Tuesday, 4 February 2014



Engraving of Turner's Stonehenge
That's the sound of a thunderclap on the first page of Finnegans Wake

It's great to say aloud. Listen to the splendid Jim Norton's version, from the Naxos audiobook.

As onomatopœia, that's as good as Leopold Bloom's cat going 'Mrkrgnao!' in Ulysses. But, because it's a Wake word, it's packed with meaning. It's made up of words for thunder in multiple languages. You can read them here in fweet.

It's one of ten 100 letter thunderwords in the book. The final one (which is actually 101 letters long) is described as 'The hundredlettered name again, last word of perfect language'. 424.23  Joyce probably chose 100 because it suggests completion, while 101 in the last one suggests renewal. It's also just the right number of letters to create a mighty thunderclap (ten would be too few).

I have it on a t-shirt (missing a letter).

And Derek Pyle, of Waywords and Meansigns, has it tattooed on his forearm.

I've also painted it on a saw (for a painted saw exhibition in 2021).

Finnegans Wake Thundersaw


The book's opening sentence, at the top of this blog, tells us that we're part of a historical cycle (a commodius vicus of recirculation). The second paragraph is a prequel, listing all the things which have 'not yet' happened. Then we get this mighty thunderbolt, the sound of the 'great fall of the offwall' (03.18), which kicks the book, and the historical cycle, into motion:

The fall (bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonnerronntuonnthunntro-varrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthurnuk!) of a once wallstrait oldparr is retaled early in bed and later on life down through all christian minstrelsy.

It's the fall of Adam, our old parent (oldparr), the giant Finn MacCool, Tim Finnegan from his ladder, Humpty Dumpty from his wall, and all other falls through history, including the Wall Street Crash ('wallstrait') - which came two years after this was published! There had been earlier crashes, but I bet Joyce believed he'd predicted the 1929 one here.


'I wonder where Vico got his fear of thunderstorms. It is almost unknown to the male Italians I have met.'   Joyce to Harriet Shaw Weaver, 21 May 1926

Joyce got the idea of thunder setting history in motion from the Italian philosopher, Giambattista Vico (1668-1744). In La Scienza Nuova, Vico argued that history was cyclical, and that the cycles began when, following the Great Flood, people first heard thunder, which they took to be a noise made by a god. This was the start of religion.

Thereupon a few giants...who were dispersed through the forests on the mountain heights ...were frightened and astonished by the great effect whose cause they did not know, and raised their eyes and became aware of the sky. And because...the nature of the human mind leads it to attribute its own nature to the effect, and because in that state their nature was that of men all robust bodily strength, who expressed their very violent passions by shouting and grumbling, they pictured the sky to themselves as a great animated body, which in that aspect they called Jove, the first god...who by the whistling of his bolts and the noise of his thunder was attempting to tell them something.

The New Science, 387-9 
Jove with his thunderbolts
Providence...ordained that men of gigantic stature, stronger than the rest, who were to wander on the mountain heights as do the beasts of stronger natures, should, at the first thunderclaps after the universal flood, take refuge in the caves of the mountains, subject themselves to a higher power which they imagined as Jove, and, all amazement as they were all pride and cruelty, humble themselves before a divinity. 

The New Science, 1097 

According to Vico, this thunder inspired humans to invent not just religion but also language itself - in imitation of the sound which they took to be the speech of God. 

At the same time that the divine character of Jove took shape...articulate language began to develop by way of onomatopoeia, through which we still find children happily expressing themselves. By the Latins Jove was at first, from the roar of the thunder, called lous; by the Greeks, from the whistle of the lightning, Zeus.

The New Science, 447

That's why the thunderword is the 'last word in perfect language.' 424.23. Human words are imperfect imitations of the divine thunder.
The sipbspeeches of all mankind have foliated (earth seizing them!) from the root of some funner's stotter. 96.31

The speeches/subspecies of mankind have spread out from the root of some thunder's stutter. Joyce dramatises this birth of a stuttering language in the dialogue between two prehistoric characters, Jute and Mutt. 

Jute.— But you are not jeffmute?
Mutt.— Noho. Only an utterer.
Jute.— Whoa? Whoat is the mutter with you?
Mutt.— I became a stun a stummer.
Jute.— What a hauhauhauhaudibble thing, to be cause! 16.14-19

So his thunderword begins with 'bababadalgharag...' -stuttering and Babel (the foliation of languages).

