A Woman to Know: Nora Barnacle

I think I would know Nora’s fart anywhere. I think I could pick hers out in a roomful of farting women. — James Joyce

I think I would know Nora’s fart anywhere. I think I could pick hers out in a roomful of farting women. — James Joyce

(image via Wikimedia Commons — Nora is pictured bottom right, with James Joyce and their children, Lucia and Giorgio)

She’s one of those “women behind the man” women — and the man is one of the voices that made Modernist fiction.

Nora Joyce, née Nora Barnacle, inspired some of James Joyce’s most — er — passionate writing. From their very first date, the two were enamored with each other. Even as the famous author traveled abroad for work and kept multiple affairs from his wife, they sent very explicit letters back and forth (letters that now bid for hundreds of thousands of dollars at literary auction) (letters I suggest you not read at your desk).

But even though writers talk as though Joyce became her entire life, Nora actually had a whole other life before Joyce. Following a turbulent childhood in Galway and schooling at a convent in Southern Ireland, she eventually landed in Dublin, where she worked as a chambermaid at the Finn Hotel. There, she met Joyce, and the connection was instant. She told him about her teenagehood, and he later turned some of her stories into the pieces that became his most famous works. After their first date, the two traveled through Europe, trailed by literary paparazzi along the way.

That first date — June 16 — is now celebrated as Bloomsday, a holiday for fans of Joyce’s most famous work, Ulysses. The Joyces didn’t get officially married until 30 years later (to her mother’s horror) and their family life suffered tragedy after tragedy (a wayward son, a daughter committed to an asylum, and, again, James’s infidelities and alcoholism). After James died in 1941, Nora remained in Zurich, where they’d holidayed. She died just 10 years later, at age 67.

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