Great Irish Romances: James Joyce and Nora Barnacle

Typically, anyone who is familiar with Irish literature is acquainted with James Joyce. Most have read Dubliners and some brave souls have even managed to plow though Finnegans Wake and actually got something out of it.  He, like most well-known writers, are known primarily for what they have given us in the form of their poetry, novels, short stories, etc., but not so much for their personal life. Most are not aware of the presence of love within his life, in the form of a young girl from Galway, named Nora Barnacle.

Nora was born in Galway City, Ireland in March of 1884, to Thomas Barnacle and Annie Honoria Healy. She was sent to live with her grandmother somewhere between 1886 and 1889, where she attended a convent school and eventually graduated from national school in 1891. It was at this time that Nora began to work as a laundress.

In 1896, Nora fell in love with Michael Feeney, who died soon after of typhoid, and then she fell in love with another Michael (this time Michael Bodkin), who also met with an untimely death in 1900. These two affairs are important, because later, Joyce would base his famous story, “The Dead,” on these morbid events in Nora’s life.

In 1903, amidst a bit of scandal, Nora left Galway and moved to Dublin, where she worked in the Finn Hotel as a chambermaid. It is here where she first met Joyce, in 1904. It is a well known fact, as one who has done a tour of Dublin can attest, that James and Nora had their first date at the Finn Hotel, on 16 June 1904, which became one of the most important dates in Joycean literary history, for it is the day Leopold Bloom made his infamous tour of Dublin in the novel Ulysses, and is now commemorated every year on Bloomsday.

Nora and James moved to continental Europe soon after their initial meeting. It is here they had their two children, Giorgio and Lucia, and were eventually married in 1931. James died in 1941, and Nora, ten years later.

In the end, it isn’t their love story that has been remembered through the years, but the letters they wrote to each other early in their relationship. These letters achieved notoriety because of their erotic nature and they expressed James’s love in ways that would make a sailor blush. But apparently they were well received for Nora stayed by James’s side through good and bad, for many years. Their romance may be remembered merely because of the details James chose to chronicle in these letters, but it is safe to say that it was kindled by a passionate love that remained until the end. 

Read about other Great Irish Romances at our Grá XOXO headquarters page.

Views: 1038

Tags: Dublin, Galway, History, Ireland, Literature, Love, Valentine's Day, Women, of

Comment by Kelly O'Rourke on February 2, 2014 at 11:07am

James looks none too pleased that she's ignoring him in favour of gabbin' away on her cell phone... ;)

Comment by Bean Sáirséil on February 2, 2014 at 12:49pm
It does look like that!! I hope she's not telling her BFF about her latest love letter ;)
Comment by Paul Thomas Meagher on February 5, 2014 at 2:48pm

A bhean uasal, your article conveys your interest in the life, as well as the stories, of James Joyce. As you say, the life of his partner and later his wife, Nora Barnacle, bears a fuller examination. At age twenty, still a minor and a simple penniless Galway girl, a hotel chambermaid, she ran away with Joyce. She became both the model for Molly Bloom in Ulysses and for Gretta in The Dead and possibly also Anna Livia Plurabelle in Finnegans Wake.. In many ways she might be the true voice of of the country people of Ireland and particularly its women, from whom Joyce drew at least some of his inspiration.

A great read, for those not familiar with it, is the biography Nora, The Real Life of Molly Bloom by Brenda Maddox (Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 1988). It is a brilliant insight into this fascinating woman and her hard-drinking, irresponsible genius, Jim.

Comment by Claire Fullerton on February 16, 2016 at 1:03pm

Kelly and Bean, I'm LOL!


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Comment by That's Just How It Was on February 17, 2016 at 6:29am

It is lovely to read about the loves of our Writers and Poets..... not always living the high life as we woudl imagine. That a chambermaid caught the eye of one of our most iconic writers, is testament to the fact that ' love is all; it has no social boundaries' .

Lovely read Thank you  Bean Sáirséil 

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