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.


Notable Galway Women

Posted in Notable Galway Women by sheelanagigcomedienne on June 6, 2017

I am writing this series of blogs featuring Notable Galway Women in reaction to the two songs entitled Galway Girl – one written by Steve Earle and the latest by Ed Sheeran in the Irish tradition of songs about women from a male perspective – the male gaze.

I am celebrating and commemorating 14 Notable Galway Women in the centenary year of some women women getting the vote. This is in parallel with my Notable Women of Lavender Hill Walks which came about because none of the Wandsworth Heritage Societes/Groups were planning any activities in the centenary year as they had already decided on the theme of ‘open spaces’ . This is why my talk on International Women’s of Significant Battersea Women became my walk Notable Women of Lavender Hill.

In my preface I explain that as a Humanist Celebrant I have been writing brief biographies for funerals and memorials and this is an extension of that tendency. I have also been involved with the Battersea Society commemorative blue plaques and believe so much in this kind of commemoration. I have even gone a step further in campaigning for a statue of Charlote Despard 1844-1939 socialist, suffragette and Sinn Feiner to be commissioned in the regenerated Nine Elms Battersea. So, I am on a mission to have real women commemorated as they are so under represented visibly in the public domain with plaques and statues.

Getting back to the Galway Girl songs.  They are often fetishised descriptions of hair colour, wearing black velvet band, rosy cheeks, lily white skin, wearing bonnets, carrying baskets, tripping along, called Mary, Rose,  Eileen and, of course, place naming Galway, Tralee, Mooncoin etc.  This is the typical objectifying of women as the ‘comely maidens’ of De Valera’s imagination. The Lovely Girls contest in Father Ted refers to the annual cringe fest of the Rose of Tralee beauty pageant where the Roses parade in front of the Prime Minister every summer – an Taoseach ogling the cailini – only in Ireland or an oligarchic Whatistan.

The other role of Irish womanhood is, of course, in the home and enshrined in the constitution. The reference to a woman’s “life within the home” rather than work in the home, and the desire to prevent mothers from engaging in the labour force “to the neglect of their duties in the home” is insulting,  Catholic inspired and patriarchal.

My original blog was in response to the blow-in Earle who has returned to the states but when I heard that Sheeran had written one also with the same title, was happy to admit that 400 million people of Irish descent would be interested in it, shamelessly acknowledging that he did it for financial reasons and not bothered by a plagiarism challenge.

The hype in Ireland, particulaly in Galway,  about it was OTT especially when the video starring Saoirse Ronan as the Galway Girl appeared.  saoirse ronan

The Earle imagined black-haired/blue-eyed women disappeared after the one night fling after their a walk on the Salthill prom. Presumably she fled because she didn’t fancy him in the sober light of day. Stewart Lee, cynical comedian, has sung it on the grounds that his wife’s folk – comedienne Bridget Christie – hail from Galway.

There is a version as ghaeilge.  A cover version of the song by Mundy and Sharon Shannon reached number one and became the most downloaded song of 2008 in Ireland, and has gone on to become the eighth highest selling single in Irish chart history.

So, Ed Sheeran thought he could cash in the popularity of a song called Galway Girl.   The Sheeran Galway girl it turns out was based on fiddle player Niamh Dunne who is a member of Antrim-based folk group Beoga that collaborated with Sheeran on the track.  However, she is not his love interest nor married to an Englishmen and is from from Limerick. But they did spend a night on the tiles in Dublin Irish dancing, Guinness, two Irish whiskeys – Jameson and Powers, Van the Man, a rendition of Carrickfergus, Grafton Street – the usual kind of ingredients of a commercial modern Irish song.  Of course, he is eligible for an Irish passport, ginger hair etc. And that makes him Irish. He even has a photo of him as a teenager busking in Galway next to the statue of Oscar Wilde.

Ed Sheeran in Galway

Teenage Sheeran busking in Galway

So now I feel compelled to write about Galway women. The first thing to note about Galway women is that they are women not girleens. I am one.  There is some interesting imagery of women in Galway songs. For a start, you had the women making hay, in the uplands digging pratees whilst chatting in Irish- a language that the English do not know. The woman featured in the song a Galway Shawl wears ‘a bonnet with a ribbon on it’ but ‘she wears no paint nor powder,  no none at all’.

Further name check of Galway songs produces the Queen of Connemara which transpires is a boat, Sweet Marie refers to the name of a horse in the Galway Plate race of the Galway Races. There’s the Lass of Aughrim which featured in James Joyce’s Dubliners. There is Pegeen Litir Mor telling how she attracts not only the poet but men from different districts. And so it goes on.

Even our bard Seamus Heaney got in on the act with his Girls Bathing Galway.

