Katherine O’Callaghan on the Irish Contexts for Mythical Figure Finn MacCool
This Week on Finnegan and Friends, a Podcast About the Most Mystifying Book Ever Written
Welcome to Finnegan and Friends, a new five-part series about the most mystifying book ever written: James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. With a range of guests—including a novelist, an actor, a sleep specialist, a philosopher, and several Joyce scholars—Finnegan and Friends follows tangents inspired by Joyce’s novel of dreamy strangeness. We discover, along the way, that the Wake’s infinite complexity comes from attention to our most simple, elemental experiences (of dreams, of water, of local and familiar language). This show celebrates the wonders of the basic stuff of life.
Think of your most obscure, private, family chatter—some combination of baby-talk and nicknames and reiterations of the same concerns or jokes. It wouldn’t make sense to outsiders, but it makes a special kind of sense to you. It’s language that communicates in a highly local way, and not at all in other ways. In Finnegans Wake, that private language somehow converges with mythical language. We’re reading about a family, of sorts—the patriarch HCE, the mother ALP, the sons Shem and Shaun, and daughter Issy—but they’re all associated with mythic figures: Aesop’s characters (the ant and grasshopper turn into the Shaun-like responsible Ondt and the Shem-like irresponsible Gracehoper), the HCE-like Humpty Dumpty, and, most Irishly, Finn MacCool. The Wake shows us how the super-local is also mythical.
Wittgenstein framed the idea of private language as follows: “The words of this language are to refer to what only the speaker can know—to his immediate private sensations. So another person cannot understand the language.” But in the Wake, the most inscrutably private language resonates beyond privacy. The cryptic HCE’s name at one point stands for Here Comes Everybody; characters flow into one another, mix together in their most private dreams. Washerwomen gossiping about the private lives of ALP’s family are overcome by the river that is itself tied to ALP, swept up into the mystery rather than ejected from it.
The document that supposedly might reveal ALP’s family truth is the “mamafesta,” a manifesto of the mama. Joyce mocks usual methods of interpretation, Freudian and Marxist, of this document. Efforts to interpret that private language create epic resonances, of Greek language and majestic grandiosity, useful in a story all about the epic dimensions of everyday characters. You can see some of that here:
that (probably local or personal) variant maggers for the more generally accepted majesty which is but a trifle and yet may quietly amuse: those superciliouslooking crisscrossed Greek ees awkwardlike perched there and here out of date like sick owls hawked back to Athens
The most majestic connection to HCE would be the mythic Finn MacCool, the Irish hero linked to the fallen Finnegan/HCE in lines like, “Macool, Macool, orra whyi deed ye diie?” In this episode, the scholar Katherine O’Callaghan explains the Irish contexts for this mythic figure. She describes how HCE’s fall and rise recalls the fall of an ancient Irish hero, the fall of “a sort of Finn” and “the old myths of the Fionna, a warrior tribe in Ireland in the first and second centuries, with Finn the leader.” O’Callaghan tells us that in the Wake, we find “the fallen Finn, but the idea of course in Finnegans Wake is that Finn himself might be woken in some way and come back out of his burial site and rise again.”
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Katherine O’Callaghan is a professor and Joyce scholar at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
Host Adam Colman is a writer and radio producer in Massachusetts. He’s the author of New Uses for Failure and Drugs and the Addiction Aesthetic in Nineteenth-Century Literature, and he’s written for the Believer, Pittsburgh City Paper, and more. In podcasting and radio: he’s made episodes for KCRW and McSweeney’s Organist, and he’s a producer for Open Source, on WBUR in Boston.