In chapter 1 of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Stephen is home from school for Christmas and overhears his family talking. He hears this exchange between his father, Mr Dedalus, and the family friend John Casey.

Mr Casey took the glass, drank, and placed it near him on the mantelpiece. Then he said:
— Well, I can’t help thinking of our friend Christopher manufacturing . . .
He broke into a fit of laughter and coughing and added:
—. . . manufacturing that champagne for those fellows.
Mr Dedalus laughed loudly.
— Is it Christy? he said. There’s more cunning in one of those warts on his bald head than in a pack of jack foxes.

Reading this, it was not clear to me what this conversation is referring to. Christopher - or Christy - is not mentioned previously in the text so there's no context in which to place anything mentioned. It seemed possible, given the tone, that "champagne" is code for something else but it's also possible to read the line straight, since it still has potential comedy value.

Doing a little digging online I found the suggestion that "champagne" here is a reference to explosives. If correct, that would presumably make Christopher involved in the Nationalist movement. But how is the reader supposed to work this out? Is it slang, something - or someone - that Irish readers in Joyce's time would have understood?

2 Answers 2


I don't see anything else in the text to support an interpretation of 'champagne' alluding to explosives.

Dedalus' father and his friend seem to be harking back to a story from some years previously, so it is possible that it is a tale which dates back to the 1860/70s when Champagne was changing no longer being a drink purely of the elite, but of the commercial middle classes.

All quotations in this answer are taken from Robert Graham Harding's Doctoral Thesis 'The establishment of champagne in Britain, 1860–1914'

most informed contemporaries agreed that the great majority of consumers were incapable of judging the quality of different champagnes. The market began to segment: lower-price wines for public dinners, race meetings and public or semi-public events; higher-priced and heavily branded wines for dinner parties where social capital was on display.

The drive for this increase came from a combination of fashion and changes in alcohol duty in the UK:

Nineteenth-century champagne was a wine made new through English agency. In 1800, champagne was as often still as sparkling. When sparkling, it was almost universally sweet – a wine to be drunk after rather than with food. In colour it was grey or amber (even red). By 1900 champagne in Britain was typically pale gold, unequivocally sparkling, almost universally dry and principally drunk with savoury dishes in restaurants and at home. Young elite males in London’s West End clubs initiated these changes in the 1850s and French producers adapted their wine to meet the evolving demands of what became their most important market.

The drinkers also changed. The revised duty structures that Gladstone’s budgets of 1860-62 put in place sparked a fifteen-year boom in light (i.e. unfortified) wine. Total wine consumption more than doubled by the mid-1870s before falling slowly to 1914.

This increased demand and opened up space in the market for mass counterfeiting. Producers were attempting to develop brands more strongly to guard against outright fakes and similarly named products.

Before 1850, ‘champagne’ was a decidedly elastic term and, frequently, a decidedly dubious liquid. In the strictest sense, champagne was understood by contemporaries to be sparkling wine produced in the Champagne region of France. However, it was being used as a generic term for ‘sparkling wine’ of all forms from at least the 1820s. In the 1850s large quantities of counterfeit champagne were being made in England from imported French grapes or even rhubarb.

Recourse for manufacturers and importers of genuine champagne was originally limited do to the lack of protection of the name 'champagne'.

The difficulties faced by the major houses in protecting against adulteration and passing off were compounded by the lack of any legal protection for the term ‘champagne’ itself. The British Merchandise Marks Act and common usage accepted that the term ‘champagne’ could be freely used provided that the label bore some further indication of the place of origin. This weakness was not remedied until a series of court cases in France in the 1880s and 1890s.

Until then the term ‘champagne’ was in effect a generic. As Ridley’s put it in 1892: ‘To the British consumer every White Sparkling Wine is Champagne of a kind, be it known as German, Swiss, Italian, or what not.’That distributors and merchants of all stripes were able to make unfettered use of the term was both a cause and a consequence of the spread of the ‘champagne’ habit beyond its traditional market of wealthy elites. By capitalising on these weaknesses of champagne in the 1860s, second-tier shippers in France and distributors and merchants in Britain made lower-priced ‘champagne’ both popular and popularly available. Some of this wine would have been made from grapes grown outside the Champagne region; some from British gooseberries, rhubarb or pears.[...........] At the very bottom end of the market were counterfeit wines supposedl made from ‘sugar, and the juices of pears, gooseberries or birch juice’ or even ‘petroleum’.