No milk-limbed Venus ever rose
Miraculous on this western shore;
A pirate queen in battle clothes
Is our sterner myth.

…in swimsuits, Brown-legged, smooth-shouldered and bare-backed
They wade ashore with skips and shouts.

This will always remind my generation of the proclamation of disapproval by the very conservative Bishop Browne about women in Salthill wearing two piece bathing costumes which prompted a letter in response from some Galway women inquiring which piece of the swim suit did his Lordship wish them to remove.

Galway women come in varying shapes, sizes, temperaments, ages and colours. They are emigrants, daughters, mothers, sisters, wives, lovers, poets, authors, entrepreneurs, singers, dancers, artists, politicians, teachers, workers, lawyers, doctors, nurses, engineers, scientists, administrators, shop assistants, etc.

I would like to introduce you to a few Galway women.  It is a random choice from poets, to Nationalist activists. I have included Mary Devenport O’Neill (1879 – 1967) poet and dramatist. She wrote the poem Galway which I suggested to Tom Kenny should feature in the Galway Poetry Trail. He said it was too long!


I know a town tormented by the sea,
And there time goes slow
That the people see it flow
And watch it drowsily,
And growing older hour by hour they say,
‘Please God, to-morrow!
Then we will work and play,’
And their tall houses crumble away.
This town is eaten through with memory
Of pride and thick red Spanish wine and gold
And a great come and go;
But the sea is cold,
And the spare, black trees
Crouch in the withering breeze
That blows from the sea,
And the land stands bare and alone,
For its warmth is turned away
And its strength held in hard cold grey-blue
And the people are heard to say,
Through the raving of the jealous sea,
‘Please God, to-morrow!
Then we will work and play.’

There are powerful Galway women like Catherine Corless who has worked tirelessly to expose the secret and shame of the neglected babies who died and were buried in unmarked graves and their unfortunate mothers who were incarcerated by the Irish state and the Catholic Church whilst the silent population looked on. There was Bridie O’Flaherty , Mayor and founder member of the Progressive Democrats, Anita Leslie 1914-1985,  biographer and writer and there is Leila Doolan Producer /Director,  Patricia Burke Brogan, playwright, novelist, poet and artist who exposed the the Magdalene Laundries scandal in her play Eclipsed, Jessie Lendennie founder of Salmon Publishing which has championed women poets, Vanda Luddy artist, Mary Coughlan, chanteuse and Galway character that was Una Taaffe etc.

I emigrated in 1965 when I was still a teenager and so my choice of women of Galway reflects that as I am now an old pensioner, pagan and stranger in the City of Tribes. I have selected Nora Barnacle, wife and muse of James Joyce,  Rita Anne Higgins poet, Michelene Sheehy  Skeffington, botanist and gender equality campaigner, Siobhain McKenna, actor,  Lady Augusta Gregory, playwright and Abbey Theatre founder,  Garry  Hynes, Theatre Director, Alice Perry, Civil Engineer, Ada English, Psychiatrist 1903 UCG, Alice Cashel, Irish nationalist,  Margaretta D’Arcy, author and activist, Maureen Kenny, bookseller, Mary Devonport O’Neill poet Dolores Keane singer and Clare Sheridan sculptor and writer. A younger person would have chosen a different set of Mná na Gaillimhe  and I hope they do and continue the celebration of significant Galway women.

I hope that some Galway woman/women will pick up this idea and even do a walk entitled Notable Women of Galway Trail to the places lived in or associated with these women. I think this should happen for 2020 Year of culture. I certainly hope so and it is part of my intention in embarking on this. I also hope that

I will feature each one individually.

Nora Barnacle (1884 -1951)  Wife and Muse of James Joyce Nora Barnacle

Maureen Kenny (1918-2008) Bookseller extraordinaire Maureen K

Lady Augusta Gregory (1852-1932) Dramatist, folklorist and theatre manager Augusta,_Lady_Gregory_ alter life

Rita Anne Higgins  Poet, Bard of Galway Rita-Ann-Higgins-2

Alice Cashel (1878-1958) Irish Nationalist Alice_Cashel

Garry Hynes      Theatre Director Garry Hynes

Alice Perry (1885-1969)  First Woman  Civil Engineer

Michelene Sheehy Skeffington    Botanist, NUIG Gender Discrimination


Margaretta D’Arcy Author, Political Activist Theatre

Margaretta D

Margaretta Darcy

Ada English (1875-1944) Psychiatrist and Irish Nationalist

Ada biography

Mary Devonport O’Neill (1879-1967)  Poet and Playwright

Mary Devenport O'Neilll

Dolores Keane Singer…/dolores-keane-singer-and-notable-ga…


Siobhán McKenna (1923–86)
Siobhan Dr Z
Clare Sheridan (18  -190 Sculptor, Author and Traveller
Clare by Anita