French Connection – Frank McNally on why Percy French may be the real hero of Finnegans Wake

An Irishman’s Diary

The centenary of Percy French’s death in 2020 was a subdued affair, quickly forgotten in the ensuing pandemic. But with the approach of his 102nd anniversary, next Monday, the possibility has emerged that he was the central figure in the most extravagant wake ever recorded.

If the author of a new book is right, French is the “Finnegan” around which James Joyce’s last and famously unreadable novel revolves. At the very least, he is a key part of the character.

The subversive timing of Bernadette Lowry’s thesis, coming on the eve of another centenary involving Joyce, is not without logic.

Although best known as the year Ulysses was published, 1922 also marked the start of the 17-year project that would result in Finnegans Wake.

And it is Lowry’s argument that the then recent death of French haunts the later book, most tellingly in an elegiac passage at the end of chapter three, concerning the demise of an unnamed but admired figure in “Liverpoor”.

That last word is a typically multilayered Joycean pun. French had died in Liverpool, or near it.

As for the other implications, he was long rumoured (falsely) to be a drinker, hence the suggested impoverishment of his liver. And despite the fortunes he made in life, he was also said (truthfully) to have died broke.

Also tellingly, Joyce eulogises him by reference to two of Moore’s melodies, the parodying of which was a hobby he shared with French: “Silence was in thy faustive halls, O Truiga, when thy green woods went dry but there will be sounds of manymirth in the night air ringing . . .”

Hence part of Lowry's somewhat convoluted book-title: "Sounds of Manymirth on the Night's Ear Ringing. Percy French: His Jarvey Years and Joyce's Haunted Inkbottle".

She is not the first person to wonder about French's ubiquity in Finnegans Wake. Sixty years ago, the brilliant literary critic Vivian Mercier noted the same thing, pointing out that in multiple variations, Phil the Fluther's Ball is mentioned more often in FW than any other song, including the one that gave Joyce his title.

Mercier was puzzled, however, by the Wake’s apparent hostility to French, bordering at times on character assassination, as when it calls him a “wreuter of annoyingmost letters and skirriless ballets in Parsee French who is Magrath’s thug and smells cheaply of Power’s spirits like a deepsea dibbler [...] not fit enough to throw guts down to a bear . . .”

Lowry believes the animosity came second-hand, via Joyce’s father, another man who haunts the Wake, although he was still alive for much of its composition.

John Joyce and French were contemporaries with many similarities. Both were great singers and raconteurs. Both suffered severe financial reverses. Both even invested disastrously in a distillery (unidentified in French's case but possibly the same one).

Joyce Snr, however, was the more likely to be drinking Power’s in later years, and was famed for his “docker’s tongue”, a master of colourful invective, in which the word “guts”, as above, often featured.

Typically, he called Cardinal Logue – leading critic of his beloved Parnell – "the tub of guts up in Armagh".

Parnell may have been key to the inherited hostility Joyce Jnr exorcised in FW. As well as a ballad writer, painter, and performer, French had also been a talented journalist, most notably in his years (1889-91) as editor of a magazine called The Jarvey.

Unfortunately for him, those years coincided with the Parnellite split.

His mostly gentle humour was not designed for such a bitter period, but a mildly unionist outlook and occasional irreverence towards the Chief earned him lasting enmity from some of the nationalist press in whose circles Joyce Snr moved.

Like the younger Joyce, French was forced into exile of a sort in the end. But he remained a deeply loved and enormously popular performer in Ireland, a musical superstar of his age.

This in itself may have earned envy from the Joyces, both of whom might have wished to be him.

Despite which, Lowry argues, the overall effect of his presence is the Wake is homage. He was, after all, the embodiment of the “christian minstrelsy” mentioned on its opening page: the humorous balladry considered by Joyce as a cornerstone of civilisation in general and Ireland in particular.

The nostalgia evoked by his death may have played a part too.

Out of sympathy with the emerging Free State, and sharing French’s hatred of violence, the Parisian exile may have been hankering for a more innocent age. Finnegans Wake was begun in a time of civil war, when as Lowry writes, “the gentle Edwardian world of Joyce’s youth which so charmed and agonised him […] was swept away forever”.