It was only about two months ago when I was sitting scribbling in a comfy chair in a corner of Renzo cafe and gallery on Eyre Street, when I looked up and saw her face looking down at me.
Captured in paint on canvas, there she was, unmistakably her. Her memorable colourful clothes, her unforgettable gait with a stance and an attitude known to all. A face hewn from the west of Ireland winds she braved for decades as she moved through the town with the greatest of ease, with a cigarette invariably burning itself to extinction hanging from her lip.
A true woman of the west. A living, thinking, smart woman whose demeanour harked back to another age. In a city of young students, trendy artists, and enthralled tourists, Nora was a novelty, and she played on this, writing herself into the popular culture of the city.
And as I looked at the latest attempt made to capture her in art, the thought crossed my mind that I had not seen her in ages. Normally, meeting Nora was a weekly event.
I have known Nora for many years and she had known me from my Ballinrobe days. “Is this where ya are now,” she said to me with amazement when she discovered almost two decades ago that I’d landed in the Advertiser.
One day not long after, she called into the front desk of the Advertiser and told the reception staff that she wanted to see me. “Is young Varley in?” When told that I might be busy, she said “tell him his mother is looking for him.”
Last weekend, Nora passed away and this week she was laid to rest in Rahoon, overlooking the city where she was legendary. She shares a cemetery with Siobhan McKenna which is fitting because Nora was a leading actress too who saw herself as a walk-on character in the soap opera that was Galway.
She put herself centre stage for many years. A stroll through Galway was not complete if you did not meet her. In the process, she became one of the most photographed women in the history of the city.
She has been captured in canvas, in animation, in rich black and white prints, in thousands of digital images. And in the minds of all who knew her. Her face lives on in images across the globe.
To call Nora merely a Galway character is an injustice, but it is the term that is oft used to shape someone who played such a big part in the street theatre that is Galway.
Women like Nora, Una Taaffe, Madame Bridget have left an indelible mark on the city. Their lives were different, their backgrounds varied, yet when the social history of Galway is written, they will all have played a key role in the minds of all who shaped the city.
Galway does not have many characters left. Players in the street drama. People whose life is lived in the full gaze of others, players who many of us feel we have a right to comment unfairly on. To cast as an Other, to see as different.
Characters become characters because they live their lives out in the public eye. They are very much a 19th and 20th century phenomenon. The passing of Nora brings an end to that era.
Cities and towns don’t produce characters anymore; life moves too fast now; people are too self conscious to make themselves conspicuous.
To her family, she was more than just Nora — she was a mother, a grandmother, a great grandmother, a sister. So much more than the public role she played. God rest you Nora Collins (nee Ward ). Your memory will live longer than the rest of us. Sleep well.
Our sincerest sympathies go out to her daughter Mary who must miss her most of all. To her son-in-law Michael, her grandchildren, her great-grandchildren, her brother Denis, go our thoughts.
But I do not think her journey has ended. Somewhere in a next life, she is shuffling along, bags in hand, saying to some saint or other, ‘’c’mere a minute....”, being Nora.