Later in the book, this event is re-enacted, when HCE loudly calls his children home from their games outside the pub. His voice is the sound of thunder, and the children utter a prayer to their father. Lord becomes 'Loud':

   Uplouderamainagain !
For the Clearer of the Air from on high has spoken in tumbuldum tambaldam to his tembledim tombaldoom worrild and, moguphonoised by that phonemanon, the unhappitents of the earth have terrerumbled from fimament unto fundament and from tweedledeedumms down to twiddledeedees.
   Loud, hear us!
   Loud, graciously hear us!   258.17-23


When the Danish writer, Tom Kristensen asked Joyce if he believed in the Scienza Nuova, he replied, 'I don't believe in any science, but my imagination grows when I read Vico as it doesn't when I read Freud or Jung.' (Ellmann).  

Aelbert Cuyp's Thunderstorm over Dordrech

Joyce would have been drawn to Vico because of his own astraphobia (fear of thunder), perhaps received from his devout governess, Mrs 'Dante' Conway:

She talked a good deal about the end of the world, as if she expected it at any moment, and when there was a flash of lightning she taught James to cross himself and say, 'Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews, from a sudden and unprovided for death deliver us, O Lord.' The thunderstorm as a vehicle of divine power and wrath moved Joyce's imagination so profoundly that to the end of his life, he trembled at the sound. When a friend asked him why he was so affected, he replied, 'You were not brought up in Catholic Ireland.'  

Ellmann, James Joyce

James Joyce aged six
The only real weakness my brother showed as a boy was a terror of thunderstorms – a terror excessive even for his years. It was not merely a boy's fear of thunder, it was the realization and terror of death, that dominant passion of the Middle Ages....Until he was twelve or thirteen, my brother was always beside himself with fear during thunderstorms. He would run upstairs to our room, while my mother tried to calm him. She would close the shutters hastily, pull down the blinds and draw the curtains together. But that was not enough. He would take refuge in the cupboard until the storm was over. It was the direct result of the religion of terrorism that Dante had instilled in him.

Stanislaus Joyce, My Brother's Keeper

I wonder if Joyce's fear of thunder was linked to the traumatic experience of the Easter Tenebrae service, when the candles of the church are put out and an almighty crashing noise is made, representing the convulsions of nature at the death of Christ.

Joyce's sister Eileen passed on a story about this to her own daughter:

'Mamma remembered that while Jim was quite young he was so frightened by Tenebrae on Good Friday that he ran away.'

Bozena Berta Delimata, 'Reminiscences of a Joyce Niece,' James Joyce Quarterly, Fall 1981, p54

Joyce also mentions this in Stephen Hero:

'— Do you like the services of Holy Week? said Stephen.
— Yes, said Cranly.
— They are wonderful, said Stephen. Tenebrae — it’s so damned childish to frighten us by knocking prayerbooks on a bench.'

There are several more stories of Joyce's astraphobia in Portraits of the Artist in Exile (ed Potts). First, a memory of him in Pola and Trieste before World War One:

A sort of hysterical man with a morbid hypersensitivity, he was insanely frightened by electrical storms. On occasion during such storms he would lose control of himself, becoming completely irresponsible and cowardly, like a child or a foolish woman. Overcome by terror, he would clap his hands over his ears, run and hide in a small darkened room or hurl himself into bed in order not to see or hear.

Alessandro Francini Bruni, 'Recollections of Joyce'.

In the late 30s, he was sitting for a bust for the sculptor August Suter. Before one sitting, Joyce anxiously rang Suter to ask what the weather was like in his part of Paris:

The weather, I told him, was sunny and bright and he said he would come out at once as there were clouds in his area. He had an immense fear of thunder and lightning. I calmed him by pointing out that I had a thick blanket and that he might always hide behind the folding screen in my study and cover his head with the blanket so that he would see and hear nothing.

August Suter 'Some Reminiscences of James Joyce'.

In the 1930s, Carola Giedion-Welcker got to know Joyce in Zurich, a city he often visited to see his eye specialist.
In contrast with his broad sophistication, he also had in his nature a streak of the primitive sense of cosmic threat. In a sense the first human being and the last were joined in him. During the thunderstorms that early summer lavishes in Zurich, panic would seize him and he would hide away dispiritedly in his hotel on Bahnhofstrasse, 'like the Pope in the Vatican'. Even the modest Zurichberg seemed to him a powerful Mont Noir when the sky discharged electricty around it, behaving, he said, 'like a drunken sailor indiscriminately throwing dynamite around.'

