Nora Barnacle left Galway early in 1904. She was 20 years old, a strong-willed girl running from a tyrannical uncle who disapproved of her latest boy friend. Within weeks of her arrival in Dublin she would become the muse and lover of James Joyce and the inspiration of some and his greatest works — Greta Conroy in The Dead, Bertha the common law wife in Exiles and Molly Bloom in Ulysses — all share some of Nora’s character and experiences. In October of that same year Nora and Jim would elope to Europe and in due course step on to the pages of literary history. She would return to her native city only twice during her 47 years of exile before dying in Zurich in 1951, having lived 67 tumultuous years.
The first visit came in 1912, in the summer of that year,accompanied by her five-year-old daughter Lucia. Nora posed as the wife of the writer James Joyce with a ring purchased shortly before her departure from Trieste.* She and Joyce had been based there more or less since they had left Ireland except for a few months when Joyce had taken a job in a Rome bank.
Neither had liked the Eternal City and quickly returned to Trieste.Joyce was yet to publish anything more significant than some stories and was reluctantly working as an English teacher, though a lot of his time was spent drinking and bemoaning his lack of literary output.
In Galway, Nora visited her mother and sisters in Bowling Green where the precocious Lucia charmed the Barnacle ladies and their neighbours with her Continental exoticism. Joyce meanwhile, feeling lonely in Trieste with their son Georgio, decided on a whim to join Nora in Galway.**
With another hastily purchased ring and little money, he and Nora enjoyed what amounted to a belated honeymoon. Thanks to the generosity of Nora’s uncle Thomas Healy, a wealthy bachelor, they watched the regatta at Menlo, went racing in Ballybrit and sailed to the Aran Islands. Joyce was eager to see where Synge had conceived his great western plays.
All the while the children were fussed over by the Barnacle girls and their Uncle Tommy, a tram conductor on the Salthill route. Nora also showed the writer where she had courted Michael Bodkin, Michael Feeney and the Protestant William Mulvaghy the relationship that had so enraged her guardian. Joyce would in later years adapt and recycle her reminiscing in his writing and even mock Nora when he was drunk or jealous.The 1912 visit was a relaxed time for the couple and their kids, away from their rented apartment and the poverty that was a daily source of conflict. Joyce who was prone to sickness in Trieste, was healthy and content, even cycling to Oughterard and back.
Jim would leave Galway before Nora to conclude some publishing business that would prove unsuccessful, leaving their finances in poor order and Joyce’s work unpublished. Nora with her children visited the nuns in the Presentation Convent where she had been a laundress after leaving school at 12. The Nuns welcomed her and her children, unaware that their parents were unmarried.*** The family would return to Trieste staying until they were forced to leave for Zurich with the Great War looming.
Nora would return to her native city 10 years later in April 1922. Easter Week, the sixth anniversary of the 1916 rising, which had begot that terrible beauty as Yeats put it, was about to turn ugly. Again she had her children in tow but unlike the childlike innocence of 1912 Georgio and Lucia at 17 and 15 were Continental adolescents transported from the sophistication and colour of Paris to the of the west of Ireland, grey and poor after the War of Independence. Nora herself was at somewhat of a crossroads as she had grown tired of wandering across Europe and of Joyce’s lifestyle.
Ulysses had been published and months earlier and with his ever-growing celebrity, Nora was contemplating a life for herself apart from the writer and his pompous friends. She had asked Joyce for an allowance to help her establish herself wherever she decided to live in the future.
Joyce, while he reluctantly agreed to the allowance, had done all he could to stop them going to Ireland as he could see that civil war was inevitable but Nora was adamant. Following a week in London, another possible place where she might settle, she wanted to give Galway its chance; after all, it had given them such a great welcome in 1912.
The Galway that they found in 1922 was no longer the loyal servant of the crown, the Connaught Rangers no longer marched to St Nicholas admired by the locals. The Royal visit of 1903 was a distant memory. The so called Free State, created just a few months earlier was already threatening to tear itself apart. The Treaty that had facilated the fledgling state had in fact created two factions both with armies at their disposal. Renmore Barracks was in the hands of the anti Treaty forces the so called Irregulars, while less than a mile away the Railway Hotel and the city was controlled by the Free State or regular I R A. De Valera was due on Easter Sunday to rally support for rejecting the treaty in an election due in June. It was not a time to be different, to stand out, so Nora and her children as they stepped from the train must have made heads turn in their continental finery.