This might be enough to account for the lack of any qualifying quotation marks around the word 'champagne' in the passage in question.

Champagne was increasing wildly in popularity at this time:

There is little precise data on British imports or sales of champagne before the 1860s but, according to Simon, 117,000 gallons of champagne were imported in 1835. By the early 1860s, the data suggest that consumption in Britain was around 450,000 gallons, a quadrupling of the market. This figure accords well with the 1864 claim made by the gourmandising barrister, A.V. Kirwan, that consumption of champagne had doubled since 1848.

It seems eminently likely against this picture, that Christy, the Inn Keeper who is later noted as being 'nearly lopsided now with roguery', might indulge in the attempt to produce a sparkling vintage of rhubarb, gooseberry and petroleum in order to fleece a few fellows.

  • It seems odd to be manufacturing champagne though. Producing it, yes, but you don't manufacture a drink. Note how you yourself resorted to produce a sparkling vintage in your own post. The use of the verb manufacture, to me, argues against a literal interpretation.
    – terdon
    Jun 2 at 17:23
  • @terdon, well I’m arguing that it wouldn’t be literal champagne, though I can’t speak to the English usage patterns in regard to counterfeit champagne at that time. Manufacturing versus production isn’t a hair I’d care to split without more information.
    – Spagirl
    Jun 2 at 18:01
  • @terdon One of the sources in the paper I cited is ‘ C. Tovey, Champagne: its History, Properties and Manufacture. (London 1870)’, which at least suggest the use of ‘manufacture’ in regard to champagne was not outlandish at the time.
    – Spagirl
    Jun 2 at 18:09
  • Ha! Well, I can't argue with solid data. Fair enough. My mind went straight to explosives when I read the quote in the OP, largely because of the use of manufacture and the well known fact that Champagne bottles can open explosively, but you just gave a very good example of the term being used so...
    – terdon
    Jun 2 at 18:19

The best source for your doubts is going to the primary sources of these "online resources" you dug. To get there, start from the Oxford Press edition of the book: in the explanatory notes there is explicit reference to the possibility of champagne being explosives (see page 230).

Screenshot of Oxford Press edition showing note that reads champagne: explosives?

The explanatory notes are based on the work of many critics, starting from Chester Anderson and Don Gifford. So they may be the first to discuss or to write in the notes that champagne was a slang for explosives (a similar one is "horses" for "cocaine", at least in italian).

To go back to the details of your question, the champagne bottles of 19th century where rather weak and known to randomly exploding in the cellar, due to build up of pressure in the bottle and the poor quality of wine. Nowadays is much rarer, but it can still happen.

There may be a reinforcement, in Christ"y" being a reference to the catholic religion of the Nationalist, but I would not be so sure about this.

  • Hi and welcome to Literature Stack Exchange. This is an excellent answer, except that explanatory notes, even when they are in an edition of the book, are not primary sources; they are secondary sources. Please consider editing your answer to drop the first sentence.
    – verbose
    Jun 2 at 10:16
  • 1
    Thanks for this. The link you've given doesn't seem to show me the note you're talking about but I think I've found it elsewhere: does it literally just say "champagne: explosives?" Either way, if you have the text of the note, might be worth quoting it in the answer rather than leaving a link,
    – Matt Thrower
    Jun 2 at 10:38
  • screenprint from googlebooks: imgur.com/a/I6TC1lu
    – EarlGrey
    Jun 2 at 11:50
  • 5
    I don't particularly trust literary critics — they're like ChatGPT; they have a tendency to make things up when they don't understand something. I'd be much happier if we had some different source for the fact that champaign could mean explosives in early 20th century Ireland.
    – Peter Shor
    Jun 2 at 16:07
  • @PeterShor still better than economists, that have a tendency to make things up when they should understand something :D (have a look at the book "Debt" from David Graeber if interested)
    – EarlGrey
    Jun 2 at 23:08

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge that you have read and understand our privacy policy and code of conduct.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.