Finnegans Wake: Joyce’s other work of quirky genius

The apparent impenetrability of Finnegans Wake ensures it is ignored by most readers. Alan O’Riordan meets a number of people hoping to address this neglect.

Finnegans Wake: Joyce’s other work of quirky genius

ON St Peter’s Road in Phibsborough, on Dublin’s north side, a plaque marks one of the houses as a former residence of James Joyce. There are several of these in Dublin — the peripatetic Joyce family were forever dodging rents and relocating as they moved in a downward spiral from the genteel surroundings of Bray’s seafront to the inner city.

Unusually, Joyce’s father, John Stanislaus, actually owned the house in Phibsborough, until he remortgaged it and could no longer keep up the payments. But in this house, which descended into misery and chaos after his mother died in 1903, Joyce, in the words of his biographer Richard Ellmann, “prepared to become great”.

He drafted what was to become A Portrait of the Artist while living there, and the area remained central to his imagination after his move into artistic exile — his father continued to live there, and parts of Ulysses take place in the environs. Leopold Bloom’s house is in Eccles Street in Phibsborough.

It’s not a stretch, then, to redub the neighbourhood Joyceborough, which is the name taken by the organisers of FW75, a series of events to mark the 75th anniversary of the publication of Joyce’s least-read work, Finnegans Wake.

The events include an exhibition in the Phoenix Park, a concert of songs from the book, a series of talks, including one with Dermot Bolger and Barry McGovern, and screenings of films inspired by the book. FW75 was planned under the auspices of Phizzfest, the vibrant local arts festival now in its fifth year, but, says organiser Des Gunning, FW75 took on a life of its own with the backing of agencies like Dublin City Libraries, UNESCO and the OPW.

Dublin has not been shy about celebrating Ulysses, of course. But that is a far more approachable affair — its Edwardian realism may only be window dressing for the book, but that works perfectly well for Bloomsday. Who needs to read the book when you can live it, in a straw boater? But, Gunning points out, that was not always the case.

“The sense of Ulysses being something that we celebrate and go out and dress up, that didn’t exist until 1982,” he says. “Up to 1954 it wasn’t marked at all — until John Ryan gathered a group from the literary elite, if you like, and went on a pub crawl. But really, 1982 was a breakthrough year because Horizon Theatre Company had the idea of theatricalising the Wandering Rocks episode on the streets of Dublin. That was where we get this idea of people out in costume celebrating Ulysses.”

Gunning, a librarian, has been running Joyce-related events in Dublin for many years, and was involved in founding the James Joyce Centre on North Great George’s Street. “I’ve been doing Bloomsday for the past 30 years,” he says, “and what I’ve noticed was that when people come to Dublin they don’t really have an opportunity to engage with Finnegans Wake. So, with Finnegans Wake at 75 we hope we are emulating the spirit of 1982 by creating a popular event, an open space, where people can engage with something of the structure of the Wake.”

Once interest is piqued, the next logical step is to read the damn thing. There’s the rub: for reading Finnegans Wake is unlike anything else a bookworm will have encountered. Whereas Ulysses, though seemingly daunting, rewards patience and scrutiny, Finnegans Wake can seem not only to resist, but mock these approaches: it challenges our very notions of reading.

In Finnegans Wake, language is not merely a means of conveying a message. Instead, multiple meanings are encouraged at every turn, as words are hauled from the soup of language, tainted with echoes and associations.

Even the most simple formulations are tweaked. Sometimes they remain familiar — “the sin was shining”, “whirled without end” — but, as such, they serve as a taster of the more outlandish passages and coinages, such as “polyfizzyboisterous seas”, a play on the Homeric poluphloisbos thalassa (‘loud-resounding sea”).

This kind of trivia cluttered Joyce’s mind, but a lot of it is abstruse to the common reader. Sure, it’s possible to navigate meanings with the help of a reader’s guide (of which, of course, there are many), but the key to reading Finnegans Wake is, arguably, learning to change our expectations of what a book should do — to learn to accept befuddlement, interspersed with moments of clarity.

This can be disappointing to the reader, but only until you realise that the things you miss in Finnegans Wake — graceful style, human drama, authorial perception, warmth, sympathy — can be found in Ulysses, and James Joyce didn’t write sequels. He wrote consummatory masterpieces. Dubliners — the greatest collection of short stories ever written; Ulysses — the greatest novel.

