YIN AND YAN James Joyce and Nora Barnacle, seated on a wall in Zurich. Pic: The Poetry Collection of the University Libraries, University at Buffalo, New York
Fr Kevin Hegarty
James Joyce married a Galway girl. In the week that we celebrate St Valentine’s Day let us recall their great romance. Already this month Joyce has been in the news. On February 2, celebrations marked the centenary of the publication of his epic modernist novel ‘Ulysses’.
It is said that opposites attract. That is what seems to have happened on the day in June 1904 when Joyce first met Nora Barnacle.
He belonged to a Dublin middle-class family, though his father’s improvidence eventually brought poverty to their door. James was educated at Clongowes Wood College and Belvedere College, the two major bastions of Jesuit education in Ireland. By his early 20s he had graduated from University College Dublin and was already establishing a reputation as an intellectual and writer in the Capital.
Nora Barnacle was from a working-class Galway family. Her father, Thomas, was a baker and her mother, Annie, was a dressmaker. Her formal education ended when she left the Convent of Mercy school at the age of 12.
In her insightful biography of Joyce, Edna O’Brien outlines what Nora brought to James’s life: “In her he was to seek and find earth mother, dark, formless, made beautiful by moonlight. He was a Dubliner, she was from Galway; she was to bring in her jingles, her stories, her pisreogs, the echoes of her ancestry, the other half of Ireland – soil, gloom, moon grey nettles, the warring clans and the mutinous Shannon waters.”
She inspired Gretta Conroy, Molly Bloom and Anna Livia Plurabelle, three major characters in his fiction. When they first met she thought he was Scandinavian: “I mistook him for a Swedish sailor with his electric blue eyes, his jaunty cap and plimsolls.” He was attracted by her vivacity, her wit and her beautiful auburn hair. Within a few days they had their first date, on June 16, 1904 – a date he later immortalised as the setting for events of ‘Ulysses’.
Nora was working as a chambermaid in Finn’s Hotel in Dublin. In Galway, she had worked as a porter in the Presentation Convent and as a Laundress. When her parents separated due to her father’s excessive drinking, she went to live with her uncle. Striking in appearance and flamboyant in manner, she liked to flout convention.
Contemporaries recalled how she would dress in men’s clothes and parade through the city streets. Her uncle did not appreciate her escapades. Matters between them came to a head when he discovered she was dating William Mulvagh, a local Protestant, of whom he disproved. He beat her severely. It was the catalyst that led her to abandon her native city and find work in Dublin.
The relationship between James and Nora deepened quickly into the ecstasy of love. He wrote her many passionate letters, some of them sexually explicit. In October 1904, they eloped to Zurich, to the dismay of his family who did not think her good enough for their James.
It was the start of their nomadic life on continental Europe. Over the next four decades they set up several homes, mainly in Zurich, Rome, Paris and Trieste. Their two children, George and Lucia were born between 1905 and 1907. James and Nora legalised their relationship by marrying in 1931.
They had their struggles. Their financial situation was often precarious, sometimes desperate. They had to rely often on literary patrons. Nora often wished he would write accessible stories that might bring in more money. He developed serious eyesight problems.
His heavy drinking strained their relationship. On one occasion she issued the novel threat that she would have their children baptised if he did not control his drinking. He had long abandoned Catholicism.
Their daughter Lucia suffered acute mental problems that left her confined to an asylum for the rest of her life.
Despite all these difficulties, Joyce never wavered in his austere commitment to his vocation as a writer. His major works have earned a high place in the pantheon of English literature. Nora also carried out an independent life for herself, developing interests in opera, drama and fashion.
James died in 1941 and Nora in 1951. Both are buried in Zurich. She was the muse that shaped his life. He wrote to her once, “You are my only love. You have me completely in your power. I know and feel that if I am to write anything fine and noble in the future I shall do so only listening at the doors of your heart. I would like to go through life side by side with you, telling you more and more until we grew to be one together, until the hour should come for us to die.”
Nora’s tribute to him was shorter but equally heartfelt. After his death she wrote to her sister, “My poor Jim, he was such a great man.”