A kid putting their hands up to their face in a silly gesture.

This Classic Children’s Song Taught Grit Before It Was Cool

“Poor old Michael Finnegan, Begin Again”


My daughter is a growing toddler. She loves to listen to music in the car. Specifically, children’s music. Therefore, I’ve been listening to a lot of children’s music.

As I drive her to daycare, a song stands out to me. Though I’ve heard it dozens of times, today the words rattle around in my brain more than usual. When I replay the song and listen to the words closely, I notice that, above the fun rhythm and catchy rhymes, there is a message. Sure, it has the silliness of other children’s songs, but there is something deeper to be gleaned.

Within that song is a lesson of grit.


Michael Finnegan

The song is Michael Finnegan. Here are the lyrics:

“There was an old man
Named Michael Finnegan
He had whiskers
On his chin-ne-gan
The wind blew them off
And blew them on again
Poor old Michael Finnegan, Begin Again

There was an old man
Named Michael Finnegan
He went fishing
With a pinnegan
Sat all day
Reeled it in again
Poor old Michael Finnegan, Begin Again

There was an old man
Named Michael Finnegan
He looked up and saw those twins again
He turned ’round
And there they were again
Poor old Michael Finnegan, Begin Again

There was an old man
Named Michael Finnegan
Ate his dinner
From a tin again
Was so good
He ate some more again
Poor old Michael Finnegan, Begin Again

There was an old man
Named Michael Finnegan
He grew fat
Wanted to be thin again
Went on a diet
And got thin again
Poor old Michael Finnegan, Begin Again

There was an old man
Named Michael Finnegan
He was so clumsy
Banged his shin again
He shouted loud
Oh what a din again!
Poor old Michael Finnegan, Begin Again

There was an old man
Named Michael Finnegan
Heard this song
And began to sing again
Hurt my ears
So don’t begin again
And that’s the end of
Michael Finnegan!
And that’s the end of
Michael Finnegan!”


The old, poor man

Let’s break the song down. It starts off by detailing a pitiable man named Michael Finnegan who I will shorthand into Mike. Mike is an old man. That’s what we’re told right at the beginning. Then something crummy happens to Mike. The wind blows the whiskers off his chin and then blows them back on again. He goes fishing, doesn’t catch anything, and heads in again. And at one point, he encounters what could only be assumed to be the twins from The Shining. He turns around and there they are again.

Poor old Michael Finnegan, begin again.

Mike is a sad, old man who is down on his luck. He can’t catch a break. Sure, he gets fat then gets thin again but the rest of the time he is flailing about. Mike is a loser. At least, he is until you take a closer look. Because Mike isn’t just some down-and-out old man. Mike is a pillar of resilience.


It’s his song to sing

The Buddhists believe that life is suffering. Using Mike as an example, they are right. But Mike is no failure. Mike is an example of someone who gets knocked down again and again but doesn’t stay down. Bad things happen to Mike, but he keeps getting up. He keeps trying. He keeps pushing himself.

Mike is the embodiment of grit.

Mike is someone who continues to show up even when the world and everyone around him thinks less of him. Even when they pity him. Even when they call him a poor old man. Mike keeps showing up. He bangs his shin, eats from a tin, and yet, through it all, he’s found at the end of the song singing. He doesn’t let life get him down. In fact, he embraces it. He embraces his struggles. He takes hold of the narrative. And he claims it as his own.

He himself sings of the old man named Michael Finnegan. He hurts the ears of everyone listening. But he doesn’t care. It’s his song and he’s going to sing it as loud as he wants.


What you can learn from Mike

When feeling bad for yourself, think of Michael Finnegan. Recall his poverty, his old age, his clumsiness. Recall his bad days at sea, his whiskers falling off in the wind, his weight gain. See yourself in him. You and me, we are Michael Finnegan.

We each have good days and bad. Up days and down. Welcome the good days. Let them fill you up. But on the bad days, don’t despair. Rather, that’s when you should sing the loudest. That’s the time to belt it out as heavy as you can, hurting the ears of everyone around.

Michael Finnegan isn’t a song of pity or failure. It’s a song of welcoming hard times. It’s a song of persisting through it all. Through the haunting of The Shining twins, through the tin can food rations, through the windy and calm days alike. Michael Finnegan is about transcending the assumptions of others.


Move forward as Michael Finnegan

The children sing out to Mike. They call him old and poor and clumsy. They make up little tunes to mock the impoverished fellow. But does that get Michael Finnegan down? Absolutely not. In fact, he welcomes it. He embraces the song and sings it louder than everyone else. He sings it so loud that the children all around him give up. They go home to torment their siblings instead.

Yes, we are Michael Finnegan.

Anyone that ever embarks on something challenging is Michael Finnegan. Anyone who ever encounters doubters is Michael Finnegan. They tell you to stop. They tell you you’re wrong, or stupid, or not good enough. But instead of quitting, you continue on anyway. You push forward with a belief in yourself. Some things inevitably work out. Others don’t. Regardless though, through the good days and bad, you are Michael Finnegan.

As you face your next obstacle, remind yourself of this. Then, begin again.

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