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
The plate holding the snuff and tobacco was usually placed centre-stage right on the corpse’s breast:
P. W. Joyce explains this use in his English as we speak it in Ireland (ed. 2, 1910: p. 139):
Joyce uses the expression in a negative context. However, it existed both with negative and positive connotations. The following examples imply abundance:
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:
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:
It is in this sense that we come across it again in Brendan Behan’s play The Hostage in 1958:
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.
1 Selection of Parochial Examinations relative to the Destitute Classes in Ireland (Dublin: 1835), p. 250.
Joyce's Words >