Finnegans Wake is different in that it is a culmination, a logical conclusion, of one man’s playful, maniacal, helpless, gleeful, polyglot way with language. It is Joyce’s completion of himself. As such, it can seem a selfish work, hostile to the reader.

So what’s to be done? For Gunning, the best approach may well be group reading. He’s been leading one for a couple of years, in the fittingly Joycean location of Sweny’s chemist on Lincoln Place.

“It’s a difficult work,” he admits, “but it’s a scurrilous work too, a comic masterpiece. The reading group works best because it’s good fun. We have an eclectic group who meet every Monday at lunchtime and it’s a highly social exercise. Hopefully we’ll see more of them. Reading aloud helps.”

Gunning hopes such reading groups, and readership in general, can be directed back to Finnegans Wake, which seemed in danger of becoming rather ignored in the shadow of the Bloomsday centenary of 2004.

“We hope that an appetite will come from this,” he says, “to say we should do something every year around Finnegans Wake, because there is something remiss about a city of one million people that has this great cathedral within it, which is Finnegans Wake, where people can’t engage with it.”

* FW75 events run from May 4. See Phizzfest runs from May 1-9. See

A journey around Joyce

By Don O’Mahony

Frank Prendergast as James Joyce. Pic: Karol Kachmarsky

Frank Prendergast as James Joyce in Padraig Trehy and Rossa Mullin’s film ‘Shem the Penman Sings Again’.

It is perhaps the most challenging text in modern literature but the makers of a film examining the story behind James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake have risen to the challenge with no small amount of ingenuity and imagination. Shem The Penman Sings Again is an experimental feature film, designed to provide a way into James Joyce’s creative imagination and the conception of his final novel. As a way of unlocking the book and Joyce’s motivations, director Pádraig Trehy examines Joyce’s interest in singing.

This sprang from the novelist’s connection with the great Irish tenor count John McCormack. Famously, both Joyce and McCormack competed in the Feis Maitiú competition at the turn of the last century, although not in the same year. Indeed, McCormack encouraged Joyce to enter and a friendship developed between the pair. Two of the characters in Finnegans Wake, the twins Shem the Penman and Sean the Post, are said to represent the writer and the singer. The idea occurred to Trehy that perhaps music and song offer the best prism through which to experience the book.

Says Trehy: “This for me isn’t about historical detail or accuracy or hagiography or biography or anything. And it’s not a portrait of the artist at any particular time. It’s actually an attempt to get inside a book and get inside someone’s head and I think the music that Joyce was interested in listening to and singing is a way of getting into him and a way of bringing people into that book that academia can’t necessarily do.”

Finnegans Wake was first published on May 4, 1939, and coinciding with its 75th anniversary, Trehy and producer Rossa Mullin have launched a crowd-funding campaign on the popular online platform Indiegogo to reach the €38,000 required to complete the film, which features among its cast Hugh O’Conor and Louis Lovett.

The project has been endorsed by noted Joyceans Senator David Norris and Professor Roy Foster, and is described by Mullin as a labour of love. “I suppose one of the things we’ve discovered is it’s a very niche project, obviously, but the people who like it love it.

Says Mullin: “Last Saturday week, I was up beyond Ballincollig with a man called Jeremy Meehan, who is one of the biggest collectors, probably in the world, of John McCormack records. He has just finished a project with Ward Marston, who is maybe the world’s most renowned remasterer of old cylinder recordings, the very early mechanical and electrical recordings. He has just remastered the Odeon recordings, these shellac cylinder recordings that MacCormack did in London in 1906. They’re really rare and obscure, but it’s an incredible passion project for him. When we meet people like Jeremy Meehan, it gives us energy.”

Throughout the making of the film, Trehy and Mullin have managed to tap into a network of Joyce and McCormack enthusiasts who have offered all sorts of assistance.

“All of these things come out of the woodwork,” says Mullin. “I think once you start on the road and say ‘yes, I’m going to do this’, there’s a momentum that builds and it becomes easier. I won’t say it’s easy. It probably never is really easy, but it gets significantly easier when people see you’re really serious about this, you’re really passionate about doing it, and therefore they will help you out in whatever way they can.”

Such reserves of enthusiasm are essential in seeing what should be a very unconventional and remarkable film through to completion.



Search ‘Shem The Penman’ on

There will be a raffle and a ‘wake’ in Mr Bradley’s bar on Barrack Street, Cork on May 4, in support of the project.

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