Like snuff at a wake

Like snuff at a wake

In Brief

In Hades Bloom thinks of an old pauper being "Kicked about like snuff at a wake." The expression derives from the fact that copious amounts of snuff were consumed at traditional Irish wakes, but knowing that does not readily explain why the old man should be described as he is. A second use of the expression in Nausicaa helps to shed light on its range of implied meanings.

Read More

§ Snuff––tobacco leaves ground into powder and snorted up the nostrils––was a popular way of getting a nicotine hit in European countries from the 17th century until the early 20th, when mass-produced cigarettes began to dominate the market. In Nausicaa Gerty disapproves of her mother using snuff, apparently to treat her migraines: "And when her mother had those raging splitting headaches who was it rubbed the menthol cone on her forehead but Gerty though she didn’t like her mother’s taking pinches of snuff and that was the only single thing they ever had words about, taking snuff." Some snuff manufacturers claimed palliative or curative properties for their product, but health concerns like nasal cancer had also long been on people's minds. Perhaps Gerty is concerned about her mother's health, or it may simply be that, having experienced the violence of an alcoholic father, she does not like to see her use drugs.

§ In traditional wakes, the two-or three-day vigils held between washing the corpse and burying it, families supplied clay pipes, leaf tobacco, and snuff for the people who attended. The tobacco had some ceremonial purpose: men were expected to take at least one puff to help ward off evil spirits. But the snuff seems to have been more like free cocaine at a party. An expensive adjunct to the poteen and porter, it no doubt contributed to the festive atmosphere in the night hours and probably helped people stay awake. A bowl of snuff was often placed on the chest of the deceased, bringing people back to the dear departed whenever they wanted their next bump of nicotine. When depleted it was refilled.

The "snuff at a wake" expression derives from this tradition of liberally supplying free drugs to mourners. Brewer's Dictionary of Irish Phrase and Fable remarks that it indicates "profusion, as in 'In Houlihan's last night he was throwing money round him like snuff at a wake'." Similarly, P. W. Joyce writes in English As We Speak It in Ireland (1910) that "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" (139). In a page on James Joyce Online Notes Harald Beck quotes from Joyce and two other sources indicating that the expression could be used as an idiom for "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 28 December 1862); "Advice to take up Americans, pay for them, and hold them, is 'flung about like snuff at a wake'" (United States Investor, 14 May 1898).

References like these clearly exemplify the sense of bounty, but some other meaning must be involved when Bloom thinks that the old beggar selling shoelaces on the side of the road was once prosperous: "Terrible comedown, poor wretch! Kicked about like snuff at a wake." Here the phrase seems to imply indifference or even contempt for something of no worth. Beck notes that other such pejorative uses can be found. From the Freeman's Journal of 19 June 1844, he quotes a comical account of police abuse: "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)?" From Brendan Behan's 1958 play The Hostage he quotes three lines: "I really think us lower-middle classes, / Get thrown around just like snuff at a wake. / Employers take us for a set of asses."

What could account for this alternate meaning? Getting things for free does often make people devalue them, but still it seems odd that a phrase derived from expensive hospitality should come to imply contemptuous indifference. A missing link in this strange evolution may perhaps be found in another use of the expression. Beck quotes a descriptive passage with uncanny relevance to Ulysses: "the masts bindin' like switches an' the sails in smithereens, an' the life buoys flyin' about like snuff at a wake" (Emigrant Soldier's Gazette, 19 February 1859). Bloom thinks something remarkably similar in Nausicaa when he contemplates the "Dreadful life sailors have": "bit of a handkerchief sail, pitched about like snuff at a wake when the stormy winds do blow." The meaning here does not seem to be "abundance," as Beck suggests, but rather violent disturbance, and traces of that meaning can be heard in the propulsively energetic verbs that seem invariably to be applied to "snuff at a wake": "kicked about," "knocked about," "pitched about", "thrown about," "flung about," "flying about."

I do not know of any text that offers definitive evidence of how this sense of explosive energy came about, but context may suffice. Traditional peasant wakes were boisterous affairs. Anyone could attend, so the death room could be quite crowded. Food was passed around in the daylight hours, and in the evenings mourners got drunk. Women cried freely and engaged in loud keening. People sang, played games, recited poetry, danced, and told funny stories about the departed. Men played tricks like hiding under the coffin and shaking it to scare new arrivals, or lifting it up to show their strength. Debates arose, often on heated topics like religion and politics. In the ballad that inspired Joyce's Finnegans Wake, Tim Finnegan is laid out with "A gallon of whiskey at his feet" and "A barrel of porter at his head." People start arguing, and then advance to brawling: "Woman to woman and man to man / Shillelagh-law was all the rage / And a row and a ruction soon began." A thrown bottle of whiskey spills liquor over Tim, causing the corpse to rise up: "Thunderin' Jaysus! Do you think I'm dead?"

To this picture of riotous pagan excess (Catholic authorities strongly disapproved of wakes) may be added one more detail: inhaling snuff up the nostrils typically brought on thunderous sneezes. If one imagines people in these crowded rooms circling around the corpse to take more snuff, passing the powder around, violently sneezing, and filling the room with swirling clouds of powdered tobacco, the thought of a gale-tossed ship being "pitched about like snuff at a wake" starts to make sense.

JH 2023
V. Alfeldt's Portrait of Man with Beer and Fiddle, 19th century oil on canvas painting showing use of a snuff box. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Print from a wood engraving made from a sketch by M. Woolf ca. 1873, showing wailing and keening, card-playing, heated conversation, and drinking at an Irish wake . Source:
Late 1800s stereoscope image of an Irish wake, probably staged.
Another stereoscope photograph titled "Mickie O'Hoolihan's Wake," copyrighted 1894 by Stromeyer & Wyman. Source: