Tuesday, 7 August 2018

Count John McCormack in Finnegans Wake

'Songs betune the acts by...Joan MockComic, male soprano...' 222.07

'A concert was given in the large hall of the Antient Concert Rooms on Saturday night, and attracted a full house....Mr J.C.Doyle sang a number of songs in first-rate style....Mr James A Joyce, the possessor of a sweet tenor voice, sang charmingly 'The Salley Gardens', and gave a pathetic rendering of 'The Croppy Boy'....Mr. J.F. M'Cormack was the hero of the evening. It was announced that it was his last public appearance in Ireland.'   

The Freeman's Journal, 29 August 1904 (quoted by Ellmann, 1982, p168)

I photographed The Antient Concert Rooms on Bloomsday 2015
Joyce's 1904 appearance on stage with John McCormack was 'the high point of his musical career' (Ellmann). The concert also gave him the background for the Dubliners story 'A Mother' and the singers to accompany Molly Bloom on her tour.

Louis Werner is touring her, Mr Bloom said. O yes, we’ll have all topnobbers. J. C. Doyle and John MacCormack I hope and. The best, in fact.  'Hades' Ulysses

(Joyce almost always misspelled McCormack as MacCormack)

Both men left Ireland soon after. McCormack found fame, film stardom, riches, US citizenship and the title of Papal Count. Joyce faced years of poverty and struggles to be published.  Nora Barnacle, who thought 'Jim should have stuck to singing instead of bothering with writing', never let him forget that he had once shared a stage with McCormack.  

Joyce must have envied McCormack's success, especially since he believed that their voices were so similar. 

'Joyce sang a few ''come-all-ye's'' and told of the night in Dublin, before 1904, when he and John McCormack sang on the same programme. The critics had then predicted a great singing career for Joyce and had not been so favourable to Mr. McCormack.
   Nora started the gramophone because she had a record by a great Spanish baritone which she like very much. Joyce was fidgety, waiting for the record to finish so that he could play a record of John McCormack's. 'There is no voice like a fine tenor, do you think, McAlmon?' he said earnestly. 'You're a glutton for flattery, aren't you, Joyce?' I answered. Joyce brightened up and said, 'And why are you saying that? Now tell me, seriously.'
   'Ah, sure he knows you, Jim,' Nora Joyce said brusquely. ' You want to hear McCormack's voice because it's like your own entirely. Was there ever such a vain man!''

Robert McAlmon, Being Geniuses Together, 1968 edition, p344

Joyce said to me: 'John McCormack's voice and mine are so similar in texture...that more than once when a disc of McCormack's has been on, the girl in the kitchen has thought it was me.'

Padraic Colum, Our Friend James Joyce, p184-5.  

But Joyce's voice must have lacked McCormack's power. 

His voice was clarion clear and though high pitched was not at all strident. His build may have been too slight for a successful tenor. I remember John McCormack, whose career began with a victory at the Feis, telling me that he could not reduce below 224 pounds without a change in the quality of his voice.


Oliver St John Gogarty, 'Joyce as a Tenor', Intimations, 1950


In a letter to Harriet Shaw Weaver, Joyce quotes this exchange with Lucia:

Lucia: I have been thinking all day of John MacCormack. It is unjust. Why is he a count, a millionaire etc.? I thought of writing to the pope.
Joyce: Be careful of your grammar. He is a learned man.
Lucia: He is an old dotard. But it is unjust. How long will your country refuse to recognise what you have done.
Joyce: How long indeed?

To HSW 17 December 1934 Letters I p354.

'He had followed the career of John MacCormack step by step....He read all the newspaper accounts of MacCormack's doings, his love affairs, his tennis playing, his way of dressing and his curly hairdo.....Joyce talked so much about John MacCormack that finally I got all of his records....It was 'Molly Brannigan' of course that interested Joyce. He asked me didn't I notice a striking resemblance between his own voice and MacCormack's...there was indeed a resemblance between the two voices.'

Sylvia Beach, Shakespeare and Company, p.187


Shem and Shaun, the rival twins in Finnegans Wake, are largely portraits of Joyce and McCormack. Seamus ('Shem is as short for Shemus') and Shaun are the Irish forms of James and John. Like McCormack, Shaun is a devout Catholic, curly-haired, popular with women, boastful, sentimental and a massive eater.

'Little did MacCormack know that he was sitting for his portrait to James Joyce...Of course many people contributed odds and ends to Joyce's characters, but these were only the accessories. One figure dominated. When I attended a recital of John MacCormack's with the Joyces, I felt that I had already met him in Shaun the Post. 
  MacCormack's lovely tenor voice and his great art were irresistible, and I applauded him almost as enthusiastically as did Joyce. He asked me if I had noticed MacCormack's pigeon toed way of walking on and off the platform, and if I didn't think him charming with his chubbiness, his curls, and his manner of bowing. Indeed I did. But what I found amazing, and touching, was Joyce's infatuation, the extraordinary emotions he displayed as he listened to him.'

