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Voices Fall-Winter 2009:
Click on the cover for the Table of Contents. Read the Songs column about “Tim Finigan’s Wake” by Dan Milner.
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Voices FW2009


Volume 35

Tim Finigan's Wake by Dan Milner

songs New York City is special by any measure. Who would think that “Finnegan’s Wake”— immortalized by James Joyce, the ultimate Dubliner—was actually written in Manhattan? It’s true. John F. Poole, a theater manager and writer, composed “Tim Finigan’s Wake” for the singer-entrepreneur Tony Pastor sometime around the beginning of the Civil War. It appears in Pastor’s “444” Combination Songster, first published in 1864:
Tim Finigan lived in Walker street,
    A gentleman Irishman—mighty odd—
He’d a beautiful brogue, so rich and sweet,
    And to rise in the world he carried the hod.
But, you see, he’d a sort of a tippling way—
    With a love for the liquor poor Tim was born,
And to help him through his work each day,
    He’d a drop of the craythur’ every morn.

Whack, hurrah! Blood and ‘ounds, ye sowl ye!
    Welt the flure, yer trotters shake;
Isn’t it the truth I’ve tould ye,
    Lots of fun at Finigan’s wake!

Jane S. Meehan, a Joyce scholar, revealed Finigan’s origins to the world at large in a 1976 journal article. Around the same time, Jane mentioned the fact to me at a Saint Patrick’s night gig in the long-lamented Eagle Tavern on 14th Street. I would be lying if I wrote that I believed her at the time. But here’s something even stranger. Poole, who also wrote “No Irish Need Apply,” was born in Dublin and came out to America in his childhood. He died in 1893 in the Sheepshead Bay section of Brooklyn. The cause of death was dropsy, ultimately brought about by a fall from a ladder.

One morning Tim was rather full,
    His head felt heavy, which made him shake;
He fell from the ladder and broke his skull,
    So they carried him home his corpse to wake.
They rolled him up in a nice clean sheet,
    And laid him out upon the bed,
With fourteen candles round his feet,
    And a couple of dozen around his head!

American popular song evolved mostly from folk music during the second quarter of the nineteenth century. The line between the two has remained fluid. Some songs we know as traditional were actually written for concert saloon, vaudeville, and musical theater performers. “Last Winter was a Hard One” appears in Folk Songs of the Catskills (1982), where Cazden, Haufrecht, and Studer provide excellent background. But, with words by Jim O’Neil and music by Jack Conroy, it was first published in New York City in 1880 as “When McGuinness Gets a Job.” Part of a vaudeville act, it’s a one-sided clothesline conversation sung by a man in women’s attire. Here’s the text I sing.

Last winter was a hard one, Mrs. Reilly, did
    you say?
It’s I, meself, that knows it was for many a day.
Your husband’s not the only one sat behind
    a wall,
My old man McGuinness couldn’t get a job at all.

So rise up, Mrs. Reilly, don’t give away to blues.
You and I will cut a shine, new bonnets and
    new shoes.
Hear the young ones cry, neither sigh nor sob.
Times will get better when McGuinness get
    a job.

The politicians promised him work on the
To handle pick and shovel and throw dirt in
    the cart.
Six weeks ago they promised him that work
    he’d surely get.
Believe me, my good woman, they’re promising
    him yet.

Bad luck to the Eye-talians! Why don’t they
    stay at home?
We’ve plenty of our own class to eat up all
    our own.
They come like bees in the summertime,
    swarming here to stay.
The contractors hire them for 40 cents a day.

They work upon the railroad, shoveling snow
    and slush,
But one thing in their favor, Eye-talians never
They always bring their money home, they
    drink no gin or wine,
Something I would like to say about your old
    man and mine.

Springtime is coming, and work they’ll soon
    all get.
McGuinness’ll go back to his trade again; he
    makes a handsome clerk.
See him climb the ladder as nimble as a fox.
He’s the boy can handle the old three-cornered

The boss he’s always bawling, “Hey, there,
    don’t you stop!
Keep your eyes upward, don’t let no mortar
The old man’s always careful, nothing he lets
And devil the word you’ll hear him say to my
    old man at all.
Italians came to the United States in large numbers in the last quarter of the nineteenth century and resembled working class Irish in many ways, being mainly poor, Catholic, often from the countryside, and prepared mostly for unskilled labor. With the Italians came the same type of cutthroat wage competition that the Irish had brought in earlier times to native-born white and free black Americans. The sympathetic—if not particularly respectful— treatment of Italians is noteworthy. The “three-cornered box,” by the way, is the same hod carried by the tippling Tim Finigan.


Photo of Dan Milner Dan Milner comes from a long line of traditional Irish singers. A cultural geographer, he is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Birmingham in England and a former ranger in the National Park Service. His most recent recording is Irish Pirate Ballads (Smithsonian Folkways, 2009).

Jane S. Meehan, a Joyce scholar, revealed Finigan’s origins to the world at large in a 1976 journal article. Around the same time, Jane mentioned the fact to me at a Saint Patrick’s night gig in the long-lamented Eagle Tavern on 14th Street. I would be lying if I wrote that I believed her at the time.

This column appeared in Voices Vol. 35, Fall-Winter 2009. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society. To become a subscriber, join the New York Folklore Society today.

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