row and the ruction soon began.” The combative chaos results in a jug of whiskey hurled across the room, its contents spilling over Tim’s corpse. Then the dead man rises, “See how he rises. Timothy rising from the bed.” Miraculously revived by the uisce beatha, Tim shouts at the people for wasting good whiskey as well as recklessly chucking jugs. After all, it could’ve hit and killed him — “Thanam o’n Dhuol, do you think I’m dead?”

Tommy Makem, Irish singer
Tommy Makem performing in a 1977 TV special

It’s a comical tune covering a wide spectrum of humor. Surreal, whimsical, and dark, “Finnegan’s Wake” dips a toe in every manner of jest. The ending can be interpreted as comedic magical realism, or simply a humorous case of mistaken demise. Then there’s the delightful absurdity of a wake turning into what is essentially a bar brawl.

I attended a lot of funerals as a child. Either as a family member or altar server, almost every weekend I partook in wakes and funerary proceedings. Until I heard “Finnegan’s Wake,” it never occurred to me that any such occasion could be a chance for merriment. It was my first exposure to the concept of an Irish wake which always stuck with me as a preference. The somber affairs I attended seemed like endurance competitions for stoics, and if my parents offered any indication, the winners went home to drink excessively in private, not always for the best. “Finnegan’s Wake” along with other Irish folk music exposed the idea that emotional expression might not be shameful. It could be a cathartic communal affair.

It also offered the impression of tragedy as a source of comedy. While there is a happy ending, since Tim comes back to life, the song opens with a strange juxtaposition of lyrical content. From the start, the chorus regularly erupts into jolly instruments and a singer merrily declaring, “Lots of fun at Finnegan’s Wake!” It helped spawned a habit of viewing things in a way that sought the less serious side of life.

Liam Clancy, Irish folk singer, on guitar
Liam Clancy performing in a 1977 TV special.

More than anything the song sounded like a slanted slice of realism. “Finnegan’s Wake” is about an event every culture experiences — death — though in this instance it felt distinctly Irish. That mattered to me growing up, especially after finding out I was adopted.

According to my foster parents, my biological folks existed, and they were mostly Irish. Seven-year-old me, now informed of my heritage, then received strict instructions never to speak of this again. Not even at the hospital when doctors sought my medical history to treat a heart problem.

My parents, especially my father, disliked discussing the matter because the topic made them uncomfortable. However, my mother gradually softened on the subject. She recognized I showed zero interest in my biological origin but did have a burgeoning curiosity about what being Irish meant.

Then one of Dad’s drinking buddies mentioned The Clancy Brothers offhand. A ruddy Polish cop on his eighth beer in an hour said, “You wanna know about drunken Irish, ya gotta listen to the Clancy Brothers.” A few days later, stumbling across one of their CDs, Dad magnanimously offered to purchase The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem: Irish Songs of Drinking and Rebellion.

Black and White Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem on Ed Sullivan Show
Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem on Ed Sullivan

Down in the basement I set the disc spinning, a compilation record featuring several songs from throughout the musicians’ career. Tracks like “Whack Fol the Diddle”, “Nell Flaherty’s Drake”, “Whiskey You’re the Devil”, and “Finnegan’s Wake.” Then, for the first time, things began to click.

Music is a universal form of cultural expression. Every society utilizes it in some way. Lyrical content contains elements of social memory. At times, songs act as time capsules. Language lives in the lyrics as well. Style and instrument choice contain rich clues about culture. Even how audiences typically listen, whether in a pub, around a fire, or at a raucous concert, it all says something about a people.

As such, I found myself connecting to what felt like an authentic sense of Irish culture. Snippets of Gaelic, a sense of the humor, and a musical tone that I believed echoed the cultural. Procuring The Clancy Brothers’ live albums like In Person at Carnegie Hall (1963), and Reunion (1984), gave the songs a different feel. Not only did these have audience interaction, laughter and applause making the music more vibrant, but they contained banter wherein The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem spoke about the origins and meaning behind their tunes.

The group became a singing act in 1956. To that end, they started their own record company to put out a collection of Irish rebel songs entitled The Rising of the Moon. Modestly successful, they carried on eventually releasing a second album called Come Fill Your Glass with Us in 1959. This assortment of Irish drinking songs contains their first recorded performance of “Finnegan’s Wake.” From there, the musicians’ career took off, and they are credited with being one of the influences of the American folk revival of the 1960s, inspiring performers such as Bob Dylan.

Black and white image of Irish folk singers The Clancy Bros and Tommy Makem
Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem on TV in the late 50s.

However, instead of writing their own tunes, the Clancy Brothers mainly performed traditional Irish music, a fact attested to on live albums. For instance, the introduction to “Finnegan’s Wake” on Reunion refers to it as a “Dublin street ballad.” To me, that gave the song an even deeper sense of value as far as being indicative of Irish culture. Unfortunately, as I got older, I discovered the song isn’t Irish in origin.

I’ve never been one to wonder idly. Whenever curiosity grabs hold, I follow it down the research rabbit hole. And for years, I wondered about the origin of “Finnegan’s Wake” such as what events inspired it. As the internet matured, providing access to things like the Library of Congress collection of historical sheet music as well as the efforts of historians, amateur and professional, I began to discover an initially unpleasant truth.