Carola Giedion-Welcker, 'Meetings with Joyce'.

In Copenhagen, in 1936, he had this conversation with the journalist Ole Vinding:

  'Do you often have thunderstorms here in Copenhagen and Denmark?'
  'The summer has been cool this year and thunderstorms have been rare.'
  'Thank god! I am horrified by thunderstorms. I panic just at the mere thought of them. You must not even tell me stories about thunderstorms.'

Ole Vinding, 'James Joyce in Copehagen'.

Imagine what it cost a man who panicked at the thought of thunderstorms to write 'bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonnerronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthurnuk!'

There are more several more stories like these in Ellmann's biography

Visiting Pula in 2017, I sat, wearing my thunderword t-shirt,  at the Caffè Uliks, beside a statue of Joyce. 

Suddenly a great thunderstorm erupted - one of several we experienced in Trieste and Pula. It struck me that Joyce had chosen the wrong place for an astraphobe to live!



There are nine more Wake thunderwords. Read them aloud!  Here's a series of lessons from Adam Harvey to help you.


The second one has more names for thunder in other languages (Lettish, Breton, Persian, Lithuanian etc):
The third and fourth are inspired by other senses of the word clap. First we have clapping as applause, before the Ballad of Persse O'Reilly:

klikkaklakkaklaskaklopatzklatschabattacreppycrottygraddaghsemmihsammihnouithappluddyappladdypkonpkot!  44.20-21
Clap is also slang for venereal disease, which inspired the fourth word. During the trial of Festy King, the council has just asked the witness about a 'bad clap' (playing on thunderclap and VD). His follow up question is made up of different words for 'whore', plus 'bloody awful', 'foul', 'lady', 'strip' and Mecklenburg Street, the brothel district of Dublin

Bladyughfoulmoecklenburgwhurawhorascortastrumpapornanennykocksapastippatappatupperstrippuckputtanach, eh? 90.31

Next we have a description of the crazy letters dancing across the page, in the Letter chapter

Thingcrooklyexineverypasturesixdixlikencehimaroundhersthemaggerbykinkinkankanwithdownmindlookingated  113.09

'Shut the door!' in various languages:

The fall of Humpty Dumpty and Finnegan again; all the characters coming around:


HCE's Irish name, Persse O'Reilly, in all its Gaelic glory: Piaras an Ua Raghailleach na Tulaige Mongáin: Piers the descendant of Reilly (Raghallach) of Tullymongan (in Breffni), plus the songs Yankee Doodle, Whack fol the Diddle, Dublin and Daddy. 
Pappappapparrassannuaragheallachnatullaghmonganmacmacmacwhackfalltherdebblenonthedubblandaddydoodled 332.05

A fit of coughing, in many languages:
 Husstenhasstencaffincoffintussemtossemdamandamnacosaghcusaghhobixhatouxpeswchbechoscashlcarcarcaract 414.19

Norse gods, giants and mythical beings. This one is spoken by the pious Shaun, who's just explained that he hates his brother Shem 'for his root language' (rude language/ thunder as the root of language). After he says, 'Thor's for you!':

Ullhodturdenweirmudgaardgringnirurdrmolnirfenrirlukkilokkibaugimandodrrerinsurtkrinmgernrackinarockar 424.20



There's also a climactic thunderstorm in Ulysses, in the maternity hospital episode. Stephen, who has been making blasphemous jokes, is terrified. Bloom tries to comfort him with a scientific explanation:
A black crack of noise in the street here, alack, bawled back. Loud on left Thor thundered: in anger awful the hammerhurler. Came now the storm that hist his heart. And Master Lynch bade him have a care to flout and witwanton as the god self was angered for his hellprate and paganry. And he that had erst challenged to be so doughty waxed wan as they might all mark and shrank together and his pitch that was before so haught uplift was now of a sudden quite plucked down and his heart shook within the cage of his breast as he tasted the rumour of that storm. Then did some mock and some jeer and Punch Costello fell hard again to his yale which Master Lenehan vowed he would do after and he was indeed but a word and a blow on any the least colour. But the braggart boaster cried that an old Nobodaddy was in his cups it was muchwhat indifferent and he would not lag behind his lead. But this was only to dye his desperation as cowed he crouched in Horne's hall. He drank indeed at one draught to pluck up a heart of any grace for it thundered long rumblingly over all the heavens so that Master Madden, being godly certain whiles, knocked him on his ribs upon that crack of doom and Master Bloom, at the braggart's side, spoke to him calming words to slumber his great fear, advertising how it was no other thing but a hubbub noise that he heard, the discharge of fluid from the thunderhead, look you, having taken place, and all of the order of a natural phenomenon.

