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snuff

An expression tossed about like snuff at a wake

 


U 6.235: Terrible comedown, poor wretch! Kicked about like snuff at a wake


Gifford’s suggestion that “snuff would be in demand at a wake to mask the odour of death” shows that he is not aware of the traditions of an Irish wake. At a poor farmer’s wake in the middle of the 19th century the mourners were treated to a pound and a half of tobacco, six or seven dozen pipes, eight or nine pounds of (dried) fish, a quart of whiskey and an unspecified amount of snuff:1

One reason of using tobacco and snuff at wakes is to keep the people from falling asleep during the night.

     The plate holding the snuff and tobacco was usually placed centre-stage right on the corpse’s breast:


On the breast of the corpse is placed a plate of tobacco, cut in short lengths, and a plate of snuff.

William Gregory Wood-Martin, Traces of the Elder Faiths of Ireland (1902), p. 299

     P. W. Joyce explains this use in his English as we speak it in Ireland (ed. 2, 1910: p. 139):

If any commodity is supplied plentifully it is knocked about like snuff at a wake. Snuff was supplied free at wakes; and the people were not sparing of it as they got it for nothing.

     Joyce uses the expression in a negative context. However, it existed both with negative and positive connotations. The following examples imply abundance:

New buckskins, as my grandfather was a gentleman; new brogues, new coat, new everything — the signs of money flying about him like snuff at a wake.

Illustrated Dublin Journal (1862), 28 December p. 259/1


Advice to take up Americans, pay for them, and hold them, is "flung about like snuff at a wake"…

United States Investor (1898), 14 May p. 676


... the masts bindin' like switches an' the sails in smithereens, an' the life buoys flyin' about like snuff at a wake.

"To my ould mother" in Emigrant Soldier's Gazette (1859), 19 February [n.p.]

     And by some curious coincidence this echoes the second use Bloom makes of this phrase in the Nausicaa episode, when his Homeric counterpart deals with the shipwreck and salvation of Ulysses:

Others in vessels, bit of a handkerchief sail, pitched about like snuff at a wake when the stormy winds do blow. (U 13.1150-1)

     On the other hand, right from the start the expression could also hint negatively at mistreatment, as in the case of “the poor wretch” in Ulysses:

… is that any reason why I am to be robbed of my liberty, strapped on a stretcher, and thrown about from policeman to policeman like snuff at a wake (laughter)?

Freeman's Journal (1844), 19 June 19

     It is in this sense that we come across it again in Brendan Behan’s play The Hostage in 1958:

      MULLEADY WITH MISS GILCHRIST (Crooning in harmony).

I really think us lower-middle classes,

Get thrown around just like snuff at a wake.

Employers take us for a set of asses

     Joyce has flung about allusions to death on the pages of the Hades episode like snuff at a wake, and the expression he chose here may set us wondering if Dignam indeed did have a proper wake.

Harald Beck


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1 Selection of Parochial Examinations relative to the Destitute Classes in Ireland (Dublin: 1835), p. 250.