Sylvia Beach, Shakespeare and Company, p.186-7     

Joyce also urged his patroness Harriet Shaw Weaver to buy McCormack's records and see him in concert. This was his way of getting her to understand his Shaun character.

'If you have a gramophone you ought to get some discs of John MacCormack. I have some which are very good.'

To Harriet Shaw Weaver, 25 March 1935, Letters III, p118

'When are you going to London? Mr MacCormack with surely give a concert there and I would like you to hear him.'

To Harriet Shaw Weaver, 15 August 1925, Letters I, p231 

'Count Shaun MacCormack sings here on Tuesday.'

To Harriet Shaw Weaver, 20 May 1928, Letters I, p.177 





McCormack was famous for sentimental songs, such as 'When Irish Eyes are Smiling''Little Mother of Mine', 'Little Boy Blue' and 'Mother Machree'.
Here's Shaun, breaking down in tears at the thought of his dear mother.

'he virtually broke down on the mooherhead, getting quite jerry over her, overpowered by himself with the love of the tearsilver that he twined through her hair for, sure, he was the soft semplgawn slob of the world with a heart like Montgomery's in his showchest'  426.07-11

Sure I love the dear silver that shines in your hair,
And the brow that's all furrowed and wrinkled with care.
I kiss the dear fingers so toil-worn for me,
Oh, God bless you and keep you, Mother Machree! 

It was said that McCormack had broken down in tears while singing Mother Machree in a concert where his mother was in the audience. McCormack's biographer Pierre Key asked him if it was true.

'When I sang 'Mother Machree,' which happened to be for the first time in Ireland, I confess to being deeply moved. But mother was nearer to tears than I. It was, I believe, the most eloquent interpretation of the song I had ever given; there was reason enough in my mother's being there and I think the audience sensed it, and understood the reason. Two years before, in San Francisco, when I first sang 'Mother Machree,' I felt a lump in my throat; the poem and the music always affect me.'
Pierre Key, John McCormack His Own Life Story, p312


Show’m the Posed: fluttered and flattered around the willingly pressed, nominating him for the swiney prize, complimenting him, the captivating youth, on his having all his senses about him, stincking thyacinths through his curls (O feen! O deur!) and bringing busses to his cheeks, their masculine Oirisher Rose (his neece cleur!), and legando round his nice new neck for him and pizzicagnoling his woolywags, with their dindy dandy sugar de candy mechree me postheen flowns courier to belive them of all his untiring young dames... 92.13

Goodbye now, Shaun replied, with a voice pure as a churchmode, in echo rightdainty, with a good catlick tug at his cocomoss candylock, a foretaste in time of his cabbageous brain’s curlyflower. 409.11

Jaun (after he had in the first place doffed a hat with a reinforced crown and bowed to all the others in that chorus of praise of goodwill girls on their best beehiviour who all they were girls all rushing sowarmly for the post as buzzy as sie could bie to read his kisshands, kittering all about, rushing and making a tremendous girlsfuss over him pellmale, their jeune premier and his rosyposy smile, mussing his frizzy hair and the golliwog curls of him 430.17

After poor Jaun the Boast’s last fireless words of postludium of his soapbox speech ending in’sheaven, twentyaid add one with a flirt of wings were pouring to his bysistance (could they snip that curl of curls to lay with their gloves and keep the kids bright!) 469.29 



'Shaun himself has been three times in the Trianons this last week and you will see by the enclosed photograph that the regional dishes are agreeing with him. We did not meet however as he came to lunch and you know that my high code of morals forbids me to lunch and dine in the same place....My ho head whawls and I feel as heavy as John McCormack'


To  Harriet Shaw Weaver, 28 October 1928, Letters I p 272-3


'The impression given by his wife is that, like Jaun-Shaun, (McCormack) was a great child who ate and ate – food, drink, violins, motor cars, toy trains, chalices, yachts, Rodins and grew heavier and heavier physically.'

Adaline Glasheen, A Third Census of Finnegans Wake, p 177

In the Shem chapter, McCormack-Shaun gives us a hostile portrait of Joyce-Shem, whose lowness is demonstrated first by his lack of a hearty appetite:


'None of your inchthick blueblooded Balaclava fried-at-belief-stakes or juicejelly legs of the Grex’s molten mutton or greasilygristly grunters’ goupons or slice upon slab of luscious goosebosom with lump after load of plumpudding stuffing all aswim in a swamp of bogoakgravy for that greekenhearted yude!' 170.32

Shauns' vast appetetite is described at length on pages 405-7

'He was immense, topping swell for he was after having a great time of it, a twentyfour hours every moment matters maltsight, in a porterhouse,...where in the sighed of lovely eyes while his knives of hearts made havoc he had recruited his strength by meals of spadefuls of mounded food, in anticipation of the faste of tablenapkins, constituting his threepartite pranzipal meals plus a collation, his breakfast of first, a bless us O blood and thirsthy orange, next, the half of a pint of becon with newled googs and a segment of riceplummy padding, met of sunder suigar and some cold forsoaken steak peatrefired from he batblack night o’erflown then, without prejuice to evectuals came along merendally his stockpot dinner of a half a pound of round steak, very rare, Blong’s best from Portarlington’s Butchery, with a side of riceypeasy...'

