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Percy at the Wake

Flicka Small

Sounds of Manymirth on The Night’s Ear Ringing: Percy French (1854-1920) His Jarvey Years and Joyce’s Haunted Inkbottle, by Bernadette Lowry, Carmen Eblana AE Productions, 223 pp, €45, ISBN:978-1914488412

On August 6th 1937, James Joyce wrote from Paris to his good friend Constantine Curran thanking him for a package which had arrived safely from Ireland, but was missing a copy of Percy French’s Andy McElroe (mentioned in FW 292 fn3, the subsequent reference being to Lord Wolsley). He asks Curran to bring the Percy French book of songs when he visits next, so that he can take a look at it. “I want the music more than the words (those I have already made large use of) as I want to bind the lot into a volume for Giorgio as a keepsake.” Curran recalls that on another occasion Paul Léon, on behalf of Joyce, asked him to send French’s Mulligan Masquerade. Curran states that many people were enlisted in the task of hunting down the texts of popular songs that would have been part of John Joyce’s background and character – voices from a Dublin that was slipping away and which James Joyce would blend with the waters of Anna Livia (James Joyce Remembered). To uncover the rhythms of these songs in Finnegans Wake, says Curran, is the task of thesis hounds.

Bernadette Lowry is one such Thesis Hound, joining the ranks of the many other Joyce scholars who have been teased and tested by the clues and puzzles in Joyce’s Wake. References to music is just one area of examination and Ruth Bauerle (James Joyce Songbook) estimates that there are more than a thousand songs incorporated in Finnegans Wake. Persse O’Reilly is one that comes under close scrutiny, and an astute letter writer to The Irish Times (August 8th, 2022) has recently pointed out the shared identity of Paddy Reilly, of Ballyjamesduff, and his alter ego Perce-Oreille, the earwig, translated as Percy-French-Ear. From this we can conclude that Joyce definitely knew about the “skerriless ballets in Parsee Franch” (FW 495.03).

We’ve all heard of Percy French haven’t we? An accomplished songwriter, painter, author, and entertainer, we have all come across him somewhere – for many it is his songs, from the nostalgic Mountains of Mourne to the humorous Are ye right there, Michael? about the West Clare Railway. For me it was his understated presence in Eugene McCabe’s Death and Nightingales, and my mother owned a watercolour painted by him.

But it is possible that not many people know about, let alone have read, the short-lived comic journal called The Jarvey, edited by Percy French from January 1889 to January 1891, running to 104 editions and 1,700 pages. The original editions are now held by the National Library of Ireland, where access has been restricted in order to protect the documents. The “Jarvey Project” has ensured that restored copies in a ten-volume box set are now available in many museums, libraries and appreciation societies.

Percy French was born on May 1st 1854 at Cloonyquin House, Co Roscommon. In 1872 he entered Trinity College, Dublin, where he gained a degree in civil engineering. By his own account he became “an inspector of drains”. By the time he a came to edit The Jarvey he was already writing articles, and because he had no budget to pay other contributors he used many pseudonyms and took on many identities. When the journal failed he began his long and successful career as a songwriter and entertainer. He died aged sixty-five in January 1920, while on tour, at the house of his cousin in Formby, Merseyside and was buried in that town.

That final resting place brings us to one of the many correspondences between French and Finnegans Wake. Lowry’s assertion is that Book 1.3 (74) ends with a reference to his death in Liverpoor (sic), preceded by the words that form the title of her book, Sounds of Manymirth on The Night’s Ear Ringing, a corruption of the title of one of Moore’s melodies. Emer Nolan has written, that “in spite of his occasional scorn for Moore, Joyce refers to the Melodies throughout his works, alluding to every one of them in Finnegans Wake, he takes their appeal seriously and clearly was not immune to them himself”.

In 2000 Bernadette Lowry was working on a biography of French for the Oriel Gallery, Dublin. She uncovered some Joycean overlaps, as you do when you have a specific interest in a subject, and this led her to a more thorough reading of Finnegans Wake and the realisation that much of the material within could be ascribed to essays in The Jarvey and the songs of Percy French.

