‘Well what do you have to say to Jim now after all our little squabbles he could not live without me for a month can you imagine my joy when I received a telegram from London a week after Jim and georgie on their way’…….wrote Nora in her unpunctuated flow of words, to her partner’s sister Eileen from her mother’s home in Bowling Green, in July 1912.
Nora was already in Galway with her five year old daughter Lucia, the first time she had been home since she eloped with James Joyce eight years earlier. She had arrived in Dublin on July 8 with a charming Italian-speaking child in tow. She was met off the boat-train at Westland Row Station, by the Joyce family delighted to meet Nora and her child. No doubt with humour, they brought her to lunch in Finn’s Hotel, where Nora had worked as a chamber-maid when she met Joyce.
Nora’s letter continued: ‘To make a long story short he arrived in Galway on a Tuesday night with georgie all the people here were talking about him for running after me….’
Joyce and Nora shared a passionate love which ignited the moment they met on Nassau Street, June 10 1904. The intensity of their love, their sexually explicit letters, their total immersion in each other’s physical presence may require some sensitive readers to approach such intimate details in their correspondence with caution. Because they were written for the lovers’ eyes only, perhaps we trespass too far reading them today. But they are published and widely read. Jealousy, desire and sensuality are all motivating factors that drove Joyce’s writing, which can equally astonish us when he reaches out to Nora crying: ‘my beautiful wild flower of the hedges, my dark-blue rain-drenched flower.’
Without Nora, even for a brief period that summer, Joyce had become distraught. He literally could not sleep without her. In a wrathful postcard, which crossed her first long letter from Galway, he released some of his scornful anger… ‘ having left me five days without a word of news …not one word of the places in Dublin where I met you and which have so many memories for us both! Since you left I have been in a state of dull anger…I cannot sleep nor think.’
Now they were together and no doubt Nora delighted in showing James the Galway she grew up in. They enjoyed an ideal Galway holiday from mid July to mid August. Nora’s uncle Michael Healy put them up at his house 18 Dominick Street, and fed them well.*
They went to the races, and took delight exploring the old town together with Nora showing James where she played and worked. Joyce cycled out to the graveyard at Oughterard where in his story The Dead Michael Fury is buried, whereas in fact, the story is based on Nora’s lover Michael Sonny Bodkin, who was buried at Rahoon. But Joyce followed his re-imaging of the story and came back declaring that the graveyard, which had loomed so large in Nora’s memory, was exactly as he imagined it.
Galway fascinated him. He wrote a sweeping romantic history of the City of the Tribes for a Trieste newspaper Ill Piccolo della Sera, taking pages of notes for probably future articles.
On one glorious day Joyce and Nora sailed to Inishmór, the largest of the Aran Islands. As they walked about a woman invited them into her cottage and gave them bread and salty butter and numerous cups of tea. When they offered to pay she pushed them out the door, asking them if they were trying to dishonour her house.
Their children Georgio, seven years, and Lucia, five years, ‘love the place. They are out all day!’ A radiant Nora writes to Eileen. Lucia sleeps with her granny at Bowling Green, ‘she goes up to bed singing, she is wonderful. She is as rosey…’ while Georgio sleeps with his parents.
‘ Jim is also very much improved and myself they say to me O you are getting a show you are so fat well I think I have got a little fat, to tell you the truth I don’t go out much I stay with Mother nearly every day….’
A bitter showdown
The Joyces' holiday should have been a romantic return to their native land, instead it shortly became a bitter experience that left Joyce to reject Ireland forever.
The trouble between Joyce and would-be publishers of Dubliners endured a painful nine-year struggle (which I tried to explain in last week’s Diary ), before it finally made it into print in June 1914. The manuscript was being passed from one publisher, Maunsel and Roberts, Dublin, to another Grant Richards in London, each concerned at different times about the morality of some of the stories, fear of being sued for libel by the proprietor all the pubs, restaurants and other establishments whose actual names Joyce had used, insisting on changes (which Joyce conceded, even dropping one story ), refusing to return proofs, and finally Maunsel’s insistence that Joyce must pay for the costs already involved preparing the manuscript.
Grant Richards expressed an interest in others of Joyce’s works, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and his play Exiles. He knew he had an exceptional writer of his hands, but still he prevaricated.
Joyce’s paranoia was never more justified when he left Galway for Dublin in mid August to try to sort it all out, closely followed by Nora and the children.
There was a bitter showdown at Maunsel and Roberts. Even after Joyce offered to take full responsibility for the book, and to buy a thousand copies himself, they refused to return the proofs to him and broke up the type.
Incandescent with rage, the Joyces returned to Trieste. Nora’s biographer Brenda Maddox captures some of Joyce’s despair when she remarks that his realisation that in his native land he was branded, perhaps forever, with the mark of immorality, made Joyce laugh. To his patron at the time, Ettore Schmitz, whose loan made the trip to Ireland possible, Joyce declared ‘What is certain is that I am more virtuous than all that lot - I, who am a real monogamist and have never loved but once in my life.’
Next week: Nora and the children return for their final visit 1922. The Civil War was raging.
NOTES: * Michael Healy, an inspector of Customs and Excise, who owned several houses in the town, was the Barnacle family member to whom Joyce was closest. He had bought boots for Nora when she was a child. Taking a fatherly affection to the young couple he corresponded regularly with them, sending them money during World War I, even corresponding with Joyce’s family in Dublin. Later he shared Joyce’s anxiety when his daughter Lucia, suffering mental anguish, ran off to Ireland.
Joyce grew very fond of Nora’s mother Annie. His own mother May (nee Murray ) ‘a gentle pious woman’ had died in 1902. “My mother was slowly killed, I think,” Joyce told Nora, “by my father’s ill-treatment, by years of trouble, and my cynical frankness of conduct”.
Although Joyce and Nora did not marry til 1931, they each wore wedding rings in Galway in the summer of 1912 to save Annie from malicious gossip. He would send Annie their new addresses as he moved his family restlessly from country to country, apartment to apartment. According to the Joyces' grandson, Stephen, when Joyce was told that Annie had died, ‘he cried like a baby.’
** Both Joyce and Nora liked Synge’s plays. Maybe happy memories of Aran prompted Nora to play Cathleen in Synge’s Riders to the Sea, performed at the Pfauen Theatre, Zurich, on June 17 1918. The Joyces sought refuge in Switzerland during World War I. To pass the time Joyce formed the English Players, which presented one-act Irish plays.