While the world at large plans to turn itself green on the 17th in honor of Saint Patrick, Nina focused on a different perspective of Ireland’s patron saint. I caught her perusing Wakes Rites, The Ancient Irish Rituals of Finnegans Wake, by George Cinclair Gibson. (Don’t go adding an apostrophe to Finnegans—more on that in a minute.)
For the record, George is a friend of mine. He thanked me in the preface of his book for having patiently acted as his foil—listening to, questioning, and evaluating each section of his work before it was written. I’d like to say that having abided George’s multi-year ramblings on language and lore, I now understand Joyce’s enigmatic tome. I don’t. I tried, but I just couldn’t plow through it. But I do understand George’s take on James Joyce and his final work.
Born into a country renowned for its literary genius, Joyce (1882–1941) is arguably Ireland’s greatest writer, perhaps even the most influential and important English-language writer of the 20th century. His other milestone works are the short-story collection The Dubliners, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and Ulysses. I have read them; although difficult, they are reasonably accessible.
Finnegans Wake, however, stymies most readers and confounds the critics because of a style that incorporates modern English, ancient languages, multilingual puns, double (and triple) entendres, portmanteaus, run-on sentences, onomatopoeias, and frankly—for lack of a fancy linguistic term—made-up words. It has been called a dreamlike stream-of-consciousness narrative, the postmodern poster child of deconstructivism, even a hoax.
George will have none of that. In Wake Rites, he fervently and painstakingly delineates that the structure of Finnegans Wake is the Teamhur Feis (the Rites of Tara), Irish paganism’s most important and sacred event. He believes that the most significant performance of this historic spectacle occurred on March 25, 433 A.D., when Saint Patrick arrived at Tara just as the Rites were reaching their climax.
The event was widely attended and featured druidic and mystical rites, as well as historical reenactments. This pivotal celebration, George argues, provides the structure that clarifies much of the Weakean chaos and darkness. “For Joyce,” he writes, “the most crucial moment in all of Irish history and the climactic and talismanic point in his own magnum opus are one and the same: the momentous confrontation at Tara between Saint Patrick and the Archdruid of Ireland.”
Gibson refers to Patrick as a colonizer, invader, and usurper of pagan rites. “In the Wakean version of Irish history,” he writes, “the victory of Saint Patrick at the Teamhur Feis is hardly a cause for Irish celebration. At Tara, Patrick and his modus operandi suggest more the machinations of a manipulator and usurper than they do the work of a spiritual missionary for the dissemination of an enlightened religion.”
Joyce himself had likened Patrick to a con artist working the old shell game, calling him “pea trick” and his iconic shamrock a “shamwork.” In the current cancel-cultural vocabulary, Patrick appropriated words, ritual, and icons from a pre-Christian culture. To the ancient Irish, then, perhaps he was no saint.
Now the missing apostrophe makes sense. Given the book’s rich linguistics, historical context, and Joyce’s jaded view of Patrick, “Finnegans” can be understood not as one man, but as the collective Irish people. “Wake” can be an awakening, rather than a funeral. If so, then the book does not pertain to one man’s death, but to a cultural awakening from Patrick’s con game, in which he buried an entire people’s history in the guise of Catholicism.
“In this current World of Woke,” Nina asked me, “why is Patrick considered a saint? Perhaps he should be cancelled as just another old white guy who usurped an indigenous culture.”