Nora Barnacle: Wife and inspiration to James Joyce

An inspiring book by Marian Broderick titled Wild Irish Women: Extraordinary Lives from History is a series of lively portraits telling the stories of seventy-five women most of them Irish-born and bred. The Irishness of the women is variously and liberally mixed and diluted with the cultures of Europe, the USA, South America, the Caribbean, Japan and Australasia.
The book is a historical collection about fascinating women in political, religious, social and cultural contexts that helped to shape Eire. With Glossary and Bibliography, the stories profile Women of letters, Wives and lovers, The great pretenders, Women on the front line, Ahead of their time, Political animals, Saints and sinners, Tough cookies, Intrepid travellers, Stars of stage and screen, Artistic temperamentswho enjoy varying degrees of fame or notoriety.
Nora Barnacle (1884-1951)
Nora Barnacle was wife and inspiration to James Joyce. One of seven children born in Galway City to Thomas Barnacle and his wife, Anne Healy, Nora’s father was a baker and her mother a dressmaker. The family lived comfortably but Nora’s father was a drinker leading to family strife that led her to have little contact with him. Chronicled as intelligent, quick witted and daring, at a young age she was fun loving and got up to pranks. The Barnacle house in Galway City is now a much visited small private museum restored to its former character.
In 1904 Nora left Galway for Dublin and worked as a waitress and chamber maid at Finn’s Hotel on Leinster Street. After a few months when walking down Nassau Street she met James Joyce, then a 22 year old graduate of University College, Dublin, and struggling writer. They may have become acquainted when Joyce and his friends visited the hotel but on this occasion Joyce asked her out on a date. Described as tall, clear-skinned and red-haired, she ‘walked out’ with James Augustine Aloysius Joyce in Ringsend at the River Liffey on 16 June 1904.
In October the same year, fleeing what Joyce saw as the intellectual and political paralysis of Dublin, they left together for Continental Europe first living in Trieste where their two children, Giorgio and Lucia, were born in 1905 and 1907 respectively. They moved from one European city to another, pretending to be married, living in rented rooms and eating in restaurants. In Trieste Joyce got a job as an English teacher while continuing with his writing. Over the decades they moved between Trieste, Rome, Trieste, Dublin, Zurich, Trieste, Paris, London, Paris, Zurich, and other places in between. Joyce’s brother, Stanislaus, joined them in Trieste and provided substantial early literary and financial support to the family.
In time Nora was seeking marriage and a home of her own, but Joyce found the idea impossibly bourgeois and refused to comply on both accounts. Apart from his stubbornness to marry, Nora was the boss of the family and Joyce generally deferred to her. In return, she nurtured him, supported him, cared for him and was his constant companion in everything he did. As the years went by and Joyce’s sight began to fail, he became more and more dependent on Nora. He remained fascinated with her and she remained his emotional support and muse. They were inseparable through decades of a chaotic and very unsettled life style.
In 1931, when Nora was 47, she and Joyce finally married in London at a registry office service. The couple continued moving about in Europe. When World War II broke out in 1939 they settled, with Lucia, in neutral Switzerland. Joyce died in Zurich from complications of a perforated ulcer on 13 January 1941.
Crippled with arthritis and by then largely forgotten, Nora quietly outlived her husband by ten years. She died in Zurich on 10 April 1951, age sixty-seven, attended only by her son, Giorgio. He is buried near his parents at the Fluntern Cemetery in Zurich. From 1966 an “honorary grave” was donated by the Canton of Zurich. James Joyce (1941), Nora Joyce (1951), Giorgio Joyce (1976) and a statue of a seated James Joyce by Milton Herbald was inaugurated for Bloomsday 1966.
James Joyce (1882-1941)
Widely considered to be one of the most influential writers of the twentieth century, each year on 16 June, Bloomsday celebrates James Joyce’s famous novel Ulysses published in 1922. Called after Leopold Bloom, Irish-Jewish character, James Joyce is said to have chosen the date in 1904 for his Dublin odyssey to mark when he first ‘walked out’ with Nora, never confirmed or denied.
Celebrated around the world and throughout Ireland, Dublin’s Bloomsday Festival includes re-enactments of Bloomsday as people visit the places where the novel is set with readings, performances, breakfasts, look-alike contests and visits to pubs. Special events are organised in collaboration with James Joyce Research Centre (UCD), other Dublin institutions and places with Joyce connections at home and abroad that include the National Library of Ireland.
Joyce’s work is promoted and studied in Ireland and beyond through many Joycean foundations, institutes and universities that offer study scholarships.
Ita Marguet, June 2011
Note: Wild Irish Women: Extraordinary Lives from History, by Marian Broderick, is published by The O’Brien Press, Dublin. Acknowledgement is given to all sources used in preparation of this text. It follows articles written for Bloomsday titled James Joyce: Irish-Swiss connections, JOYCE in Geneva, JOYCE in Dublin, James Joyce in Pula, James Joyce and Ulysses, Ulysses revisited: Mr. Joyce, Joyce and Joycean events: A literary legacy (Ita Marguet, 2003 – 2009).