meanings of the Irish-English phrase ‘like snuff at a wake’

The Irish-English phrase like snuff at a wake has been used in various acceptations, in particular:
hither and thither, from pillar to post;
liberally, lavishly, especially in to throw money around like snuff at a wake—synonym: to spend money as if it were going out of fashion.

The following article explains the cultural background to the phrase like snuff at a wake—it was published in the Windsor and Eton Express, Berks, Bucks, Surrey, and Middlesex Journal; Maidenhead and Slough Gazette (Windsor, Berkshire, England) of Saturday 22nd December 1877:

The Catholic Bishops and Irish Wakes.—We are glad to see that at length the Roman Catholic Bishops of Ireland have resolved upon united action in discountenancing the heathenish practice of holding “wakes” over the dead. Those who are familiar even with the Ireland of to-day are aware that the death of a person of humble rank is usually made the occasion of a carousal by his relatives and friends. In the wilds of Connaught, when a peasant dies the whole country side hastens to the wake. No invitations are given, all comers are welcome, the more the merrier. Plates full of small pieces of twist tobacco, about an inch and a half long, and plates of snuff—hence the saying, perhaps, “Flying about like snuff at a wake”—are left near where the corpse is laid out for the guests to help themselves. The latter bring with them such quantities of whiskey as they can afford and the night is spent in drinking, smoking, story-telling, singing, and “coorting.” No dancing is permitted, but the cabins are usually so packed with “sympathisers” that to jig would be impossible. The very idea of such scenes being held over departed Christians is sufficient to disgust cultivated minds, but the action of the Irish bishops is not dictated solely by sentimental considerations. Numerous instances have occurred of late where infectious diseases have been spread broadcast through the instrumentality of wakes, and more than one medical officer in England has called attention to the evil caused by the observance of the custom by Irish resident in this country. The measures resolved upon by the Irish hierarchy at their recent meeting at Maynooth College are well calculated to stamp out the practice. No one in future is to attend at wakes except the immediate relatives of the deceased. No spirituous or intoxicating liquors are to be used on such occasions. For disobedience of these injunctions the clergy are commanded not to visit the houses, not to attend at the interment, nor to celebrate mass for the deceased. The latter portion of the punishment strikes us as being somewhat illogical and Hibernian, inasmuch as it is rather hard to deprive a person of a little assistance in the other world because his relatives insist on waking him. The bishops mean well, however, and their action is deserving of commendation.—Echo.

An Irish wake in Connemara—from The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News (London, England) of Saturday 5th May 1883:

An Irish wake in Connemara - The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News (London, England) - 5 May 1883


The earliest occurrence of the phrase like snuff at a wake that I have found is from the humorous account of an uncommon police-court case, published in The Freeman’s Journal (Dublin, County Dublin, Ireland) of Wednesday 19th June 1844:

Most Extraordinary Case—A Tailor Dancing the Polka in Sackville-street. A young man named Gaffney, whose attire was well calculated to display the symmetry of his anatomical propertion [sic], was brought before the magistrates of this office on yesterday, charged with having behaved on the night preceding in such a manner as to disturb the public peace, and to fright Sackville-street of its propriety. The prisoner, who described himself as a tailor, was slim and haggard, and his features were of an ashy colour; but Shakspeare’s [note 1] metaphor of “pale as his spirit,” however just in Hamlet’s case, was by no means applicable to Mr. Gaffney, whose inner garment was of a deep saffron hue.
Police-constable 184 B was the complainant, and from his statement it would appear that when on duty in Sackville-street the previous night his attention was directed to the prisoner, who was pitching somersets, and performing a variety of gymnastic exploits in front of the Post-office, to the infinite amusement and ineffable gratification of a large crowd of disorderly persons, consisting, for the most part, of pugnacious boys, and women “frail as the glass wherein they view themselves.” [note 2] The constable being of opinion that these feats and evolutions, however creditable to the agility of Mr. Gaffney, were calculated to disturb the repose of such of her Majesty’s liege subjects as were taking horizontal refreshment in their beds, was constrained, in the conscientious discharge of his duty, to place Mr. Gaffney under arrest, and conveyed him to the station-house, amid loud and vehement marks of disapprobation on the part of those who had derived amusement from witnessing the prisoner’s manoeuvres.
Mr. Duffy—Well, Mr. Gaffney, what explanation have you to offer of this extraordinary conduct?
Prisoner—l assure you, my lord, I do not think I was guilty of the slightest offence, and the constable overstepped his duty in taking me up.
Constable—l couldn’t avoid taking you up; you were making a complete show of yourself.
Prisoner —Well, and suppose I was, what was that to you? I am my own master, I should hope; and if I, through motives of philanthropy, or from any other cause, think fit to make a show of myself for the amusement of my fellow-creatures, 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)?