It is true to say that many subjects of interest have been uncovered in James Joyce’s writings – and many genetic studies have found the intertextuality of his art. Joyce was a cannibaliser of other texts and as Helmut Bonheim says, “Joyce’s originality is partly borrowed plumage”, the writer having exploited writings from Homer to the latest magazine fiction.

Sometimes these uncoverings can cause a bit of a ruckus, as when Martha Fodaski Black wrote about Shaw’s influence on Joyce in The Last Word in Stolentelling, which RF Dietrich said sent some Joyceans into catatonic denial, and yet how could Joyceans choose to ignore it? Lowry worries about receiving a similar reception, and states in her introduction that “issues of trust and unpleasantness” have made her feel ostracised and lonely in her research.

However, she makes a very compelling argument. The close reading and cross-referencing that she has made of both French’s and Joyce’s work is a gargantuan task. I am lucky enough to have a copy of James N Healy’s collection and commentary, Percy French and His Songs, and it’s difficult to see how anyone could deny examples such as Joyce’s Phishlin Phil being French’s Phistlin’ Phil, which Healy says was the original spelling of Whistlin’ used in more modern publications. Equally, “the mix Hotel by the salt say water” is surely the same hostelry as French’s “Mick’s Hotel by the salt say water”. It is hard to dispute the many links that Lowry makes – she had me scurrying backwards and forwards from French’s lyrics and essays to Finnegans Wake and back again. It is true that some are a bit tenuous, but surely Slatterys Mowlted Futt must be Shlathery’s Mounted Fut, and the story of Barton McGuckin in the Wake mimics the same story in The Jarvey. On the other hand, as we know, Joyce used a multitude of extant sources and references, so when Lowry says The Mime of Mick, Nick and the Maggies (in chapter 1 of Book ll, not chapter 9 as cited) is “no doubt modelled on” one of French’s typical shows for children, we have to be careful before jumping to such conclusions. But wait – we have a “foot note” in the text referencing Parsee ffrench, followed almost immediately in the main text by the lines from French’s song about the West Clare Railway.

The literary critic Vivien Mercier first drew attention to the fact that French’s song Phil the Fluther’s Ball is mentioned more than any other in the Wake. Chapter Seven of Lowry’s book, “Puhl The Punkah’s Bell” is packed with examples of how Percy French is embedded in the Wake, with fused identities, and multiple identities, playing on characters from French’s songs and his articles in The Jarvey.

Lowry asks why is Joyce so antagonistic towards French, a “troubourdour who mangled Moore’s melodies”? Percy French was a contemporary of Joyce’s father, John Stanislaus Joyce. They probably would have crossed paths – dates – music – and belonged to the same middle class background although coming from different religious and political persuasions. Lowry points the finger at The Jarvey’s unionist affiliiations and Joyce Senior’s support of Parnell as being a possible reason. Or perhaps it was a grudge, because William Collisson (French’s musical collaborator) overlooked or rejected John Joyce’s singing. In the “Sirens” episode of Ulysses, Simon Dedalus has “a faraway mourning mountain eye”, surely an oblique reference to The Mountains of Mourne.

As Emer Nolan has pointed out, although Thomas Moore’s work is apparently despised by Stephen in Portrait of an Artist, this can be read as an indication of his intense involvement. Perhaps by the time Joyce wrote the Wake his scorn extended to French’s parodies of Moore, and yet it served his purpose well. A contempt for Stage Irish stereotypes, and yet a nostalgia for home, was something that Joyce deeply recognised. By the time French died in 1920, Joyce was still writing Ulysses and yet to embark on his Work in Progress.

Bernadette Lowry’s book is lavish, in the generous sense of the word. It has eight chapters, with numerous sub-headings, a chronology, bibliographical references, and index. The appendices show many examples of the diversity of French’s subjects. There is a foreword by Dr Robert Mohr, and an afterword by Dr Martin Mansergh. All accompanied by illustrations in colour and black and white. It is nothing if not informative in all the areas it covers. Bernadette Lowry has brought a valuable and intriguing new area of engagement to Finnegans Wake and the Edwardian milieu of music hall, parody, gossip and politics.


Dr Flicka Small teaches at University College Cork and is currently working on her forthcoming book on the semiotics of food in James Joyce’s Ulysses. She is also the producer of a short documentary, Framed in Cork, about the Joyce family connection with Cork City and environs.

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