MENTION NORA Barnacle and four things come to mind: she was from Galway; she was sexually adventurous and advanced for her day; she was the partner and muse of James Joyce; and she never read a word he wrote.
The first of these, that Nora was from Galway - Bowling Green to be exact - is the only statement that is genuinely factual. The rest are, at best, problematic, at worst, just sexist.
Yes, Nora was more sexually liberated than most people of her time, but this reduces her to her sexuality only, with no room for the many other facets of her personality. She was indeed the muse of James Joyce - there is a reason Ulysses is set on June 16 1904, the couple’s first date - but to call her a muse makes her the footnote to a man’s creativity and life, allowing her little individuality and agency. As Marianne Faithfull noted, “it is all very flattering being the paramour of a star and being quoted as the inspiration of his material, but eventually your life is no longer your own, and you end up as the punchline of a piece of trivia”.
Throughout the decades, many Joyce scholars have viewed Nora as uneducated and ignorant, citing that she never read Ulysses. This is yet another instance of reducing and belittling Nora. She loved Joyce’s poetry, was fond of his short stories, and she read sections of both Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake as Joyce was working on them.
For Ballinalsoe based author Nuala O’Connor, these myths and assumptions about Nora Barnacle needed to be challenged, and for Nora to be presented as a woman, an individual in her own right, with the full range of her personality, emotions, and experiences on view.
“I’m very interested in women who have been ground down by history,” Nuala tells me, during our Tuesday afternoon interview. “Nora has become smudged and is not always visible behind James Joyce. My ambition is to bring her into the foreground and show that these so-called ‘unimportant’ women were important, and not just props, but real people with real lives, and who were crucial to the success of the men they were with.”
This is exactly what Nuala has achieved in her latest work, Nora, a marvelous, funny, poignant, at times moving, biographical-fiction novel, which will be launched at the Cúirt International Festival of Literature on Friday April 23.
Time with Nora
The origins of Nora lie in ‘Gooseen’, a short story Nuala wrote about Joyce and Nora meeting in Dublin, and which was shortlisted for the Writing.ie Short Story of the Year 2018 award. “I was enjoying Nora’s company so much I didn’t want that to be the end of my communion with her,” says Nuala. “That was a sign I wanted to write a novel, so I spent the next two years in her company.”
Nuala’s fascination with the lady from Bowling Green goes back to her teenage years when she read Brenda Maddox’s acclaimed biography, and she returned to that book as part of her own extensive research into Nora’s life.
'Nora had to work to keep Joyce under control, but she could get over things very quickly, which is important if you are going to live with someone of Joyce’s temperament'
“I read Richard Ellman’s biography of Joyce; Stanislaus Joyce’s book; a biography of his and James Joyce’s father, John Stanislaus Joyce; there is a good book about the Gerry Stembridge’s Nora film; articles about Nora herself; and Padraic Ó Laoi’s biography of Nora. I read everything from letters to scholarly articles - any aspect of Joyce you can think of has been written about. I also got a residency in Paris, and walked about where they used to live - I finished the first draft there - and I also went to Trieste, visited where they lived, the cafés they went to. I even dragged my family to Zurich.”
Enduring James Joyce
In the novel, Nora emerges as strong, level headed, often stoic, and with infinite patience for, and sometimes exasperation with, her boozing, selfish, paranoid, overgrown adolescent of a husband.
“She had what James Joyce needed, but lacked - a natural optimism and pragmatism,” says Nuala. “She understood how to get by. I have a huge love for Joyce, he was a genius, but he did create anxiety around everything, he was always at some scheme trying to make money, and he was always eyeing this one or that one. Nora was annoyed by his drinking, and she had to work to keep him under control, but she could get over things very quickly, which is important if you are going to live with someone of Joyce’s temperament.”
'She read passages of Ulysses but preferred Finnegan’s Wake. I think she was jealous of Molly Bloom/
Nora certainly lived a life unimaginable to most Irish people of the era - mixing with the American writers in Paris in the 1920s, living the café lifestyle on the continent - but it was a hand to mouth existence, with poverty always hovering far too close for comfort. As comes across clearly in the novel, Nora was a rock of stability for Joyce, and the couple’s children, through an era which stretched from before the Great War to the outbreak of WWII. Yet, many scholars have dismissed her as a rather ignorant woman, unable to, and uninterested in, appreciating her husband’s genius and his writing.
“Sometimes, it’s the fact that many of the scholars are from outside Ireland and don’t always understand the way Ireland works,” says Nuala. “It was normal for someone to leave school at 12 and get a job. If you were not from a middle class family, there wasn’t the money to continue education. That was normal up to my mother’s time in the 1950s, but it didn’t mean Nora was any more ignorant than anyone else.
“When Brenda Maddox told Richard Ellman she was going to write a biography of Nora, he told her there wasn’t enough, as if it was not possible to write a book about her - and he was one of the most sympathetic and fair minded scholars about her. Maddox’s book is 500 pages, so there was certainly plenty.”
Misjudging Ms Barnacle
Among the biggest myths challenged by Nora is that she read little, and understood less, of her husband’s work. “She read passages of Ulysses but preferred Finnegan’s Wake,” says Nuala. “I think she was jealous of Molly Bloom, the frankness and openness of it - she recognised herself in it. Nora loved song and poetry. Finnegan’s Wake is much closer to poetry, whereas Ulysees is very deliberately piggy-backing on other styles and writers - she didn’t always get the jokes and the references - but she loved the lyrical madness of Finnegan’s Wake. Besides, she had her own tastes and preferences, and she was entitled to have that.”
For Nuala, having her latest novel launched at Cúirt is something special. “It’s fantastic,” she says. “I’ve loved Cúirt ever since I moved to Galway 26 years ago. I feel I grew up as a writer coming to Cúirt. To be part of it now is a privilege.”
Nora by Nuala O’Connor and published by New Island, will be launched on Friday April 23 at 5.30pm. Nuala will be in conversation with poet and novelist Elaine Feeney. The interview was recorded in Ashford Castle and will be streamed on YouTube. To book tickets go to cuirt.ie