On this day…21 March

On 21 March 1884 Nora Barnacle was born.

However, according to Brenda Maddox, Nora’s biographer, it’s not certain on which day Nora was born: the records of her birth disagree about whether it was 21 or 22 March 1884. She was the second of eight children of Thomas and Annie Barnacle who lived at several addresses in Galway before settling at what is now the Nora Barnacle House at 8 Bowling Green.

From 1889 to 1897 Nora attended the Convent of Mercy National School after which she had a job at the Presentation Convent. Nora found an early admirer in eighteen-year-old Michael ‘Sonny’ Bodkin, who died in February 1900. Joyce based the character of Michael Furey in ‘The Dead’ on Nora’s stories of Michael Bodkin.

Nora’s uncle, Thomas Barnacle, forbade her to see another young man, Willie Mulvagh, and when he saw them together, Thomas Barnacle beat her severely. The following week, Nora left for Dublin where she got a job as a chambermaid at Finn’s Hotel early in 1904.

On Friday 10 June 1904 Nora met James Joyce on Nassau Street and they arranged to meet again a few days later near Merrion Square. Joyce turned up for the meeting but Nora didn’t, and on Wednesday 15 June he wrote to her at the hotel to see if she wanted to make an arrangement for another day. It seems that they went out together for the first time on Thursday 16 June 1904, the day commemorated in Ulysses.

Nora left Ireland with Joyce in October 1904. Though they didn’t marry until 1931, for respectability’s sake they claimed to have married in 1904, and throughout the rest of their lives together they were rarely separated. Nora and Joyce had two children: Giorgio, born in 1905, and Lucia, born in 1907.

Despite threatening several times to leave because of Joyce’s drinking, Nora not only stuck by him but also provided him with a level of middle-class domesticity (though she was never renowned for her domestic skills) which he needed in order to write. She was also the model for several characters in Joyce’s works, and her idiomatic expressions pervade the speech and thoughts of some of Joyce’s most important characters.

After Joyce’s death in 1941, Nora remained in Zurich and took an active part in decisions about Joyce’s estate. She suffered with arthritis which slowed her a great deal, and by 1950 she could no longer walk. She died in Zurich on 10 April 1951. She was buried in the same cemetery as Joyce, but it was not until 1966 that their remains were placed together in a single plot.

Nora was the subject of a biography by Brenda Maddox on which Pat Murphy based her film, Nora. The film Nora is the subject of a book by Gerardine Meaney.


Sources & Further Reading:

Igoe, Vivien: James Joyce’s Dublin Houses & Nora Barnacle’s Galway, Dublin: Lilliput Press, 2007.

Maddox, Brenda: Nora – A Biography of Nora Joyce, London: Hamish Hamilton, 1988.

Meaney, Gerardine: Nora (Ireland into Film Series), Cork: Cork University Press, 2004.