Finnegans Wake for Children

an adaptation of James Joyce's Finnegans Wake

by Eric Rosenbloom
copyright 1997


This is a story about Tim Finnegan and a dream that he had. Finnegan dreamed that he fell off a wall, like Humpty Dumpty. But not like Humpty Dumpty, Tim Finnegan put himself back together again.


Finnegan was a bricklayer. He was building a great wall, and one morning he was carrying a load of bricks up to the top of the wall. It was very heavy. Halfway up the ladder, he thought he heard a thunderclap. He looked around, and before he knew what was happening, he was falling to the ground. He was lying there among the broken bricks, and everybody thought he was dead.


So they carried him home to Mrs. Finnegan. She cleaned him, dressed him in his good suit — which was always too tight at the shoulders — and laid him out over clean white sheets on the bed. Then she invited their friends to come for tea and cookies for the wake, when they would sit by him and cry and remember poor Tim who now was gone from them.


While Mrs. Finnegan served the tea and cookies, the others remembered. One woman there had wanted to marry Tim Finnegan herself. Now she threw herself onto him and covered him in tears:

“So clean and handsome! O, Tim, my love, O why did you die?”


Then one of the men, who had wanted to marry this woman — but she had chosen someone else, and it still made him bitter to think of it — now he pulled her off the bed angrily, shouting:

“You’re wrong there, I’m sure: My love, indeed!”

And the man she did marry hit this man for treating her that way. He knocked him to the floor. The first man’s wife saw this, and she took the teapot from Mrs. Finnegan and threw it at the man who had just hit her husband. But he ducked. The teapot flew past him and broke against Mr. Finnegan’s head. The tea splashed all over him from head to toe.


Tim Finnegan opened his eyes and sat up in surprise, and he made a little cough that sounded like a little chicken. Before he could find his words, all of his guests looked at him sitting there and they screamed and ran out of his house. Even the man knocked out on the floor was awakened by it all and ran with the rest of them. They all ran to the Earwicker hotel to talk about Finnegan. They wanted to know who it was that told them he was dead. And what was the nature of his fall at all? And how did he manage to rise again?


It was the Earwicker hotel where everybody gathered around a table to talk about all they had seen and heard. So let’s find out something about these Earwickers. Mr. Earwicker came from over the ocean, and he met Mrs. Earwicker who had just come down from her village high in the clouds of the mountains where the rivers begin. Her name is Anna Livia. Mr. Earwicker came to the island as a master builder because the city had just been declared as the new capital of the land, and it needed someone who knew how to build things. Earwicker and Anna Livia got married and now they have three children. Two of them are twin boys. These boys fight all the time, even when they’re working together: over which one is more like pappy, or which one is mammy’s favorite, or which one is their little sister’s hero, or which one do her friends like the best.


Their sister’s name is Isabel, but everyone calls her Issy. She dreams of princes and princesses, and the evil prince who is keeping her from finding her true love. Her brothers’ names are Shem and Shaun. Sometimes she likes Shem the best, and other times she likes Shaun, because Shaun is a little gentleman, and Shem is very clever. But Shem and Shaun are so jealous of each other, that at one place, Issy might not like Shaun any more, but someplace else she no longer likes Shem. Sometimes both of the boys are nothing but trouble, and Issy sighs at her mirror and thinks of her golden prince who will set her free.


They all live in a hotel now, because their pappy had to stop working as a builder when the city council started going against him. They were thinking he might want to join the council, which would mean that one of them would have to go. So they started saying the bad things about him. They never liked him, ever since he came from over the ocean and married Anna Livia. They were angry because Anna Livia chose him over any of them. So Mr. and Mrs. Earwicker bought a little hotel up the river to get away from them. And that’s where everybody has gone to talk about Finnegan and his singular wake.


They were trying to remember how he fell, and everybody had a different story.

Someone said he must have been pushed: “That’s the only way he could have fallen. He was a sweet man and careful because he didn’t want to leave his wife alone.”

Another said that was ridiculous: “Tim Finnegan was careless and lazy. He was out all night spending his money, leaving poor Mrs. Finnegan home to worry. He was too tired and sick this morning to be clambering up walls.”

Someone else agreed: “It’s a wonder he didn’t go down sooner, all the trouble he was getting into.”


At this point, Earwicker left the guests for Patrick the waiter to quietly attend them. And the next one went on: “Don’t be telling me: I saw him once at a picnic playing with the children in their games, running around and rolling in the grass: no dignity at all! What kind of a man is that?”

“I’d knock him against the wall myself, I would,” added the fellow next to him: “I’m thinking he got what he deserved.”

“Now, now,” came a friend to Finnegan’s defense: “Wasn’t he an honest and humble worker, giving all his money over to Mrs. Finnegan? Haven’t we called him our friend these numberless years? And didn’t he go to fight the king’s war and come back alive with good tales to tell us? The truth is,” the man continued in a foreboding whisper, “I would prefer to believe it was our host, our own Mr. Earwicker from that other land over the ocean: I would prefer to think it was himself you saw in the park acting the way that you and I would not.”


And leaning towards his listeners, and lowering his voice even more, he added: “These foreigners are sneaky indeed. Didn’t we throw him out of the building council? Wasn’t he supposed to keep the walls and towers safe for our boys like poor Tim Finnegan? And tell me, how did our friend Earwicker take little Anna Livia from us who were born here?”