Is there any proof that there really was a thunderstorm on 16 June 1904?


Thanks to Patrick Nathan, who put this on twitter. It comes from David Markson's Wittgenstein's Mistress.


  1. Just found that Stanislaus Joyce challenges Francini Bruni's account:

    'Either Francini was unable to distinguish in his memory hearsay from actual incidents, or he wanted to work into his article for literary effect the anecdotes he had heard at that time, chiefly from me....In any case, it never happened so. At most, if I was standing at the window looking at the storm, my brother would say to me, with glittering eye and exasperated politeness: 'Would you be kind enough to close the window, like a good bloody fool?' And then to Francini in Italian: 'You know my brother thinks that a thunderbolt knocks at the door before coming in.'
    Though he was always uneasy during bad storms, it took a really startling flash to make him do something demonstrative. One day in midsummer we were overtaken by a thunderstorm at the corner of via Severo. The thick masses of cloud seemed to be resting on the house-tops, but it had not yet begun to rain heavily. Suddenly there was a crash of thunder and at the same time a blaze of lightning lit up the yellow facade of the old Austrian barracks. My brother clapped his hands together and with a cry skipped out into the roadway. a workman who was passing said, not unkindly, 'Corajo, giovinto, corajo.' And I, to make a joke of it, said, 'Take it easy, man. You needn't make a Highland fling about it.' We found shelter before the cloudburst came. He seemed a little mortified. But the next morning he came into my room with a newspaper in his hand to show me that a tree in a garden above via Severo had been struck by lightning. he pointed out the paragraph angrily as if it had been my fault.' My Brother's Keeper

  2. I've got Eric McLuhan's book "The Role of Thunder in FW" on my shelf but haven't got to give it a close reading yet. It has chapters on each of the ten thunders, piecing apart all the (potential) words contained within each and what each thunder indicates. His thesis seems to be that the thunders each portend new advancements in human technology.

    Despite being one of the Wake's most obvious and well-known motifs, I think the thunder words aren't very well understood or even studied.

  3. Thanks PQ. Haven't read that, but that theory is in Marshall McLuhan's and Quentin Fiore's, War and Peace in the Global Village. Eric is Marshall's son.

    Wikipedia has this:

    Joyce's Wake is claimed to be a gigantic cryptogram which reveals a cyclic pattern for the whole history of man through its Ten Thunders. Each "thunder" below is a 100-character portmanteau of other words to create a statement he likens to an effect that each technology has on the society into which it is introduced. In order to glean the most understanding out of each, the reader must break the portmanteau into separate words (and many of these are themselves portmanteaus of words taken from multiple languages other than English) and speak them aloud for the spoken effect of each word. There is much dispute over what each portmanteau truly denotes.

    McLuhan claims that the ten thunders in Wake represent different stages in the history of man:[1]

    Thunder 1: Paleolithic to Neolithic. Speech. Split of East/West. From herding to harnessing animals.
    Thunder 2: Clothing as weaponry. Enclosure of private parts. First social aggression.
    Thunder 3: Specialism. Centralism via wheel, transport, cities: civil life.
    Thunder 4: Markets and truck gardens. Patterns of nature submitted to greed and power.
    Thunder 5: Printing. Distortion and translation of human patterns and postures and pastors.
    Thunder 6: Industrial Revolution. Extreme development of print process and individualism.
    Thunder 7: Tribal man again. All choractors end up separate, private man. Return of choric.
    Thunder 8: Movies. Pop art, pop Kulch via tribal radio. Wedding of sight and sound.
    Thunder 9: Car and Plane. Both centralizing and decentralizing at once create cities in crisis. Speed and death.
    Thunder 10: Television. Back to tribal involvement in tribal mood-mud. The last thunder is a turbulent, muddy wake, and murk of non-visual, tactile man.


  4. Thanks so much for this "ten thunder" post. I can't help flashing right to Kubrick's monoliths.