Christmas dinner with the Misses Morkan

We get out of bed at nine, and Nora makes chocolate. At midday we have lunch which we (or rather she ) buys (soup, meat, potatoes and some thing else )...At 4 o’clock we have chocolate, and at 8 o’clock dinner which Nora cooks.

(Letter to James Joyce’s brother Stanislaus, December 3 1904 )

On June 16 1904 on a Dublin street, (forever Bloomsday as a tribute to Nora ) Joyce met the red-headed chambermaid from Galway. Nora was 20 years old. She lived between her mother’s home at number 4 Bowling Green and her granny Healy’s at Whitehall, a few streets away. She was probably a bit wild. She often ran barefoot, and once dressed as a boy, which gave her friends enormous fun.

She had had two teenage affairs. One with Michael Bodkin, and Michael Feeney, both of whom died tragically young. But when she went out with a young Protestant boy, Willie Mulvagh, her uncle was furious, and hit her. She left Galway to work at Finn’s Hotel, Dublin.

Then that day, June 16, a cocky young man, James Joyce, stopped her in the street. He asked her for a date. At first she hesitated, and then, with great courage, agreed to go with him; and later, the following October, followed him abroad, as he went on his ‘odyssey of silence, exile and cunning’.

Joyce was determined to ‘forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race’; while poor Nora was to face a life of hardship and isolation, breaking the social conventions of her Catholic world, eloping in secret without benefit of clergy.

Yet she never lost her sense of fun. She never understood the principles of home economics, and she never understood Joyce’s work (‘that chop suey’ she called it on one occasion ). But she was staunchly loyal, faithful, outspoken, and down to earth. In turn, Nora was Joyce’s inspiration, his Lily, his Bertha, his Bella Cohen, his Molly Bloom.

James Joyce loved food. Nora Barnacle was a good cook and, like Joyce, loved plain traditional Irish fare: bacon and cabbage, chased by lashings of hot tea; cakes and puddings were her delight. But in the town of Pola, Nora had no stove, and had to cook their food at a near-by inn. In the nomadic existence of their 37 years together she never stopped longing for a proper home with a proper kitchen.

Food laden table

Joyce and Nora led a peripatetic existence. In their first two weeks in Trieste they moved four times. Throughout their lives they seemed to be in the habit of occupying bad flats at good addresses in the cities of Trieste, and Pola, Rome, Zurich and Paris. In their early years together they were continuously in a state of financial chaos, and they were often starving.

At Christmas 1906 they were completely broke, and resigned to unadorned pasta for dinner. This upset Nora very much. The previous year she had had enough money to search around the food shops for sufficient ingredients for four Christmas puddings. This Christmas, however, they were hungry. Joyce was writing The Dead, the last, and longest story in Dubliners; regarded by many as the finest short story in the English language.

It is a wonderful story full of tenderness and passion, and disappointed love. Joyce draws on Nora’s teenage romances for inspiration. The story revolves round the generous Christmas dance and dinner given by the spinster aunts, the Misses Morkan. I have no doubt but that Joyce’s wonderful and rich description of the food laden table was influenced by his rather sad and empty table that he shared with Nora that Christmas. He wrote:

‘A fat brown goose lay at one end of the table, and at the other end, on a a bed of creased paper strewn with sprigs of parsley, lay a great ham, stripped of its outer skin and peppered over with crust crumb, a neat paper frill round its shin, and beside this was a round spiced beef. Between these rival ends ran parallel lines of side-dishes: two little minsters of jelly, red and yellow; a shallow dish full of blocks of blancmange and red jam, a large green leaf-shaped dish with a stalk-shaped handle, on which lay bunches of purple raisins and peeled almonds, a companion dish on which lay a solid rectangle of Smyrna figs, a dish of custard topped with grated nutmeg, a small bowl full of chocolates and sweets wrapped in gold and silver papers and a glass vase in which stood some very tall celery stalks. In the centre of the table there stood, as sentries to a fruit-stand which upheld a pyramid of oranges and American apples, two squat old-fashioned decanters of cut glass, one containing port and the other dark sherry.’

Next week: Paris, more food, and the lady says ‘Yes’

NOTES: After leaving Ireland Joyce and Nora went to Pola and Trieste (at that time in Austria-Hungary ), where he earned a precarious living teaching English. He never doubted his destiny as a great writer, but lack of money made life difficult until relief came from the Royal Literary Fund, then from Mrs McCormick, and most generously of all, from Harriet Weaver.

His collection of superbly crafted short stories, Dubliners, was published in 1914. The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was published in the United States in 1916; while Sylvia Beach, owner of the bookshop Shakespeare and Company, published Joyce’s masterpiece Ulysses in Paris in 1922.

This week and next, I am leaning unashamedly on an excellent book, An Irish Literary Cookbook, by Veronica Jane O’Meara and Fionnuala O’Reilly, published by Town House in 1991, now alas out of print.


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