Tag Archives: Ireland

Finnegan’s Wake, a Glance at Irish Mysticism through Lyrical Satire

 

Finnegan’s Wake is amongst my favorite traditional Irish songs and it has been a staple of the Irish balladeer’s repertoire since the middle of the 19th century. Over the past several decades it has been covered by great and legendary Irish bands like The Clancy Brothers & Tommy Makem, The Dubliners, the Pogues, and most recently the Massachusetts-based Dropkick Murphys.  However, like much of Irish lyrical tradition stretching back to the ancient bards “Finnegan’s Wake” is in reality a work of deep esoteric value cleverly disguised as a silly drinking song that only the initiated were likely to fully comprehend.

At Face Value

The story tells of Tim Finnegan, a poor construction worker with a love for the liquor who drank a bit too much before work one morning, fell from a ladder, broke his skull and died. Upon the eve of his wake his friends and relatives arrive at his home to mourn him.  Biddy O’Brien begins crying loudly and is essentially told to shut up by one Paddy McGee.

Once Maggie O’Connor gets involved in the exchange telling Biddy she’s wrong, Biddy punches her in the mouth, leaving her ‘sprawling on the floor.”  Then all Hell breaks loose as the entire house becomes engaged in a brawl “woman to woman and man to man,” brandishing their shillelaghs, the classical Irish club.

A bottle of whiskey is thrown across the room, just barely missing Mickey Maloney, and instead landing on Tim Finnegan’s bed with the whiskey scattering all over his body. At that point Tim revives and “rises from the bed,” and delivers the punch line of the ballad; “Whittle your whiskey around like blazes, Thanum an Dhul![1] Do you think I’m dead?”

 

The Mystery Unveiled

While this ballad is typically considered a comical drinking song, it actually gives us a glimpse into an old Irish and western mystical tradition.

Tim Finnegan is a construction-worker. Although this was a common vocation amongst Irishmen throughout the 19th century, there is much more being said here than meets the eye, or ear.  As the lyrics clearly tell us “to rise in the world he carried a hod.” A hod is a tool used for carrying bricks and mortar, telling us that Mr. Finnegan was, in fact a mason. Since no later than 1717 AD the repository for esoteric wisdom in Western countries has been the order of Free and Accepted Masons who trace their historic origins to the medieval stone masons guilds, and from there symbolically to the ancient builders of Greek, Egyptian and Israelite temples.

Let us also take note that Tim Finnegan carries his hod “to rise in the world.” In Freemasonry, it is said that a candidate is “raised” to the degree of a Master Mason. Freemasonry also makes use of the symbolism of death and resurrection through the allegory of the architect Hiram Abiff.

Architecture, construction work and craftsmanship have been metaphors for mystical knowledge going back thousands of years. In ancient Irish mythology the three brothers Luchta, Goibniu, and Credne are known as the Trí Dée Dána (the three gods of art).  Each represented the respective trades of carpentry, blacksmithing, and silver-smithing, and they crafted the weapons which the Tuatha Dé Danann (Irish ancestor gods) used to conquer the Fomorians (Irish beings of chaos and darkness).

In ancient Egypt, the god Ptah was the patron of craftsmen and architects, and he was closely associated as an aspect of the dying and resurrecting god Osiris.  Both of these deities were incorporated by the Greeks into the god Dionysus, well known as a patron of wine and spirits.  It is more than coincidence that Jesus of Nazareth, perhaps the most well-known dying and resurrecting god is often cited as having been a carpenter before he began his spiritual mission and he, much like his forebears also had an affinity toward life-giving and preserving drink.

A further look at the lyrics of this ballad reveals that at the wake of Finnegan they placed a gallon of whiskey at his feet and a barrel of porter at his head. This sentiment is echoed in the Irish ballad “Jug of Punch” in which the balladeer requests upon his death “just lay me down in my native peat with a jug of punch at my head and feet.”  This is a particularly Irish rendition of the tradition found amongst the world’s cultures of making sacramental offerings to the dead.  The making and pouring of libations is well documented in European traditions.

As mentioned previously, Jesus, Osiris and Dionysus are not only associated with death and resurrection, they are all three also closely associated with drinking rituals. Amongst other things, Dionysus is a god of wine. Osiris is said to have taught the world the art of brewing.  Jesus turned water into wine. Similarly, the Irish craftsman-god Goibniu also brewed the beer of immortality.

The English word whiskey is derived from the Irish Gaelic uisce beatha which translates as “the waters of life.” So when the whiskey scatters across the corpse of Tim Finnegan, it literally, magically and sacramentally imbues him with life; a spiritual conception which stretches back through centuries of esoteric tradition.

