James Joyce was a little at sea when he first met Galway girl Nora Barnacle - he was grieving for his mother who had recently died, he was no longer a college student, and he had no job or career prospects.
Nora, too, was out of her element. She had left Galway in a hurry, after a row with her uncle over a young man, and was new to clattery, lively Dublin town. She had work, though - and a bed - in Finn's Hotel, just off Dublin's Nassau Street. They were two young Irish people in 1904, both searching for something, both a little short on money when, one June day, they crossed paths.
It's joyful to picture Joyce approaching Nora on Nassau Street, his heart lit up with hope. Nora was striking - she had a confident walk and a head of auburn hair. Like Joyce, she cared about style and, if her clothes were not very fashionable, they were at least neat and worn with brio. Joyce was back from a stint in Paris and had adopted some bohemian European style choices - he had a long, pale coat he liked to wear and a yachting cap.
Before he spoke to Nora that June day, he couldn't have known that this attractive young woman also had a quick wit and a mouthful of stories. Her looks and fearless stride snared him; her humour, plain speaking, and large-hearted loyalty were qualities he would soon discover. Nora, for her part, thought Joyce might be a sailor because of his cap, and that he might be Swedish because of his bright blue eyes.
What luck for Joyce that he was on Nassau Street that June 10 and what luck that Nora - a bit lonely, maybe, a bit flattered - accepted his greeting. The two spoke briefly that day and, no doubt, Joyce was delighted on hearing Nora's musical name in her musical voice. Nora may have been pleased to learn this young man was a Joyce, a name familiar to her from one of the Tribes of Galway.
They arranged to meet a few days later but Nora, most likely busy at work, didn't turn up. Joyce wrote to her at Finn's Hotel and they decided to meet on June 16, a day Joyce would immortalise in Ulysses and would become known as Bloomsday. The pair walked out to Ringsend - there was no money for fancy things like a meal or drinks - and no doubt they shared the kind of information that gets passed back and forth on a first date: likes and dislikes, family background and so on. They found themselves pleased with each other and enjoyed some intimate moments that evening in Ringsend. Joyce declared that Nora had made him a man. Whatever the truth of that, they were now a couple and they walked forward, side by side, from that day on.
Joyce and Nora were only four months together when - unmarried - they sailed away, in secret, to a new life in Europe. They moved swiftly from London to Paris to Zürich to Trieste to Pola and, finally, back to Trieste which, though Italian-speaking, was part of Austria at the time. Nora, in essence, was throwing away her good name by running away with Joyce but, clearly, she thought the risk was worth it. She trusted this young man with ambitions to be a great writer and, though she might have felt more secure if they were married, she left Ireland with him in a grand leap of faith. Neither had any money, but Joyce was confident that once his books were published, all would be well.
Nora and Joyce settled in coastal, pretty Trieste where Joyce worked as an English teacher and Nora kept house; their first child, Giorgio, arrived nine months after their flit from Ireland. They were poor and sometimes miserable. Nora didn't love the hot weather, she missed Irish food and felt the Triestine women looked down on her drab clothes and lack of language skills. It didn't help that Joyce liked to drink in the evenings, spending what little they had and leaving her alone for long hours with the baby. When Giorgio was tiny, Nora took in laundry to earn some money.
When Joyce asked Nora to run away with him from Ireland, he was worried that she would refuse him because, as he told her, he didn't want marriage and the conventional life that Ireland had to offer. Nora, who may have dreamed of that kind of life, went with him anyway but, to all intents and purposes, they ended up in the very situation Joyce had tried to avoid: he was working as a teacher and struggling to earn; Nora was at home with a child; and the Catholic church was still ringing around their ears.
But Trieste was a busy port town and extremely multicultural, in great contrast to Dublin, and Joyce was writing and planning the books that would eventually make him famous. They may have found themselves in a traditional 'marriage' set-up, but they lived unconventionally compared to their Irish peers and Trieste's language, outlook and beauty made Europeans of them.
Things improved for the couple when Joyce's brother Stannie came to live with them in Trieste - now there were two earners in the household and they could afford to hire a piano to accompany their singing and visit the Teatro Verdi for opera, which Nora loved. Stannie was not altogether happy with this arrangement; he could see exactly how bad Joyce and Nora were at managing their money. The couple, throughout their lives, had high tastes, and their lack of budget didn't stop them spending. They were sensual people who enjoyed the gifts of the body as much as the adorning of it - in this they were very connected.
Joyce was a restless man and soon grew tired of teaching and of Trieste. He, Nora and Giorgio moved to Rome, where Joyce worked in a bank, but he found it even more distasteful than teaching. He worked 12-hour days and Nora, alone with Giorgio, and with no friends around her, was fed up. Neither of them liked the city much. Joyce said in a letter to Stannie, "Rome reminds me of a man who lives by exhibiting to travellers his grandmother's corpse". But it was in Rome, surrounded by ruins and surviving a miserable Christmas with only pasta to eat, that Joyce began the thought process that would lead to his Dublin-set, food- and hospitality-filled short story The Dead.
