Nora Barnacle – a life less ordinary

Staying In

BIOGRAPHICAL FICTION Author of ‘Nora’, Nuala O’Connor.


Bríd Conroy

Reading Nuala O’Connor’s ‘Nora – a love story of Nora Barnacle and James Joyce’ just recently published by New Island Books, I am reminded to question the price paid for great achievements and genius. Genius was originally a Roman myth of the spirit which accompanied people from birth through to death. Joyce is one of the most influential and important writers of the 20th century and the publication of Ulysses in 1922, is considered a work of genius.   
It seems we revere those who achieve greatness as Joyce did, as if it is something separate from the living of a life. The story of Nora invites us to look at the attainment of that achievement from a different perspective, from Nora’s own perspective and also from a female perspective. And in so doing we are challenged to look at the wholeness of a life lived and what really gives life meaning. Do we squander that wholeness of life in the pursuit of greatness, or is life greater because of the pursuit of that genius?
Nora and James met originally in June 1904 and the book starts with their first date on June 16 (the single day around which Ulysses is set, of course). Four months later they elope unmarried to Paris. The idea of Nora Barnacle, born in the Galway Union Workhouse in 1884, running away to Paris with the great James Joyce is romantic and bohemian beyond words … “We haul our truck and suitcase to a park near the station and I flop onto a bench, clenched all over, and hungry and fagged from travelling … ‘Sit here Nora, my darling, and wait for me. I’m going to go and borrow a few bob from my old Paris friends’.”  
Nora was left waiting, a woman alone, penniless, no word of French, and no mobile phone on a park bench. Her resolve may well have been questioned in those dark moments.  
In a sense their life together until Joyce died in 1941, continues in the same vein. O’Connor takes us on a journey through that life they had together. Each chapter is a timeline and an event in their lives as they struggle with poverty, places to live, finding work, Joyce’s nightly drinking and possible philandering and finding a publisher for Joyce’s works. They moved many, many times between Trieste, Zurich, Paris and Rome. They relied heavily on their wits, their entrepreneurship and the kindness of strangers, friends and family.  
Their two children were European as such and felt distinctively not Irish on visits back to Dublin and Galway. In a sense they were ahead of their time, living across Europe and speaking at least three other languages. They also did not adhere to a strict education and religious instruction for their children. Yet there is a tragic element to their story, particularly in relation to Lucia their daughter who suffered with mental illness. She lived the majority of her adult life in different asylums, despite the endless search by Nora and James for a cure or diagnosis that would help her. Their son Georgio married twice and had just one son who died recently in 2020, leaving no living direct descendants of Nora and James.   
Nora is a work of biographical fiction, a popular emerging genre in literature at the moment. It is based closely on the life of Nora Barnacle Joyce. It adheres mainly to what is known of the Joyce family’s life in Europe with some facts having being altered. The narrator is Nora herself. It is a strong, powerful, female voice.  

Bríd Conroy and her husband Neil Paul run Tertulia – A Bookshop Like No Other at The Quay, Westport.