Finnegan’s Wake – whiskey inspired resurrection
Finnegan’s Wake is a raucous, irreverent song that tells the story of hod carrier Tim Finnegan who has a “love of the liquor”.
So much so that to send him on his way each day he has a “drop of the craythur every morn”.
This refers to whiskey, the drink that leads both to Finnegan’s downfall and his revival as we shall see.
While working he falls from his ladder, breaks his skull and dies. True to Irish tradition there is a wake and, again true to Irish tradition, there is plenty of crying, drinking and eventually, fighting.
Finnegan’s brunch leads to riot
The wake may begin with “tea and cake” but soon the mourners are on the whiskey punch and that’s when the trouble starts.
First it brings out the emotion as Biddy Malone begins to cry at the sight of poor Tim Finnegan motionless on the bed. “Why did you die” she wails.
The crying and whimpering is too much for Molly McGhee who tells Biddy to shut her gob.
Sprawling and punching – and that’s just the women
Mary Murphy enters the conversation and, perhaps trying to calm things, suggests that Biddy may have been wrong about some point or other – it’s not clear what.
Not that it matters because Biddy, overcome with emotion, was in no mood for talking. Instead, she turned to Mary and “fetched her a belt in the gob”.
Civil war at Finnegan’s Wake
Then the fighting really starts. “Twas woman to woman and man to man” as a form of civil war breaks out. “Shillelagh law was all the rage” and the strange thing is that everyone seems to be enjoying themselves.
It would take something special to stop them but, of course, something very special is about to happen.
Tim Finnegan back from the dead
At the height of battle, Mickey Maloney ducks his head to dodge a bottle of whiskey that’s been thrown at him. It lands on the bed and splashed over the bed where Tim Finnegan’s body is still stretched out.
To everyone’s amazement, the smell of the whisky is enough to raise him from the dead and bring him back to life.
Finnegan is not a man to waste whiskey
Finnegan shows no sign of surprise, relief or gratitude to find himself suddenly alive again.
Instead, he’s appalled at the behaviour of the mourners. Not because they are fighting and shouting, but because they’ve splashed the whiskey and wasted it. This gives the song its punchline as Finnegan rises from the bed to admonish the mourners, saying:
“Throwin’ the whiskey round like blazes
Thundering Jayzes do you think I’m dead”
Lots of fun at Finnegan’s Wake
The song has a riotous sense of fun about it that can’t help but amuse despite the irreverence. The chorus emphasises the light-heartedness with its talk of dancing and shaking “your trotters” round the floor.
The line “Isn’t it the truth I told ya?” keeps repeating and is, of course, tongue in cheek as the events at the wake become ever more startling.
And this is stereotypical Ireland, of course, so having “lots of fun at Finnegan’s Wake” is almost obligatory.
Whiskey – the water of life in Gaelic
Finnegan’s Wake contains an underlying joke that is not automatically apparent to non-Irish speakers. The Gaelic for whiskey is uisge beatha, which translated literally means, the water of life.
So when the whiskey splashes over Tim, he is effectively revived by the water of life, which is particularly ironic as it was the whiskey, “the drop of the craythur,” that led to his death in the first place.
Where did Finnegan’s Wake come from?
The origins of the song are uncertain but it’s quite possible that it started in the Dublin music halls in the 19th century.
There are variations to be found in the lyrics but they are mainly quite minor, usually just slightly different names for the characters.
It takes a long time for regional differences and different versions of a song to emerge so the lack of variety suggest that Finnegan’s Wake was still quite new at the start of the 20th century when it was becoming quite popular.
Performance of Finnegan’s Wake
Finnegan’s Wake has been performed by numerous leading bands and performers.
The Dubliners and the Clancy Brothers recorded excellent versions and helped to make the song popular all over again in the folk revival of the 1950s and 60s.
Later, bands like the Dropkick Murphys brought the song to a new generation of Irish music fans.