The next two earliest occurrences of the phrase like snuff at a wake that I have found are from Ireland and the Irish, a column in the form of letters to ‘Thady’, by a person signing themself ‘Terry Driscoll’, published in The Warder (Dublin, County Dublin, Ireland)—Stoneybatter is near Dublin:

1: On Saturday 23rd March 1850:

Stoneybatter, March 21st, 1850.
And so you tell me, Thady, you woke up out of a disjointed sort of a sleep on Monday mornin’ last, and with a screeching head-ache, and all in compliment to ould Ireland! Why, then, the greenest spot under the canopy is entirely obleeged to you, so it is, for disarranging your nerves, and makin’ yer eyes bloodshot, and your tongue like a deal-boord, on its account.
More power, ould stock—the never a one o’ me saw Paddy, since I was capable of obsarvin’ anything, shorttaken for an excuse yet, when he was on for wettin’ his whistle […].
But we’re gettin’ shut o’ the ould customs, with and with—they’re vanishin’ like snuff at a wake; and signs by, I’ll bet my life, tho’ bein’ Irishmen, both of ’em bred and born, that neither a sartin grate commandher, nor a mighty bright orathor, wor in a state o’ pleasant intoxication of a Pathrick’s Day, for the last dozen years or more.

2: On Saturday 11th October 1851:

Stoneybatter, Oct. 9th, 1851.
Bedad, ’tisnt easy to take up an English paper, but what you’ll see an account o’ fathers o’ families makin’ away with thimselves, and other people into the bargain! Hangin’ or shootin’ their misforthunate bodies, or else lyin’ down across rail-roads, and waitin’ patiently to be cut in two halves. Erra, what harm if they wor down-hearted or desperately weak in thimselves, from livin’ on next to nothin’, or bein’ knocked about like snuff at a wake; but to say that conshumers o’ beef and mutton, with puddins three times a-week at least, id have a passion for hurryin’ out o’ the world, uncalled for! I own to God it puzzles me beyant all conception.

The earliest use of like snuff at a wake in connection with money that I have found is from Eily MacAdam’s Notebook, published in the Catholic Standard (Dublin, County Dublin, Ireland) of Friday 9th September 1949:

To cut the bonds, treat money as a handy symbol of barter, strip finance of its mystery, that is a sensible task for sensible men. Let it be an easily-handled token, available when and where it is wanted, going round, in the Irish phrase, “like snuff at a wake.”

The earliest occurrence that I have found of the phrase to throw money around like snuff at a wake is from Scanning the Scene, by John James Doe, published in The Portadown News (Portadown, County Armagh, Northern Ireland) of Saturday 10th December 1955:

Do we really need tourists? Does tourist traffic add to our wealth? Personally undecided I merely ask the question. But now I do say that I have disliked most tourists I have met. It is like finding a strange male in the ancestral bedroom.
It has been hard to analyse my cause of dislike. Sometimes it seems they have far more money than I have, and throw it around like snuff at a wake. At other times I think this an elusion of opulence; something not really true. With all their money, they do not seem happy people. Do they truly add to our own small domestic existence?
I am sorry but I doubt it.




1 Shakspeare is one of the spellings of the Swan of Avon’s surname that have existed in the course of time.


2women “frail as the glass wherein they view themselves”” is a reference to Act 2, scene 4, of Measure, For Measure (London: Isaac Jaggard and Edward Blount, 1623), by the English poet and playwright William Shakespeare (1564-1616):

– Angelo. Nay, women are fraile too.
– Isabella. I, as the glasses where they view themselues,
Which are as easie broke as they make formes.