Still Nora was here now and made her way to Bowling Green, only to have Georgio and Lucia refuse to enter the Barnacle home. They objected to the smell of boiled cabbage and no amount of coaxing would make them change their mind. Mortified Nora found lodgings in Casey’s boarding house in Nuns Island and had to take them to a restaurant for their meals. As before, Nora visited the Presentation nuns where she was again warmly received by the nuns who remained unaware of her marital status.
It was in the little two-room house in Bowling Green that she spent most of her time. Her mother Annie was widowed the previous year and even though she and Thomas Barnacle (Nora’s father ) lived apart, she bore the full cost of his burial. Delia and Kathleen were the only two sisters still at home at the time and Nora enjoyed hearing of their adventures while courting, which was a tricky business during those years. Curfews and stop and search operations were common — a boyfriend of Delia’s got caught out after curfew was stripped of his pants. Nora’s only brother Tommy had quit his job with the tram company and gone to London.
Georgio was often stopped in the street and questioned; this frustrated the boy greatly. He often dreamed in Casey’s Boarding house that the Zulus were coming for him. They did come to the door one day in the form of the Free State army, not for Georgio but to watch some Irregulars in a warehouse across the street. It was the last straw for Nora who packed their belongings, said goodbye to her family and headed for the train.
But there was one further indignity to be endured. As the train approached the barracks in Renmore it came under fire from the anti -Treaty Irregulars. As all the passengers threw themselves to the carriage floor Georgio stood up defiantly. He had had enough, and so had his mother who would complain bitterly to her uncle Thomas Healy (now based in Dublin ) of their treatment in Galway before making a hasty retreat from Ireland, never to return.
Nora went back to Joyce who remarked to his aunt in Dublin “It will be a while before you see Nora in her native dunghill. The air in Galway is very good but dear at the current price”. While the years of poverty were behind them their lives would not be without troubles — Georgio would fail to fulfil his promise as a singer — his marriage to a troubled American heiress would flounder because of her confinement in a sanatorium.
His son Stephen, Nora and Jim’s only grandchild, would be estranged from his father for most of his life. Lucia showed promise as a dancer, even training with the legendary Isadora Duncan, but she was also romantically linked to her fathers aide the young Samuel Beckett, and mental illness would see her spending most of her adult life in institutions.
Joyce suffered from poor health and without Nora would have struggled to cope as his eyesight deteriorated and could have succumbed to alcoholism but for her. In 1940 Nora and James had to flee the Nazi invasion of France settling in Vichy before returning to their refuge during the Great War in Zurich.
Joyce died there shortly after their arrival in 1941 and Nora would live out her remaining years there separated from Lucia who following her confinement during the war in rural France, would never again lead an independent life. The great fortune generated by Joyce’s books would be difficult to obtain following the war.
Nora and Georgio found themselves largely forgotten in post-war Europe. Occasionally sought out by American academics, she was always happy to answer their questions about her husband.
Joyce’s father on hearing Nora’s surname for the first time remarked “Barnacle, she’ll stick to him”. He was close — they stuck together for better and for worse and despite two wars and all that life with a volatile genius could throw at her, she stuck to Joyce because the literary Gods decreed it that Nora Barnacle from Bowling Green in Galway would be the rock and muse without which the celebrated genius of James Joyce may have floundered.
*Then part of Austria-Hungary, now in Italy
** Joyce had visited Galway with Georgio in 1909. He wrote Nora a picture postcard while sitting at the kitchen table in Bowling Green where he described the kindness of the Barnacle ladies. Nora’s mother had sung The Lass of Aughrim for him.
***Nora and Joyce would not marry until 1931 in a London registry office.
Padraic O Laoi’s excellent book Nora Barnacle Joyce is great on detail of Nora and her life in Galway
The Barnacle house in Bowling Green is the great hidden gem of Galway and well worth a visit.