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Portrait of the artist and his wife


James Joyce (centre) and the former Nora Barnacle after their wedding in London in 1931

James Joyce (centre) and the former Nora Barnacle after their wedding in London in 1931

The Joyce family in Paris in 1924: Joyce, Nora, Lucia and Giorgio

The Joyce family in Paris in 1924: Joyce, Nora, Lucia and Giorgio


James Joyce (centre) and the former Nora Barnacle after their wedding in London in 1931

The first date of Joyce and Nora is shrouded in legend. Thought to have taken place on June 16, this is the date on which years later he was to set Ulysses, an act which Joyce's biographer Richard Ellmann describes as "a most eloquent if indirect tribute to Nora".

The pair had first met several days earlier, on June 10, bumping into each other, as total strangers, on the corner of Dawson Street and Nassau Street, Dublin.

Joyce was instantly attracted to this statuesque, attractive redhead who at the time was a chambermaid in Finn's hotel, having fled her native Galway after a beating from an uncle.

Nora, then 20, recalled later in some accounts that she thought Joyce was a Norwegian sailor, due to the large sailing cap he was wearing and his piercing blue eyes.


The Joyce family in Paris in 1924: Joyce, Nora, Lucia and Giorgio

The Joyce family in Paris in 1924: Joyce, Nora, Lucia and Giorgio

The Joyce family in Paris in 1924: Joyce, Nora, Lucia and Giorgio

He asked her for a meeting, she stood him up on the first date, but they exchanged letters, and 'walked out' together on the evening of what would become Bloomsday.

As was later obvious in their famous 'dirty' letters, the pair shared a voracious sexual appetite.

Nora was no simpering middle-class Miss, a type Joyce - a frequenter of prostitutes in Dublin's Monto area, between Talbot Street and Montgomery Street - was said by biographer Gordon Bowker to scorn.

They headed to Ringsend, and in a lonely stretch of the harbour, the couple - Nora was expected back at work at 11.30pm - enjoyed their first sexual encounter. As her biographer Brenda Maddox recounts, she "unbuttoned his trousers, slipped in her hand, pushed his shirt aside and, acting with some skill (according to his later account), made him a man".

Maddox describes Nora as lonely at this time, living in a city where she knew no one, and subject to "fits of gloom and odd pains".

She does suggest that her frank sexual approach could indicate "the possibility of a mild form of soliciting". Within a week though, it was love, with Nora writing to Joyce as "my precious darling".

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At the time of their meeting, Joyce was living in Dublin at something of a loose end. A graduate of Modern Languages in UCD, he had recently returned from Paris, where he had travelled to study medicine.

A telegraph from his father announcing his mother's imminent death had brought him home.

The pair came from vastly different backgrounds. Although never well-off, and now in an increasingly dismal pecuniary situation, tangibly demonstrated by their gradual move from Blackrock to the shabby inner city, the Joyce family was urban middle-class, and he had been well educated by the Jesuit brothers.

His father, a rates collector, had squandered his inheritance, and the family had moved whenever they were unable to pay the rent. It was a habit Joyce and Nora were to repeat with their own children.

Joyce's father was a heavy drinker, and often a violent man. His mother has endured numerous pregnancies - Jim, as he was known to his family, was the eldest of 10.

His parents' miserable marriage may have been one reason the author had decided against the institution. Nora, whose Irish was better than Joyce's, was not illiterate, as is often claimed - she would at times serve as his assistant when his sight was particularly weak. But she came from a poor working-class background, brought up mainly by her grandmother in a cottage.

Dr Anne Fogarty, Professor of James Joyce Studies at UCD, reflects: "I think that attracted him as well. She represents the West of Ireland. That was supposed to be the source of the new literary imagination."

From their first meeting, the two were virtually inseparable. It was an attachment that would last the rest of Joyce's life. Apart from a number of separate visits home to Ireland, which would be hallmarked by frantic letter writing, they would rarely spend any time apart.

While she is dismissed at times as a lowly, ignorant chambermaid who got lucky when she attached herself to a literary genius, some critics have suggested that Nora's forward attitude to sexuality, as well as the unpunctuated flow of her letters, served as inspiration for some of Joyce's female characters, including Molly Bloom.

She was known to have a "wild streak," wrote Joyce biographer Gordon Bowker, with tales of love affairs and cross-dressing.

Her dismissal of social mores cannot but have supported Joyce in his determination to ignore convention.

Joyce was already done with Ireland on meeting Nora, and he seems to have had little difficulty persuading her to leave with him, a mere three months later. On the subject of marriage, he wrote to her "my home was simply a middle-class affair ruined by spendthrift habits which I have inherited. My mother was slowly killed, I think, by my father's ill-treatment .… I cursed the system which made her a victim… I cannot enter the social order except as a vagabond".

Of his feelings towards her though, he was certain. "No human being has ever stood so close to my soul as you stand... I honour you very much but I want more than your caresses."

Why was he determined to leave Ireland? While all sorts of high, moralistic reasons were given, not least by Joyce himself - the stifling culture of British rule, his embitterment with Catholicism - there were also more prosaic reasons. He most likely wanted to get away from his family, who made repeated claims on him for support. His difficulties with alcohol may have meant he would not have survived Dublin's drinking culture. "Survival, really," says UCD's Prof Fogarty. "There aren't enough outlets for his work."

