Jeanne Rathbone

Nora Barnacle Galway woman

Posted in Nora Barnacle Galway woman by sheelanagigcomedienne on April 29, 2018

Nora Barnacle is a favourite Galway woman role model.

Nora Barnacle

Nora Barnacle the muse and lover of James Joyce and the inspiration of some of his greatest works — Greta Conroy in The Dead, Bertha the common law wife in Exiles and Molly Bloom in Ulysses — all share some of Nora’s character and experiences. Molly’s soliloquy.  Please do read it out loud whether there is anyone there or not.

Nora Barnacle was born in Galway workhouse 21 March 1884. Her father, Thomas Barnacle, a baker from Connemara, was an illiterate man who was 38 years old when she was born. Her mother, Annie Healy, was 28 and worked as a dressmaker.

Between 1886 and 1889, Barnacle’s parents sent her to live with her maternal grandmother, Catherine Healy. During these years, she attended the Convent of Mercy .In the same year, her mother threw her father out for drinking and the couple separated. Barnacle went to live with her mother and her uncle, Tom Healy, at 8 Bowling Green, Galway. The little house is a tiny museum but doesn’t seem to be open currently.

This terrace house is located in Galway City opposite St Nicholas Church. It was built in the late 1800s and was home to Nora. Joyce also spent considerable time here when he was writing in the 20th century. The building has been restored, but it’s admittedly showing some signs of wear.

The house itself is modest even by family standards, and it’s actually the smallest museum in Ireland. Barnacle lived here in the early 1900s with her mother and six siblings. They made do with two rooms and a tiny garden. The room on the ground floor served as a kitchen, a dining and—more often than not—a bedroom as well. Today, it’s filled with memorabilia, including photographs of the couple and the correspondence they exchanged, along with a few other exhibits exploring the couples’ lives and time together.

Nora Barnacle left Galway early in 1904. She worked as a chambermaid at Finn’s Hotel She was 20 years old, a strong-willed girl running from a tyrannical uncle who disapproved of her latest boy friend. Within weeks of her arrival in Dublin she would become the muse and lover of James Joyce.

“I mistook him for a Swedish sailor – His electric blue eyes, yachting cap and plimsolls. But when he spoke, well then, I knew him at once for just another Dublin jackeen chatting up a country girl.”

The numerous erotic letters they exchanged suggest they loved each other passionately. Joyce seems to have admired and trusted her, and Barnacle clearly loved Joyce and trusted him enough to agree to leave Ireland with him for the Continent

In October of that same year Nora and Jim would elope to Europe and in due course step on to the pages of literary history. She would return to her native city only twice during her 47 years of exile.

This is from an article by Padraic O Laoi in The Galway Advertiser.     

In Galway, Nora visited her mother and sisters in Bowling Green where the precocious Lucia charmed the Barnacle ladies and their neighbours with her Continental exoticism. Joyce meanwhile, feeling lonely in Trieste with their son Georgio, decided on a whim to join Nora in Galway.

They watched the regatta at Menlo, went racing in Ballybrit and sailed to the Aran Islands. Joyce was eager to see where Synge had conceived his great western plays. Joyce  even cycled to Oughterard and back.

All the while the children were fussed over by the Barnacle girls and their Uncle Tommy, a tram conductor on the Salthill route. Nora also showed the writer where she had courted Michael Bodkin, Michael Feeney and the Protestant William Mulvaghy the relationship that had so enraged her guardian.

Nora with her children visited the nuns in the Presentation Convent where she had been a laundress after leaving school at 12. The Nuns welcomed her and her children, unaware that their parents were unmarried.

Her 2nd trip back to Galway was very different when she went with the children in April 1922 . Georgio and Lucia at 17 and 15 were Continental adolescents transported from the sophistication and colour of Paris to the of the west of Ireland, grey and poor after the War of Independence.The Galway that they found in 1922 was no longer the loyal servant of the crown.

Renmore Barracks was in the hands of the anti Treaty forces, called Irregulars, while  the Railway Hotel and the city was controlled by the Free State or regular I R A. De Valera was due on Easter Sunday to rally support. Nora and her children must have stood out as they stepped from the train in their continental finery.

They made there way to Bowling Green, only to have Georgio and Lucia refuse to enter the Barnacle home. They objected to the smell of boiled cabbage and no amount of coaxing would make them change their mind. Mortified Nora found lodgings in Casey’s boarding house in Nuns Island and had to take them to a restaurant for their meals. As before, Nora visited the Presentation nuns where she was again warmly received by the nuns, still unaware of her marital status.

It was in the little two-room house in Bowling Green that she spent most of her time. Nora enjoyed hearing about her sisters  Delia and Kathleen, adventures while courting, which was a tricky business during those years. Curfews and stop and search operations were common. Her brother Tommy had quit his job with the tram company and gone to London.

Georgio was often stopped in the street and questioned; this frustrated the boy greatly.  The Free State army came to Caseys to watch some Irregulars in a warehouse across the street. It was the last straw for Nora who packed their belongings, said goodbye to her family and headed for the train.  As the train approached the barracks in Renmore it came under fire from the anti -Treaty Irregulars. As all the passengers threw themselves to the carriage floor Georgio stood up defiantly. He had had enough, and so had his mother making a hasty retreat from Ireland, never to return. Nora went back to Joyce who remarked to his aunt in Dublin “It will be a while before you see Nora in her native dunghill. The air in Galway is very good but dear at the current price”



It took many years before the significance she played in the life of one of the most  influential and important authors of the 20th century was recognised. Joyce’s adult life was spent abroad,  his fictional universe centred on Dublin, and is populated largely by characters who closely resemble family members, enemies and friends from his time there. But Nora was the adaptable cosmopolitan one of this couple. Nora governed a succession of unruly households in Trieste, Paris, and Zurich, holding him and the family together through the force of her own formidable pluck. Most importantly for Joyce’s work, Nora served as his “portable Ireland,” his living link to the homeland he used as the basis for his masterpieces.

His short story The Dead,  which was made into a film by John Huston from his wheelchair not long before he died starring his daughter the wonderful Anjelica, who lived and went to the Dominican Convent School that I also attended, was based on what Nora told Joyce about the two young lads whom she had courted, Michael Feeney and Michael Bodkin, both of whom died very young and were buried in Rahoon cemetery..

Here is a haunting clip from the film as she listens to the singing of the Lass of Aughrim.      and this the final scene.

Joyce wrote his poem She weeps over Rahoon which features in the Galway Poetry Trail  on the entrance to the cemetery. ( My parents Tommie and Eithne Egan are also buried there).

Rahoon She weeps.jpg

Joyce and Nora married in a civil ceremony in London, after they had been living together as man and wife for nearly 27 years in Austria, Italy, Switzerland and France. After Joyce’s death in Zurich in 1941, Nora decided to remain there and she died in of renal failure in 1951, at age 67

Nora, the muse, was a down-to-earth woman whose devotion was always total and never blind, whose deep rich voice was heard in cafes across the Continent scolding her drunken husband, ”Jim, you’ve had enough”. She probably saved him from lapsing into  alcoholism.

So, it was a woman from Galway, in the west of Ireland, who inspired Joyce. She was his muse, helpmate, support and lover and she introduced him to an Ireland that he, as a Dubliner, didn’t know.


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