“Finnegan’s Wake” appears to have been birthed in the early 1860s in New York. It shares narrative similarities with a popular tune from 1845 called The Fine Ould Irish Gintleman. Written by John Broughman, that song is about an Irish stereotype who gets so wasted his friends think he’s dead. During the wake, however, the smell of whiskey revives the supposed corpse. Later, circa 1863, John Durnal arranged for piano and voice a tune called “Finigans Wake” that tells a very similar story.

Title page of sheet music for Finigan's Wake mentioning performer Dan Bryant and composer C.W. Glover
A Finnegan breadcrumb courtesy of Duke University

In 1864, “Finigan’s Wake” appears on the scene, now with an apostrophe music arranged by C.W. Glover and popularly performed by Dan Bryant. The lyrics, title, and music differ slightly from the Durnal variation, but the core is there. Then in 1867, John F. Poole produced another rendition entitled “Tim Finigan’s Wake.”

It’s clear the song could be called a hit, what with so many variations emerging on top of one another. Eventually, its popularity carried it overseas where it not only settled in Ireland but in essence got adopted by the Irish people as one of their own. To this day, anyone with a successful Irish themed musical act is seemingly required to cover “Finnegan’s Wake.”

There’s an amusing versatility to the tune. Every band performs it slightly different, their interpretation owing not simply to stylization but feel. The Dropkick Murphys bring a decidedly punk flare to the song. The Irish Rovers keep the tune lively from start to finish, while others, such as The Dubliners use different parts to contrast a somber tone against a comical air.  Live performances vary as well. Some singers simply serve up the song, but then there are those who get the audience in on the act. For instance, The Stubby Shillelaghs encourage patrons along the bar to pound the wood vigorously during certain portions.

Vaudeville Pictures' puppets in a music video for Finnegan's Wake
Even puppets love singing Finnegan’s Wake

It’s a pub song. It’s a performance piece. It’s a puppet show, thanks to Vaudeville Pictures. The diverse ways to bring “Finnegan’s Wake” to life can’t be oversold. No list of which can afford to forget James Joyce’s almost impenetrable novel Finnegans Wake. It is, perhaps, in the history of literature, the most extraordinary example of music inspiring a writer. For in one popular bar song, the novelist saw an entire outline for an examination of the human condition, including life, death, and resurrection, as well as family, sin, salvation; the interconnectivity of existence; the structure of dreams and dreams as narrative, their meaning and use… there isn’t space enough to go into the entirety of the book. Suffice it to say, the song stirs the imagination.

Vivid lyrics relate a story the dullest fabricator can fashion into clear imagery. Even if hampered by colloquial slang or uncommon terminology, context provides sufficient means of getting the gist. One doesn’t need to know specifically that a “belt in the gob” means getting punched in the mouth, especially since it leaves the recipient “sprawling on the floor.” There’s always a subsequent line to scatter the fog, and though the portrait may not be a hundred percent clear, it’s still bound to be accurate.

Tommy Makem, Irish singer playing a fife
Tommy Makem playing a fife.

Yet, despite such fine facets, I found it a bit deflating to discover the song’s origins. Irish folks musically mocking themselves is one thing, but some New Yorker in 1863, in a country with a long history of openly despising the Irish, composing stereotypes into a jab at a people for being violent buffoonish drunks — it felt more insulting than playful. Furthermore, it made me feel foolish for thinking “Finnegan’s Wake” offered a taste of Irish culture.

However, I came to realize whatever the song’s origins, even if it began as an unkind joke, it’s changed over the years. The meaning of art can alter over time and owes little to its creator’s intent. The Irish people, in a way, took possession of the tune. It belongs to them now, and in the same vein, people aren’t locked into a single state with one trajectory. Existence is far too malleable for such limitations.

Still, I believed “Finnegan’s Wake” was an Irish folk song originating in Ireland. It wasn’t, yet it’s become an Irish folk song all the same. So, in a way, the sense of cultural identity I gathered from it seems to remain valid. Being both right and wrong about the song in the same moment feels like philosophical quantum mechanics. Yet, life is full of such absurdities; spill a little whiskey, the dead rise, and a sorrowful wake becomes lots of fun.

Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem performing Irish folk music
Clancy Brothers in their trademark Aran jumpers.

The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem introduced me to the tune, and the vast amount of variations available has teased me into listening to musicians I might not have chanced otherwise. The banter on live albums sparked a curiosity about Irish history as well as James Joyce. Wanting to know more started me down a road to writing and a degree in history. The playfulness they infused into every performance, keeping things light as one would in a pub, suggested something my parents never encouraged: life doesn’t need to be serious all the time. The hints of rebellion, hedonism, and appreciation for the absurdity in existence seeded my eventual graduation to more blatant rock stylings. And while other songs assisted, “Finnegan’s Wake” certainly owned the most impact. For in that one song lives so much of life, it can’t help but effect a listener.

There’s too much in it for a child to fully comprehend. Yet, that doesn’t stop a kid from enjoying it. Still, as I get older, I find more in the tune. That means it isn’t something that gets left behind, only occasionally revisited as part of the past. Teenage years are littered with such discarded gems. Instead, “Finnegan’s Wake” remains present, and as James Joyce wrote there’s, “a future in every past that’s present.”

Written by Jay Rohr

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  1. There’s a good chance it was written in NY by a member of the city’s enormous Irish immigrant population, rather than as mockery by someone outside it. Certainly one published version was by an Irish songwriter.

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