In search of the wife and muse of James Joyce

by David Hill / 23 December, 2017

James Joyce and Nora Barnacle. Photo/Getty

A search for Nora Barnacle, the wife and muse of James Joyce, comes to an abrupt end.

You can’t take a step in Dublin without tripping over James Joyce. Literally. Small, dangerously raised plaques in the footpath mark every place where Leopold Bloom paused on his Ulysses odyssey. Then there’s the James Joyce Centre, complete with the front door from 7 Eccles St, where the Blooms supposedly lived. There are JJ statues, guided walks, readings, even the odd book.

Meanwhile, on the other side of Ireland, the author is acknowledged in the form of the country’s smallest and possibly most seldom-open museum.

That second attribute is understandable. Nora Barnacle’s house in Galway is a private home. Entry is possible only because of the owners’ generosity – and not when they’re on holiday: a handwritten notice in the front window once advised that “the Nora Barnacle House will not be open this year”.

Joyce met Nora in 1904. On a brief visit home from his self-imposed exile in Paris, he was walking down Dublin’s Nassau St in his canvas shoes and yachting cap when he saw the tall young brown-haired woman, who’d just arrived in town to work as a hotel chambermaid. His boozing dad, when he heard Nora’s surname, is supposed to have grunted, “At least she’ll stick with him.” Somebody had to say it.

Nora sounds a far more attractive person than her husband. She never tried to be an intellectual companion – she famously said, “Well, Jim, I haven’t read any of your books, but I’ll have to some day because they must be good considering how well they sell.”

The couple didn’t spend much time in Galway. Joyce went there only a couple of times. Nora returned with the kids in 1922 to visit what Joyce charmingly called “her native dunghill” but was forced to flee town in a railway carriage, fired on by the IRA as civil war broke out.

I’d read what I could about the NB House before I reached Ireland. I knew Nora had lived in it with her mother and six younger siblings, cooking over an open fire and with no running water.

I knew also that it showed some of the couple’s letters and photos, but was mainly a carefully preserved early 20th century house. So not much in the way of Joyceana, and I refuse to believe that there’s such a thing as Barnacleana. But I wanted to see it to scratch my tourist’s itch.

At the tourist office, Niamh had never heard of it and Siobhan thought it was listed somewhere. But Morag nodded instantly: “Certainly, sorr,” she said. “Open till tree o’clock every day. Nice little place, to be sure.”

I was there at noon the following day, holding Morag’s meticulously drawn map. No 8 Bowling Green – a twisty little alley 100m from the gift shops selling shamrock boxers and leprechaun bras; a couple of turns from the salmon weir (fenced off since people started chucking themselves into its maelstrom) and St Nicholas’ Church with its single smirking angel, the one that Cromwell’s troops somehow missed beheading.

A little plaque on the front wall announced the house’s identity. It was just as I’d pictured and the few sources described: the smallest house in the street, with a pale-grey plaster exterior. A single window downstairs lit the kitchen, dining room and occasional bedroom; another upstairs for the other bedrooms.

Inside, the sources said, I’d find those photos and letters, plus whitewashed walls, iron bed and crucifix, sideboard crammed with “unmemorable crockery”. The NB House doesn’t claim to be much.

I moved towards the door. A small notice in the downstairs window, presumably a list of entrance fees, caught my eye. I reached for my euros.

But I’d overreached. The sign – handwritten once again – read “CLOSED”.

I did what I always do when things go wrong and stamped my foot. I exclaimed “Begorrah!” … or a similar-sounding word. But I had found the place and seen its exterior. Plus I remembered Margaret Atwood’s comment that wanting to meet a writer because you’ve read his or her books is like wanting to meet a duck because you like pâté.

And after all, the visit wasn’t wasted: I had got to hear Morag say “to be sure”.

This article was first published in the November 25, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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