“Because he’s the true man that you can only dream of becoming,” laughed the woman sitting beside him.

“You wouldn’t be equal to one like Anna Livia — O, the love letters she showed me once that he had written to her: You are my sun and my moon. You are the stars in the sky. Just the thought of it makes me feel all young again. O, just imagine the letters she wrote to him!”


“We should all watch our backs just the same with the likes of himself around it,” insisted one of them who hadn’t spoken yet.

“He’s different from you and me. There’s something fishy in him entirely. Tell me where has he slipped to now, I ask you.”


Yes, it is true that Mr. Earwicker was always slipping away from the crowd. He knew that it bothered them, and that they would talk about him. But just the same, he preferred to spend time with his family, with the people he loved above all. So after he checked in with Kate the cook in the kitchen, up he went to his apartment to sit with Mrs. Earwicker. She had gathered up the children to read them a story before bed. They had done their playing and they had done their homework, though Shaun had a little problem he couldn’t solve and he refused to be helped by Shem who knew how to get the answer all along. But Shaun was pretending to know it himself, that it was Shem who didn’t know, so that Issy would like Shaun more. And Issy thought that both of them probably were wrong, but she let them play their games around her, all the time thinking of the prince she would meet some day. Her head was in the stars, but she did her homework very carefully. So now they were ready for their story. And here it is.


Once upon a time, a man from far away came in a ship to our island. He was very handsome and brave and sailed his ship right up the river as far as he could go. At that place, with all the people looking on not knowing what to do, having no manners at all, he marked out the plans for a town and got everyone to help. They built a wonderful city, where everything was wonderfully convenient and wonderfully clean, and it was all so wonderful that they made the man from far away their king.


But there was someone who wasn’t happy at all, even though he was enjoying everything the city had made possible. Now that we have a city, he thought, I should be the king of it. But he knew he never could if the man from far away was around. So he started telling lies about the king. He said terrible things to people. He said the king was stealing from the city and was planning to run away with all their money. Some people started to worry, even though the story was a lie. Some of them started to mistrust and fear and hate the king, who they thought had so artfully fooled them (which of course he had not).


And then the jealous one mentioned his dear sister back on the farm. He said the king was very mean to her and broke her heart forever.

Even though none of this was true, everyone believed it, and they ran to his house and grabbed him, and they put him on a boat and sent him back to wherever it was he came from.


So his children lost their father, and his wife lost her husband. They moved to a house up the river a little farther away from the mean people. And they waited there for their pappy’s return, because they knew he would come back to them as soon as he could.

One day, mammy wrote a letter, telling him how they missed him terribly and how the children were growing up, and how proud he would be of them. She wrote about when they met, and how sweet he was, and is, and ever will be. She wrote to him to tell him that there is no other man for her than himself. She cried and cried but she was happy, too, for writing this. And because she didn’t know where he was, she crumpled up the tear-stained letter and threw it in with the garbage.


When the children grew up, they moved to America, but mammy stayed on the island where she was born until one day when she was very very very old, and she died. The people in the city forgot how mean they had been, and they were sad at the passing of a very great lady. She was an inspiration to all of us, they said. And they put up a statue of her and her husband in the park, to honor them as the founders of the city, the mammy and pappy of all of them.


Off to bed, now! That’s the story! Mr. and Mrs. Earwicker tucked the children in and left them each with a kiss good night after such a sad story. And truth to tell, they had some nightmares, but that’s completely normal and good, because you always wake up.


But what about Finnegan? Mr. Earwicker told Mrs. Earwicker what had happened: how Tim Finnegan had taken a tumble at work and everyone thought he was dead, until he popped up out of his coffin wondering what was going on. Mrs. Earwicker laughed, thinking that was a grand event entirely. It was funny, too, how everybody got scared and went running away like the sky was falling.


And in all their discussion and argument, those people who ran away and gathered at the Earwickers’ hotel never did agree on what exactly happened to bring about this funny funeral of Finnegan. And they never got around to the subject of how he got up again, because they all got tired and went home to fall asleep. So Mr. Earwicker locked up the hotel, wished Kate the cook and Patrick the waiter a good night, and went up to sleep, too.


As for Mr. and Mrs. Finnegan, before they go to sleep after this strange and frightening and exciting day, Mr. Finnegan tells Mrs. Finnegan about the dream he was having after he fell. And before we go to sleep so we too can rest and dream and get up again, let’s listen to his story. And see what he says with your mind’s eye. The only pictures here will be the ones you make yourself. Listening.


I saw a hen scratching at a pile of garbage. The hen uncovers an old letter. Some children see it and pull it out. They can’t read it because of all the dirt and stains on it. So they run to the river and fold it into a little boat and set it on the water.

I watched the children getting smaller and smaller and I realized I was on the boat they had made out of the letter that was thrown away. I was floating down the river, and they were getting farther and farther from me.

Then I floated through the city, with ships all around me and lots of noise, and the river was getting faster and rougher, and I almost sank. But then it widened out and was smoother.

I saw the ocean in front of me. It was opening its arms to hug me. I felt very happy as I was drifting off to sleep. Then I heard someone crying and I turned aside to look and saw you looking like I was gone forever, so I swam to shore to be with you. I collapsed on the shore, and you were laughing at me because I was so confused and so tired. There was nothing more I could do, so I woke up and I’m so glad I’m here and to see you there, and to see you laughing. Good night!