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"Wake" Rites: The Ancient Irish Rituals of "Finnegans Wake" (review)

From: James Joyce Quarterly
Volume 44, Number 3, Spring 2007
pp. 587-591 | 10.1353/jjq.2008.0021

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Wake" Ritesis a closely argued examination of Finnegans WakeWin the context of Irish myth, somewhat on the order of Maria Tymoczko's Irish "Ulysses," a book George Cinclair Gibson often cites. I am a reader who has always approached the teaching of Joyce with an eye more toward his Irish mythic roots than toward his modernist connections and found this a highly instructive book. As with most critical studies, the most important requirement I make is to ask whether or not the study changes or augments my reading of the original text. While reading "Wake" Rites, I found myself going back to passages in the Wake that I thought I understood only to find that Gibson's readings altered much of my perspective.

The first chapter establishes the book's thesis. Gibson tells us that the Wake's structure and characters are based on the rites and rituals of the ancient pagan gathering of the Teamhur Feis, the great festival at Tara. The rest of the book examines the correspondences between the events and characters of the Wake and those of the Teamhur Feis, demonstrating impressive connections. In the process, Gibson makes a claim for Joyce's being a prophetic, even magical writer, relying on the Dark Tongue, the language used by Druids during the celebrations at Tara. As Gibson puts it, "all of the episodes in Finnegans Wake, along with Joyce's entire Sigla Group, have their corresponding equivalents at the Teamhur Feis. Herein is the central thesis of this present work: the Teamhur Feis is the secret structure of Finnegans Wake, and Finnegans Wake is James Joyce's deliberate re-creation of the most important and sacred event of Irish paganism" (8).

The introduction presents evidence of Joyce's knowledge of the traditions at Tara, reviewing the major available sources as well as the controversial work of Robert Alexander Stewart Macalister, whose Tara: A Pagan Sanctuary of Ancient Ireland may seem to have come a bit late to help establish the basic pattern of Finnegans Wake. Much of Macalister's important work, however, was published in Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy and elsewhere before 1920. His 1931 book includes some of his earlier studies, while some of his other writing, along with his Ireland in Pre-Celtic Times, was available early enough to be of use to Joyce. Among Gibson's other important sources are Eugene O'Curry and P. W. Joyce, and he shows us that all the ones he most depends on were available to Joyce and that many are referred to directly in the Wake and in Joyce's other writing.

Each subsequent chapter tackles a specific problem in Finnegans Wake and demonstrates that a reference to the Teamhur Feis offers a clear solution. For example, chapter 2, "The Day of the Wake," attacks the question of the date on which the Wake is set. Referring to Macalister, Gibson shows that the day St. Patrick lighted his Paschal bonfire, an outrage against Druidic custom during the Teamhur Feis, fell on March 25, A. D. 433 (see endnote 2). Gibson says, "The Teamhur Feis, by far the most important religious, political, and social event conducted in pre-Christian Ireland, on this one day alone, occurred in sacred coincidence with the first Easter celebrated in Ireland and with the vernal equinox. . . . [Joyce] shows that he is so precise in his designation for the day of the Wake that only one day in all of Irish history manifests the talismanic potency necessary for the themes and events of the Wakean ricorso" (32-33).

Gibson's chapter on the Sigla establishes parallels for each member of the group with the appropriate analogues in the Teamhur Feis. In his Table 3.1 (41), HCE in the Wake is identified as the "Father god of the Irish," ECH (a name that I take to be a variant of Eochu). Anna, Issy, and Kate are all aspects of the Triple Goddess: mother, temptress, crone. The twenty-eight girls from St. Brigit's school are "[t]he Twenty-Eight Priestesses from the Sanctuary of the Goddess Brigit . . . Vestal Virgins of Tara" (41). And the mysterious Magrath is identified as Mog...



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