They left in October, 1904 and Joyce's family saw him off at the dock, not knowing that Nora boarded separately so she would not be seen. "You could say it was more permissible for Joyce to do what he did," says Fogarty. "It was absolutely scandalous for a woman to elope and not marry." As Maddox puts it "she was burning her bridges, and she had no way of supporting herself abroad if Joyce left her". When his planned job in Zurich didn't materialise, the couple travelled to Trieste, Italy. Life with an as yet unsuccessful genius wasn't easy for Nora. While searching for a job on arriving in Trieste, he left her to wait in the park. But after getting embroiled in a fight and ending in jail, it was hours before he returned to collect her.

While his own belief, and that of established literary figures such as Yeats, Ezra Pound, and Lady Gregory in his genius never wavered, it would be 10 years before Dubliners would be published, and another two before A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (on December 29, 1916). It was not until he met some wealthy benefactors that the couple enjoyed any sort of financial comfort. Until that time, the Joyces existed on James's patchy teaching work, loans from friends and family, and various other jobs, including a spell in Rome working in a bank. They often lived in squalor, and when there was money, Joyce's profligacy soon saw them in debt again. They ate out most nights, with Joyce often getting so drunk as to necessitate being carried home, much to Nora's disgust.

Their first child, Giorgio, was born in 1905, with Lucia arriving two years later. Raising two young children in such circumstances cannot have been easy for Nora, with Joyce often being engrossed in his work, struggling to get published, and suffering eye and teeth problems. Biographer Bowker describes both he and Nora as at times suffering from bouts of depression to the point of breakdowns.

Despite these difficulties, the pair's relationship suffered only one serious rift, in 1909 when Joyce was visiting Ireland. Always of an insecure, paranoid temperament, he was driven to distraction when an acquaintance, Vincent Cosgrave, suggested Nora had had sexual encounters with him at the time she was courting Joyce. Joyce was frantic, writing imploringly to Nora.

The story in Dubliners "The Dead", of Gretta Conroy's dead lover Michael Furey, was inspired by lovers of Nora's who had died in Galway, before she met Joyce. Joyce went so far as to visit one of the dead lovers' graves. Nora once told a mutual friend tearfully "Jim wants me to go with other men so he'll have something to write about."

Prof Fogarty explains: "He toys with scenarios of jealousy with her, particularly in Trieste. He knows when men are interested in her, he wants her to be involved in some sort of imaginary adultery, as opposed to a real one. It's somewhere between jealously and paranoia; he wants to jump into those very dark emotions. She threatens a good few times to walk out on him, but never does."

They leave Trieste when the World War I breaks out, moving to Zurich.

After the war they move to Paris, where in 1922, Ulysses is published, having been worked on since 1914. It's unclear whether Nora ever read the book. She is known for making somewhat dismissive remarks about his writing, telling him that he was wasting his time, he should have stuck to the singing. Others though, posit her as a sort of necessary down-to-earth antidote to James's torturous mind. "I think she was kind of a counter weight. She was very strong minded," says Fogarty.

The uninhibited sexual detail in his letters to her would also suggest that in Nora, Joyce had found someone not only unshocked by his sexual appetite, but matching it.

In Paris, he finally became an internationally celebrated author. Gradually, the family's living arrangements became more comfortable. As he worked on Finnegans Wake his sight worsened, sometimes to the point of virtual blindness. It's a state of affairs that some suggest led him to become particularly dependent on Nora. In 1931, after 27 years of living together, the couple finally married. It was a reluctant affair, instigated for testamentary reasons. Nora feared the public finding out that they had never married, daughter Lucia was horrified to discover she was illegitimate. On applying for a marriage licence, Joyce gave his full name and withheld his birthplace. He warned his son and daughter-in-law not to tell anyone they were about to be "made honest". Reporters got wind of it though, and his house in London - they had moved there for the marriage - was door-stepped. The line they decided upon was that their original marriage in Austria was invalid as Nora had given a fake name. The couple were famously "papped" on their way home from the Register Office.

The couple's latter years were to be dominated by their daughter Lucia's mental decline. "Both the children have problems finding their way in the world," says Prof Fogarty. Lucia took up dance, but gave up after developing worries over physical imperfections. After a failed relationship with Joyce's assistant Samuel Beckett, her mental health began to unravel, and she suffered repeated breakdowns and outbursts. Her brother, who had problems with alcohol, believed her to be a lost cause, and she directed much of her anger and violence at her mother. Joyce however, was against her being committed, and spent a small fortune on her medical care. Work on Finnegans Wake was repeatedly delayed by his anguish over his daughter's suffering. The situation caused him numerous bouts of depression. It was his great tragedy that Lucia remained trapped in a home in Vichy France during World War II. The rest of the family escaped to Zurich.

When it came, James's death was sudden and unexpected. Undergoing surgery in Zurich for the stomach pain that had plagued him for so long, he died shortly afterwards.

The diagnosis of overwork and stress had been incorrect; he had suffered for years from stomach ulcers.

Nora - who stood at his graveside during his funeral and with open arms exclaimed: "Jim, how beautiful you are" - survived her husband by a decade.

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