Joyce and Nora returned to Trieste, with another baby on the way and a home and work to find. They managed to find both quickly as Joyce had a way of cajoling people into giving him exactly what he wanted. Baby Lucia was born in July 1907 and two of Joyce's sisters, Eva and Eileen, came to live in Trieste, too.
Things were pretty settled in those years: Nora learnt Italian well, and the family made various trips back to Ireland. Nora re-established contact with her family and brought her children to visit her mother and siblings in Galway. One sister said that Nora looked "a state" as she had put on weight, a thing that pleased Joyce who diligently tried to fatten up Nora with drinks of cocoa and other treats. They both enjoyed sweet things and an Irish guest to one of their Paris homes said Nora always served beautiful cakes from the city's finest bakers.
The couple's pattern of moving continued throughout their lives. Sometimes they were evicted, sometimes they lived in borrowed accommodation, sometimes they had to move to keep themselves safe. They lived through WW1 in Zürich and returned there at the start of WW2.
In Paris alone, they lived at 19 different addresses. But Nora longed for a home of her own and was at her most settled when the family enjoyed stints of a few years in various Paris flats - there she could cook and entertain friends, sing with Jim on piano and keep a watchful eye over him.
In Paris, with the publication of Ulysses, Joyce's fame grew, and their financial situation eased. There were literary sponsors and supporters, such as Harriet Weaver and Sylvia Beach, and royalties from the books. Nora could finally afford the glamorous looks she so enjoyed, for both herself and Lucia. They bobbed their hair, wore furs and patent shoes, bought opera cloaks and cloche hats. Joyce looked equally suave in a dicky bow and pale suit, with flashing rings on his fingers and cane in hand; Giorgio looked a lot like his father in similar outfits.
Nora Barnacle and James Joyce finally married in 1931 in London, but only because it made legal sense to Joyce. They tried to make the ceremony a clandestine affair, because Joyce had told Who's Who they had married in 1904. They hadn't, and this new marriage would make a lie of that fictitious union, no matter how Joyce spun it.
Joyce wrote to Giorgio, "To throw people off the scent the bride will wear her lifeguard uniform while the groom will be in green satin with a white veil and an orange umbrella." Journalists got hold of the story and the couple were photographed, walking away from the Kensington register office, Nora in a fur collar, dipping the brim of her wide hat, one hand to her cheek to hide her face, with Joyce striding behind her, frowning, in a smart tweedy-looking jacket.
The pair would enjoy 10 years of married life before Joyce died suddenly of a perforated ulcer in Zürich, leaving Nora, in pain with arthritis, to live a further 10 years there without her beloved Jim. Lucia, diagnosed with schizophrenia in her twenties, lived out her days at a hospital in England, having sat out WW2 in one in France.
Giorgio lived near his mother in Zürich, after a failed first marriage, and remarried there. No amount of money, fame or glamour could protect the Joyce family from the ordinary ravages of ordinary life, the realities of ill health, in mind and body.
A lot is made of the differences between Nora Barnacle and James Joyce - it puzzles some people that a man of genius could have enjoyed a 37-year relationship with a woman who had scant interest in literature. But Nora was a phenomenal woman in her own right and the pair had a lot in common. Whether they were both born with confidence, or acquired it along the way, they each possessed great self-belief. Neither of them came from wealthy homes, something that would stand to them during their first lean years in Europe; though they were poor money managers, they knew how to get by. Nora was raised by her grandmother and went to work at 12 years of age in a convent; Joyce came from a large family and his father tended to squander what money they had for food and rent on drink. Both were raised as Catholics in cities by the sea and both liked to sing and tell stories. Each of them liked the thrill of the new and were not afraid to try different things. They were sensuous people, devoted to pleasure and passion.
It is no wonder, really, that they enjoyed a strong, love-filled union and were able to do for each other what each did best. Nora took care of Joyce, boosted him, and watched out for his health, while Joyce relied on Nora, but minded her, too, loving her well, listening to her needs and trying to fulfil them. He took inspiration from her childhood memories and stories, and her particular way of telling them. Joyce was also expert at choosing gifts for Nora that were thoughtful and lavish. He bought her hats, furs, gloves and tweeds, and had a bespoke necklace of ivory made for her one time they were parted, with words from one of his poems carved into it: "Love is unhappy when love is away."
Nora couldn't have known where she would end up, that June day in 1904, when a young man looking like a sailor accosted her on Nassau Street. She didn't know that she would sail away with him, and buoy him up, in various parts of Europe for almost 40 years. How wonderful that Nora Barnacle sauntered into the life of Dubliner James Joyce and, with her patience, pragmatism and good humour, supported him so well until his dying day. How wonderful that James Joyce lost his heart to open, earthy Nora Barnacle, the original Galway girl.
Nuala O'Connor's novel 'Nora', about the life of Nora Barnacle, will be published by Harper Collins in 2021
By week two I was heartily sick of reading that Shakespeare wrote King Lear while in quarantine. His quill must have been worn down to its last scrappy feather, as he supposedly also used the time to come up with both Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra.