Nora Barnacle (1884-1951) – Tales from Wo-Fan’s Land

Was the muse, partner and eventually wife of the most famous Irish writer of the 20th century, James Joyce. Born in Galway. Her father was a baker and her mother a dressmaker. The marriage was not a happy one and she was mostly raised by her maternal grandmother. Two of the boys she fell in love with died quite young, which caused her friends to label her a “man killer”. Her recollections of these early romances gave Joyce the idea for “The Dead” in his short story collection “Dubliners”. The last film made by famous film director John Huston in 1987 was based on this story.

When she and Joyce first met she was working as a chambermaid at Finn’s Hotel in Dublin. At first she mistook him for a Norwegian Sailor until she heard his Irish accent. When Joyce’s father learnt that her surname was Barnacle, his response was “She’ll never leave him”. They first met in June 1904, and their first date took place on June the 16th which was the day the entire contents of Joyce’s book Ulysses takes place on. It is now celebrated in literary circles every year as Bloomsday where the entire book is read aloud by a large number of different people.

Shortly after their meeting they went into exile leaving Ireland for various locations in Europe where they lived a nomadic bohemian lifestyle as Joyce tried to hold down jobs in numerous countries. Joyce was always extravagant with money most of which he did not earn, but was lent or given to him by well wishers and people like his brother, who had followed him out of Ireland. He was also a heavy drinker, often staying out late with the likes of Ernest Hemingway and returning home extremely inebriated. Throughout all this Nora gave birth to two children and stayed by Joyce’s side. She was never convinced of the value of his “scribblings” and wished he had stuck to music instead of wasting his time writing all the time.

Their daughter Lucia was eventually diagnosed as schizophrenic and would up in an institution where she spent the rest of her life. Lucia had been infatuated with Joyce’s fellow writer and friend Samuel Beckett and was even referred to the famous psychiatrist Carl Jung at one point. After Lucia was institutionalized Nora never saw her again.

Although they lived as if they were man and wife for the rest of their lives they were never actually married until 30 years after they left Ireland and only did so in order to ensure that their children would inherit any profits that came from Joyce’s books.

Even if people know nothing about her personal life, her character and way of expressing herself would be known to anyone reading Joyce’s books. She is the inspiration for Molly Bloom in Ulysses and Anna Livia Plurabelle in Finnegans Wake. She outlived her husband by ten years and is buried with him in Zurich, Switzerland which is where they had wound up at the end of their European travels.

A full-length book biography of her did not appear until 1998, written by Brenda Maddox. It was the basis for a film released two years later starring Susan Lynch as Nora and Ewan McGregor as Joyce.


Written by Gabriel McCann (he/him) from Sydney, Australia. This project, Tales from Wo-Fan’s Land, is a series of stories written by Frank Turner fans, inspired by his new album No Man’s Land.


Sources:

  • Richard Ellman – James Joyce
  • Vivien Igoe – James Joyce’s Dublin House and Nora Barnacle’s Galway
  • Branda Maddox – Nora: A Biography of Nora Joyce
  • Wikipedia entry for Nora Barnacle

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