Shaun gets bigger and bigger until he appears as the grotesque swollen recumbent figure of Yawn in Book III chapter 3.

'Lowly, longly, a wail went forth. Pure Yawn lay low.' 474.01



Joyce's fullest treatment of Shaun and McCormack is in Book Three Chapters 1 and 2 (pages 403-73). These pages are packed with McCormack's song repertoire, such as 'Mother Machree' quoted above. You can see 49 examples listed here in Fweet.

The list doesn't include 'Molly Brannigan', though it appears at 442.27 ('Ohibow, if I was Blonderboss I'd gooandfrighthisdualman!') and 451.25 'Not a spot of my hide but you'd love to seek and scanagain!')

In these episodes, Shaun sometimes bursts into song, singing the notes of the tonic Solfa:

Does she lag soft fall means rest down? Shaun yawned, as his general address rehearsal 407.27

do, si, la, sol, fa, mi, re, do  

Here he is boasting that you will never catch him singing off key because he has a 'whatyoumacormack' (tuning fork?) in his trousers:

'O twined me abower in L’Alouette’s Tower, all Adelaide’s naughtingerls juckjucking benighth me, I’d gamut my twittynice Dorian blackbudds chthonic solphia off my singasongapiccolo to pipe musicall airs on numberous fairyaciodes. I give, a king, to me, she does, alone, up there, yes see, I double give, till the spinney all eclosed asong with them. Isn’t that lovely though? I give to me alone I trouble give! I may have no mind to lamagnage the forte bits like the pianage but you can’t cadge me off the key. I’ve a voicical lilt too true. Nomario! And bemolly and jiesis! For I sport a whatyoumacormack in the latcher part of my throughers. And the lark that I let fly (olala!) is as cockful of funantics as it’s tune to my fork.'  450.17

Joyce gave a gloss on this to Stuart Gilbert:

I give… — This is a translation of the “tonic solfa” names of the notes in the scale (as an italian ear might hear them:do, “Igive”, re, “a king”, and so on): do, re, mi fa, sol, la, si, do. I double give: the high do (C)...
I give to me… —— This is the major chord (do-mi-sol—do: CEGC). 

'Prolegomena to A Work in Progress' in Our Exagmination


In 1920, sixteen years after their last meeting, Joyce met McCormack in London. According to McCormack's brother, James, who was also there, the tenor urged Joyce to 'get straight with the Church.' (See John Scarry's article, 'James Joyce and John McCormack' )

McCormack was a devout Catholic, a Papal Count who also received three papal knighthoods, and was invited by the Pope to sing at the his Mass in the Phoenix Park for the 1932 Eucharistic Congress.  Here's an earlier recording of 'Panis Angelicus' which McCormack sang there.

'I heard a voice, the voce of Shaun, vote of the Irish, voise from afar (and cert no purer puer palestrine e’er chanted panangelical mid the clouds of Tu es Petrus...'407.13

This side of McCormack appears in 'The Second Watch of Shaun',  a 'Lentern lecture' in conventional morality given by Shaun, now Jaun, to Issy and the girls.

'adhere to as many as probable of the ten commandments touching purgations and indulgences and in the long run they will prove for your better guidance along your path of right of way' 432.26


At the end of his lecture, Jaun announces that he's about to go off to the United States, boasting of the vast fortunes he will make there.

'I'd run my shoestring into near a million or so'  452.33   

Gilbert glosses 'run my shoestring' as '(American) make easy money. The American note is appropriate, for Jaun is the sort of Irishman who crosses the ocean and makes his pile in the States.'

The Jaun chapter is a farewell to Ireland performance, like McCormack's at the Antient Concert Rooms in 1904. 

In a later chapter, the narrator, looking at the sleeping infant Shaun, predicts that he will grow up 'to wend him to Amorica to quest a cashy job...O, I adore the profeen music! Dollarmighty!' 562.29 


In preparing his Shaun chapters, Joyce made heavy, and eccentric, use of this 1918 biography of McCormack, based on interviews with Pierre Key. You can read a facsimile of the book here.

