What Started the Fight in Finnegan’s Wake?

So, I’m listening to the Dropkick Murphy’s version of Finnegan’s Wake (best version ever) and it struck me that I really don’t understand what triggers the fight that spills the whiskey on Finnegan.

The relevant lines are:

His friends assembled at the wake
And Mrs. Finnegan called for lunch,
First they brought in tea and cake
Then pipes, tobacco and whiskey punch.
Biddy O’Brien began to cry
“Such a nice clean corpse, did you ever see?
“Arrah, Tim, mavourneen, why did you die?”
“Ah, shut your gob” said Paddy McGee!
Then Maggy O’Connor took up the job
“O Biddy,” says she, “You’re wrong, I’m sure”:
Biddy gave her a belt in the gob
And left her sprawlin’ on the floor.
And then the war did soon engage
‘Twas woman to woman and man to man,
Shillelagh law was all the rage
And the row and the ruction soon began.

Is Biddy O’Brien saying that Finnegan doesn’t look dead and Paddy McGee takes offense at the raising of false hope? (Back in the day, it wasn’t always evident that people were dead. Typhoid in particular produced a paralysis that could be mistaken for death.)

Does Biddy O’Brien punch Maggy O’Connor just because O’Connor gainsaid her or is there some subtle insult implied?

I know we Irish are quick to fight but I think there is more to the story. Anybody know?

8 thoughts on “What Started the Fight in Finnegan’s Wake?”

  1. In the good old days, people were normally buried quickly before they spoiled. In summertime this was usually within 24 hours. Embalming wasn’t done.

    Quite often people were buried with one end of a rope in their hand. The other end was attached to a bell above ground so that if they woke up they coulds ring the bell and get some help.

    Today we bury people with their cell phones for the same reason. Although I have notice that a few spouses have removed the batteries.

  2. You have to read between the lines. Biddy’s seemingly innocent expression of grief is an insult – a thinly veiled reference to something that happened fifteen years earlier, that Maggy and Biddy have been batting it back and forth ever since. Paddy sees what’s coming and tries to forestall it, but Maggy takes the bait like she always does. Maggy and Biddy have been doing this at every wedding reception and funeral since they were kids.

  3. Not being Irish, and speaking as an outsider, I always thought the the provocation for the fight was just a slim excuse. About 40 years ago, I was in the old O’Rourke’s pub on North Avenue on a March 17. I heard one hearty shout: “I’m Irish”. He received a reply of: “I’m Irish too, damn your eyes” which was followed in close order by blows, and a bartender flying over the bar with a sap in his hand. We got out of there as fast as we could.

  4. “I know we Irish are quick to fight but I think there is more to the story. Anybody know?”

    Being half Irish, I can answer. No, there’s nothing more to the story. Why did you think there would be?

  5. No…

    Due to the fact that Biddy O’Brien couldn’t speak ill of the dead; she paid Tim Finnegan, who was a notoriously drunken sot, the only compliment she thought he deserved.

    That’s what triggered the argument, which lead to the fight, which spilled the water of life.

  6. “… I really don’t understand what triggers the fight…”

    Sometimes it can’t be understood, because the participants themselves don’t rightly understand what was the exact cause. The Irish listening to the tune don’t get much worked up about it, because being Irish, they understand that sometimes fists start flying and nobody later really much understands, {or cares…} what started it.

    I attended Irish Weekend down at the Jersey shore just several months ago. Sure enough, I got in a brawl, and I have only various accounts what started the whole thing. All I know for sure was that my two friends were wildly outnumbered and what’s a guy to do in such a situation but jump in big time.

  7. Dan,

    All I know for sure was that my two friends were wildly outnumbered and what’s a guy to do in such a situation but jump in big time.

    That’s perfectly good reason to join a fight. After all, that’s what friends are for.

    This is especially true if you have an idiot friend who is always starting fights. It’s the only way to keep the idiot alive. (I know, I know you’d think letting him get the @#$%! kicked out him would teach him something but somehow it never does.)

    Besides, as Twain pointed out, it is the your duty to support your friends when they are wrong because any random individual can support someone who is right. It takes a friend to stick by you when you’ve done something stupid.

    I guess the answer to my original question is: Because they are Irish.

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