Conclusion

The dying and resurrecting god is not just a rhetorical device for dramatic affect. To ancient civilizations death and rebirth are symbolic of the annual cycle, the dying and rebirth of the summertime, the growing season and of the sun, so often symbolic of divinity. This symbolism has been revised, reincorporated and redistributed as a multitude of myths, legends and doctrines throughout the world in order to teach each civilization or cult’s particular perspective on the meaning of creation.

A creator god’s primary attribute is creativity, and this trait has been imitated through the creative works of humans whom are believed to be made in the divine image. Art, music, agriculture and most especially architecture has long been associated metaphorically if not literally with godliness, and enlightenment.
Finnegan’s Wake is far more than just another drinking song. It is a humorous retelling of an ancient initiation myth.  Tim Finnegan is not just a drunk construction worker who died and came back to life.  He is the personification of the mystery of the dying and resurrecting god represented in the form of Irish lyrical satire.

[1]d’anam ‘on Diabhal. a common curse: your soul to the Devil, from the Irish D’anam don Diabhal

Easter Rising, Easter Lily

As Easter week draws to a close I thought I’d write a little bit about my most recent painting “Easter Rising.”

www.Lojah.com

The Easter Lily is a calla lily, adopted by Irish republicans symbolically to commemorate the revolutionary combatants who died as a part of the 1916 Easter Rising.  It is traditionally worn at Easter time.  It is also used by various factions of Irish republicanism to commemorate the deaths of their soldiers and activists.

 

Easter Rising

On Easter Monday, April1 24, 1916 Irish revolutionaries took up arms against British rule in Ireland, seeking to establish an independent Irish republic.  The majority of the conflict took place in Dublin, planned and led by seven members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood Military Council.

Patrick Pearse, a schoolmaster and Irish language activist led the Irish Volunteers.  He was supported by the Irish Citizen Army led by James Connolly, and 200 women from Cumann na mBan – the Irish Women’s Council.  They seized key points in Dublin, making the General Post Office the headquarters of the uprising where they delivered the Proclamation of the Irish Republic claiming independence from Britain and the establishment of an Irish Republic.

The following day the British authorities declared martial law, and deployed thousands of reinforcements to suppress the uprising.  The streets of Dublin were in open warfare that lasted for six days.  The Irish revolutionaries put up a tough resistance and the fighting was fierce.  Frustrated British troops began engaging in war crimes against Irish civilians.


The Portobello Killings

On Tuesday, April 25 British soldiers took the pacifist activist Francis Sheehy-Skeffington hostage and used him as a human shield.  They blew up a tobacco store and captured Labour Party councilor Richard O’Carroll, two journalists Thomas Dickison and Patrick MacIntyre , and the young boy James Coade.  They executed all the captives and secretly buried them in Portobello Barracks.

The North King Street Massacre

North King Street was the scene of some of the heaviest combat between Irish and British soldiers.  On Saturday, April 29th after British soldiers succeeded in overrunning a well barricaded rebel post, they broke into the homes of noncombatant civilians and shot and bayoneted them, killing 15 men.  The soldiers then pilfered the bodies and secretly buried them in backyards and cellars.

There were numerous other civilian casualties suffered as a result of the British assault amounting to more than half the loss of life during the uprising.  British forces eventually surrounded the Irish factions and bombarded them into submission, laying waste to vast areas of the city.  Between the superior military strength of the British Army and the fear that more innocent civilians would be killed, Patrick Pearse ordered an unconditional surrender on Saturday, April 29.

In the aftermath the British arrested 3,500 Irish, sending almost 2,000 of them to prison camps.  The leadership of the rebellion was executed by firing squad at Kilmainham Gaol between May 3 and 12.

Even though it was technically a failure the Easter Rising succeeded in inspiring hope in an independent Ireland.  The British response to it caused a strong negative reaction in the Irish population and a wave of support for Irish independence swept across the island.  By 1919 the Irish War of Independence broke out and lead to the Anglo-Irish Treaty and the establishment of the Irish Free State.  The technical defeat resulted in the Independent Ireland it had sought to achieve.



In 1926 during the tenth year anniversary of the Easter Rising the Irish Women’s Council introduced the calla lily as a badge sold outside of Catholic churches to be worn on Easter Sunday in commemoration of the uprising and to raise relief money for the families of Irish political prisoners.  To this day it is still a symbol of Irish identity and remembrance.

Many songs have been written in commemoration of the 1916 Easter Rising.  One of the most well known and perhaps the unarguable official song of remembrance of the rising is “Foggy Dew,” written by Father Canon O’Neill.