The Genetic Wakean Ingebord Landuyt has written a fascinating article about Joyce's use of this book in Genetic Wake Studies.  Here's Landuyt:

'The nearly twenty-five pages of notes in VI.B.16...are a demonstration of Joyce’s continued interest in all 433 pages of his source text....Of the approximately one hundred and seventy entries that Joyce collected, he used over a third, the majority of them soon afterwards in the first chapters of what was to become book III. This is much more than his average use of sources. The notes that Joyce took in VI.B.16 on McCormack were often tagged to the Shaun siglum or immediately transformed accordingly: The "McCormack way"(JMC 18) in the original is "the Shaun way"(VI.B.16: 101; FW 442.22) in the notebook, and when the tenor is reported to have said something ("said the tenor" JMC 29), Shaun's profession replaces the original ("said the postman" VI.B.16: 103).'

You can read the quotations that Joyce took from the book listed here in fweet. Most of them are everyday phrases, like 'see you Thursday', 'dripping with perspiration', and 'gulped apologetically'. So the source of 'mussing his frizzy hair and the golliwog curls of him' quoted above (430.23) is this passage from page 22:

"I had no extensive repertoire," he informed me, "but what I knew I knew. And the singing spirit, I guess, must have been there. Like the man born to be hanged, I possibly was intended to sing." 
  There came, then, an interruption. John didn't seem to mind. He appeared rather to welcome it in the form of a girl of nine, lithe and jubilant and affectionately inclined. And straightway Gwendolyn McCormack danced over to her father and mussed his hair in most familiar fashion.
 In the case of Gwenny, photographs do not serve. They miss, for one thing, the spirit of Irish beauty which is hers and which, for full appreciation, must be seen in the flesh. The glint of her hair, too, is something for actual sight. An optimistic lass, with bubbling nature, a sturdy little body and unspoiled ways.

This could come straight out of the 'Nausicaa' episode of Ulysses. Think of all the other phrases Joyce could have taken here! 

'Their masculine Oirisher Rose' (92.18) comes from a passage on p74 describing McCormack's future wife, the soprano Lily Foley:

She just stood there, like a feminine Irish rose, and brought everyone to her feet.

Without Joyce's notebook VI.B.16, and the hard work of genetic scholars tracking down these entries, we'd have no idea that he used this book. But Joyce didn't expect his readers to identify these quotations. For him, the important thing was that McCormack's book was feeding into the Wake. Joyce saw his work as a collective creation, in which he was a channel rather than author:

'Really it is not I who am writing this crazy book,' Joyce told a party of friends. 'It is you, and you, and you, and that man over there, and that girl at the next table.'  

Eugene Jolas, 'My Friend James Joyce' in James Joyce: Two Decades of Criticism (ed Givens), 1948
'The book was indeed his life and he believed that he was entrapping some part of the essence of life within its pages....Joyce was not in his own opinion simply writing a book, he was also performing a work of magic.'

J.S.Atherton, The Books at the Wake, p.15

By using so many quotations from the biography, Joyce was 'entrapping some part of the essence' of Count John McCormack in Finnegans Wake.


It's possible that Joyce told McCormack that he had used him as a model for Shaun. John Scarry says that at their final meeting,  in Paris in September 1929,  Joyce gave the singer a copy of Tales Told of Shem and Shaun, just published by the Black Sun Press. McCormack later lent the copy to a journalist from the New York World, saying, 'In Joyce's work you have a great tour-de-force' (John Scarry, 'Joyce and McCormack').

I doubt if Joyce told McCormack that he had mischievously transformed him into 'Joan MockComic, male soprano' alongside his fellow Irish tenor, John Sullivan:

Songs betune the acts by the ambiamphions of Annapolis, Joan MockComic, male soprano, and Jean Souslevin, bass noble, respectively   222.07-8

Joyce is contrasting the lyric tenor voice of McCormack with Sullivan's dramatic heroic tenor.

Ambiamphions – Amphion, the singer, and his twin brother Zethus, the herdsman, built the walls of Thebes.  Unlike the mythical twins, McCormack and Sullivan are both singers - ambi (both) Amphions.
Annapolis - the city (polis)  of Anna (Liffey) i.e. Dublin. 

Jean Souslevin – In France, Sullivan used the professional name Jean Sullivan. Sous-le-vin -‘under the wine’. Ellmann writes Sullivan ‘did not need much persuasion from Joyce to have a drink’.

My next post will be all about Joyce's obsession with John Sullivan, who he described as having 'incomparably the greatest human voice I have ever heard, beside which Chaliapine is braggadocio and McCormack insignificant.' (To HSW 18 March 1930, Letters I, p291)..

Sullivan and Joyce


To finish, here's a trailer for Padraig Trehy's 2013 film, 'Shem the Penman Sings Again', in which Joyce's and McCormack’s encounters over the years are reimagined in a variety of early cinematic styles. You can read an interview with the director here.

I have yet to see the film, but it looks wonderful!

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