Nora Barnacle’s House

While it’s true the buildings of Galway do make up a large part of its history, with their differing architecture and powerful presence, this blog has so far neglected one of the most important aspects of the city’s history – the people. For every ornate carving or ruin of city wall, there is the story of the person who made it or lived in it. Judging by the kind of people that are in Galway in the present day, the ones centuries ago must have been quite the characters! But there is one particular landmark in Galway city which is so linked with its former inhabitant that it in fact still bares her name. That place is of course the Nora Barnacle House on Bowling Green, a two minute walk from the end of Shop Street, across from St. Nicholas’ Church.
Nora Barnacle could indeed be one of the most influential figures in Irish writing, and those of you with literary leanings have probably come across the name before. Nora Barnacle was the wife of James Joyce, the celebrated Irish writer who was a leader in the European avant-garde movement. She was often cited as his muse, several characters in his books being based off her and her experiences. Perhaps the best known of these characters is Molly Bloom, wife to Leopold Bloom in the odyssey Ulysses. Her famous words, “yes I said yes I will Yes” finish off the marathon novel, a wonderful tribute to Nora herself, a woman of ambition and certainty in Joyce’s eyes. In fact, the date on which Ulysses is set, June 16 1904 (now called Bloomsday) is that of their first date. It is clear she had a huge influence upon his work and supported him in his creative efforts, which wasn’t always easy in a relationship fraught with poverty and alcoholism on Joyce’s part. But she remained true to her name, Joyce’s father proclaiming, “Barnacle; she’ll stick to him” upon hearing Nora’s surname for the first time. But before she became wife and muse to Joyce, she was a native of Galway and every muse has to grow up somewhere.

The house on Bowling Green was Nora’s childhood home where she lived until 1903. Her early life was fraught with hardship before they settled in this house with her mother, uncle and 6 other younger siblings. She had been sent to live with her grandmother, Catherine Mortimer Healy, in 1886 and stayed until 1889, beginning school at this time. By the time she had completed school in 1896, her mother had thrown their father out as a result of his drinking and subsequently separated. In that same year, a teenager called Michael Feeney who she had fallen in love with died of typhoid and pneumonia, followed 4 years later by the death of another boyfriend Michael Bodkin. It was also a fight with her uncle about dating a Protestant boy called Willie Mulvagh which caused her to leave for Dublin in 1903, where she met James Joyce the following year. And this house in Galway city was the hub of all the activity! It was built in the 1800s and consisted of two rooms and a tiny back yard with the ground floor room serving as a kitchen, dining room, and often a bedroom. Cooking was done over an open fire, in pot ovens and on large griddles. Water was drawn from a pump across the street as the house did not receive its own supply until the 1940s.The upstairs room was a communal bedroom, meaning that all 8 people staying in the house were crammed into 2 floors of the smallest house on the street! Within a year of meeting in Dublin, Nora and James eloped to Europe, where they would eventually settle in Trieste in Italy, far from her native Galway. They would have two children there, Giorgio and Lucia who would visit Ireland and in fact enter into Nora’s old home. In 1909 Joyce in fact met his mother-in-law (even though him and Nora would not actually marry until 1931) Annie Barnacle in the house, penning a letter later to Nora saying how they had been received with open arms. Nora would sadly only ever visit Galway once again, as on this second visit troubles to do with the Irish War of Independence would cause Nora to never want to return. She ended up settling in Zurich in Germany after Joyce passed away there in 1941, herself dying in 1951 due to renal failure at the age of 67.
After Annie Barnacle passed away in 1940, the house became derelict in the following years. In 1987 however, it was purchased by Sheila and Mary Gallagher who turned it into a visitors’ centre. They returned it to its turn of the century condition and over the years thousands of people have visited the landmark. Sadly however, the house will not be open this year to visit due to financial reasons. The house remains with a plaque outside designating it as Nora’s birthplace and any Joyce/arts enthusiasts should still visit – how often do you get to say you stood in the exact same place as one of the world’s most influential writers? The people of a place are what mostly make it unique, and Nora Barnacle is the prime example of this. One little house on an inconspicuous street in a city on the west coast of Ireland is a wealth of historical and artistic inspiration – come to our city and see what other histories you can come across, they’re just waiting to be found! That’s it again for this week, see you lovely readers again soon!

– Martin