Gabrielle Carey

Thinking Aloud

Opinion pieces and musings.

James Joyce and the Barnaby Joyce Affair

Those of us in the world of Joycean studies of the literary kind enjoyed an extra layer of entertainment throughout the Barnaby Joyce political intrigue. We have even started to wonder whether Barnaby’s parents, Marie and James Joyce, might have named their son after the Irish ballad Barnaby Finnegan, a song that is referenced four times throughout Joyce’s final work Finnegans Wake.

The ballad of Barnaby is also a tale of adultery and begins:        

'I’m a decent gay labouring youth,
I’m a widower now in Maynooth,
I married but once in my life,
But I’ll never commit such a sin again-
I discovered, when she was my wife,
She was fond of one Barnaby Finnegan.'

But that isn’t the only connection between Finnegans Wake  and Barnaby Joyce that has the Joyceans chuckling. The entire story seems to mirror the main theme of Joyce’s magisterial work.

In the Wake, the central character (for want of a better word) is a man who has committed a sexual misdemeanour, the exact nature of which is never clear, but to which the book constantly returns. Questions are asked, trials are held, rumours run rife.

Like all Wakean  characters, Joyce’s anti-hero has multiple names and identities. Sometimes he is the mythical Irish giant Finn McCool, sometimes he is the drunken Tim Finnegan and often he is an innkeeper by the name of Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker, or HCE for short.

The gossip about HCE’s misbehaviour runs through the entire text of the Wake like Chinese whispers. He may be guilty of indecent exposure, he might have been caught masturbating in public, or a may have indulged in a moment of voyeurism as he spied on  young girls urinating behind a bush. The precise truth of his transgression can never be known. But that’s precisely why it remains a subject of fascination.

Essentially Finnegans Wake is the tale of a fallen man who is likened repeatedly to other fallen historical and literary figures, from Oscar Wilde to Humpty Dumpty. In one of the most important passages, The Ballad of Persse O’Reilly, (Persse being another of HCE’s identities), the fall from grace is staged and sung about thus:

‘Have you heard of Humpty Dumpty
How he fell with a roll and rumble
And curled up like Lord Olofa Crumple   [Oliver Cromwell]
By the butt of the Magazine Wall,
(Chorus) Of the Magazine Wall,
                    Hump, helmet and all?
‘He was one time our King of the Castle
Now he’s kicked about like a rotten old parsnip.
. . .
‘That our heavyweight heathen Humpharey
Made bold a maid to woo . . .
He ought to blush for himself, the old hayheaded philosopher
For to go and shove himself that way on top of her
‘Like the bumping bull of the Cassidys
All your butter is in your horns,
(Chorus) His butter is in his horns.
                    Butter his horns!
‘Tis sore pity for his innocent poor children
But look out for his missus legitimate!’

By the end, the ballad predicts that this publicly shamed figure will never have a comeback:

‘And not all the king’s men nor his horses
Will resurrect his corpus’.

But the story of HCE or Persse O’Reilly isn’t, as it may appear, about laughing at the fall of a feckless, womanising man. It is actually Joyce’s comical way of encouraging the readers to laugh at themselves. The joke is that HCE’s real identity is Here Comes Everybody. And that includes you and me. Barnaby may be fallen and shamed but Barnaby is also us.

As the saying goes, be nice to the people on the way up, because you’ll meet them again on the way down.

Gabrielle Carey