On 11 February 1900 Michael Bodkin died
Michael ‘Sonny’ Bodkin was an admirer of the young Nora Barnacle in Galway. He was the son of Winifred and Patrick Bodkin who ran a sweetshop on Prospect Hill in Galway where Nora and her friend Mary O’Holleran bought sweets. Bodkin was registered as a student at Queen’s College (now University College Galway) but gave up his studies to work as a clerk. He died in the County Infirmary on 11 February 1900, at the age of twenty, of tuberculosis, and was buried in the family vault at Rahoon Cemetery.
The relationship between Bodkin and Nora Barnacle is unlikely to have been very deep or of long duration given that Nora was not quite sixteen at the time of Bodkin’s death. But she certainly felt his death keenly, and she treasured all her life a bracelet that he had given her.
Her account of her relationship with Bodkin and of Bodkin’s death, along with accounts of other young men she had known in Galway, had a significant impact on Joyce and he returned to the details in several works written in the period 1906-1914.
In the story ‘The Dead,’ the character Michael Furey is modelled on Bodkin, though Joyce also uses the details creatively. In the story, for instance, Michael Furey is buried in the cemetery at Oughterard, seventeen miles northwest of Galway city, while Bodkin was buried in Rahoon cemetery which is located in the western part of Galway city. On a visit to Galway in 1912, Joyce cycled to Oughterard to visit the cemetery, finding coincidentally a headstone with the name ‘J. Joyce’ on it.
Joyce also wrote a poem, ‘She Weeps Over Rahoon,’ after his visit to Galway with Nora during the summer of 1912. The rain falling on Rahoon cemetery in the poem connects with the snow falling on Oughterard cemetery in ‘The Dead.’ It is connected too with the rain falling in the song ‘The Lass of Aughrim,’ associated with Michael Furey in ‘The Dead’ and with Nora’s life in Galway. In 1909, Joyce got Nora’s mother to sing ‘The Lass of Aughrim’ for him in the house at 4 Bowling Green, Galway.
In November 1913, in notes for the play Exiles, the grave of the dark-haired delicate boy in Rahoon is associated with Shelley’s grave in Rome: “Graveyard at Rahoon by moonlight where Bodkin’s grave is. He lies in the grave. She sees his tomb (family vault) and weeps. The name is homely. Shelley’s is strange and wild. He is dark, unrisen, killed by love and life, young. The earth holds him… She weeps over Rahoon too, over him whom her love had killed, the dark boy whom, as the earth, she embraces in death and disintegration. He is her buried life, her past.”
Sources & Further Reading:
Ellmann, Richard: James Joyce – New and Revised Edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982.
Igoe, Vivien: James Joyce’s Dublin Houses & Nora Barnacle’s Galway, Dublin: Lilliput Press, 2007.
Joyce, James: Poems & Exiles, edited with an Introduction and Notes by JCC Mays, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1992.
Halper, Nathan: ‘The Grave of Michael Bodkin,’ in James Joyce Quarterly, vol. 12, no. 3, Spring 1975, pp. 273-258.
Maddox, Brenda: Nora – A Biography of Nora Joyce, London: Hamish Hamilton, 1988.