A Christmas Childhood: James Joyce, Nora Barnacle and Me

This is a time of year for reflection. My grandfather died just before Christmas thirty years ago. It feels, as is so often the case with memory, like it was just yesterday. That first, personal encounter with death confirms for me that our most important learnings do not happen in school. My mind is drawn home to an exposed patch of barren land close to where I grew up in the West of Ireland.

In his poem, “A Christmas Childhood”, Patrick Kavanagh evokes “the wonder of a Christmas townland, the winking glitter of a frosty dawn”. This is a place that I see vividly as I look out today on a grey, dark, Belgian day. It is in keeping with this evocation that I find myself remembering December childhood evenings in my hometown of Galway, ambling, carefree, along the farmers’ market, under the shadow of St Nicholas’ Church clock tower, watching the last of the Christmas trees being haggled for; the scraggy, final remnants left standing against the railings of St Patrick’s National School, like some bereft, abandoned souls.

Galway Market
The Galway Market, Christmas, 1966; the year I was born [Pic: Connacht Tribune]
Here, on the corner of Bowling Green, we children watched in horror as huge, red-faced men who reeked of whiskey and Guinness sold live turkeys and geese then swiftly wrung their necks with brutal precision for their beholden clientele. And it was from this very well-trodden street that one of the most important women in the history of modern literature emerged. Her expatriate narrative reconnects me not just to my Christmas childhood, but to those people who have gone before us, and remain with us, especially at this time of year: a concatenation of the living and the dead.

St-Nicholas-Galway
St. Nicholas’s Collegiate Church, Galway, facing the home of Nora Barnacle

On June 16, 1904, James Joyce went out on a first date in Dublin with a young chambermaid from Galway named Nora Barnacle. Could anyone have foretold that this modest daughter of an illiterate alcoholic would become the bedrock and inspiration of one of the twentieth century’s greatest minds? That date – now known as Bloomsday – is immortalised in Joyce’s most famous work, Ulysses. In fact, the admirable Barnacle dominated much of Joyce’s work (most notably documented in Molly Bloom’s soliloquy), perhaps most profoundly as the result of an adolescent relationship that Nora had when she was just 15. Although Galwegian, Michael Bodkin, died from tuberculosis when Barnacle was just a teenager, the author carried a fierce jealousy over this youthful, ill-fated affection. When Joyce returned to Galway in 1912 he visited Bodkin’s grave at Rahoon cemetery. He would have walked past St. Nicholas’ Church, past the house on Shantalla Road where my grandfather subsequently died, until he arrived at the grave of the teenage boy who had serenaded his Nora on a miserably wet and wintry Galway night, only to die a week later. Joyce carried this jealousy with him throughout his life with potent intensity, the ghosts from Rahoon with him always, resurfacing in – and profoundly informing – his finest writing.

Pomes Penyeach, published in 1927, contains a poem about the Galway visit which we know to have been written by Joyce (shortly after his trip to Rahoon), in exile, in Trieste in 1913, just before his short story collection, Dubliners appeared. Here, the call from the dead youth to the living is particularly compelling.

Bodkin's Grave
The grave of Michael Bodkin, Rahoon, Galway

She Weeps Over Rahoon
Rain on Rahoon falls softly, softly falling,
Where my dark lover lies.
Sad is his voice that calls me, sadly calling,
At grey moonrise.

Love, hear thou
How soft, how sad his voice is ever calling,
Ever unanswered, and the dark rain falling,
Then as now.

Dark too our hearts, O love, shall lie and cold
As his sad heart has lain
Under the moongrey nettles, the black mould
And muttering rain.

It is in Dubliners itself and in what is quite possibly Joyce’s greatest piece of writing, the short story, “The Dead”, that Joyce finally explores the jealousy he harbours for Nora’s past. In this culminating story in the collection, Bodkin is re-cast as the tragic Michael Furey and the song he serenaded Nora with shortly before his untimely death, “The Lass of Aughrim”, leads to Joyce’s painful epiphany. Here, at a party to celebrate the holiday season, complete with an unlikely Irish white Christmas, Gabriel Conroy discovers that his wife, Gretta, is pre-occupied and upset by something significant, a vibrant, melancholy ghost from her past.

“O, I am thinking about that song, The Lass of Aughrim.”

She broke loose from him and ran to the bed and, throwing her arms across the bed-rail, hid her face. He halted a few paces from her and said: “What about the song? Why does that make you cry?”

She raised her head from her arms and dried her eyes with the back of her hand like a child. A kinder note than he had intended went into his voice. “Why, Gretta?” he asked.

“I am thinking about a person long ago who used to sing that song.”

“And who was the person long ago?” asked Gabriel, smiling.

“It was a person I used to know in Galway when I was living with my grandmother,” she said.

The smile passed away from Gabriel’s face. A dull anger began to gather again at the back of his mind and the dull fires of his lust began to glow angrily in his veins. “Someone you were in love with?” he asked ironically.

“It was a young boy I used to know,” she answered, “named Michael Furey. He used to sing that song, The Lass of Aughrim. He was very delicate.”

Gabriel was silent. He did not wish her to think that he was interested in this delicate boy.

“I can see him so plainly,” she said, after a moment. “Such eyes as he had: big, dark eyes! And such an expression in them–an expression!”

“O, then, you are in love with him?” said Gabriel.

“I used to go out walking with him,” she said, “when I was in Galway.”

A thought flew across Gabriel’s mind. “Perhaps that was why you wanted to go to Galway with that Ivors girl?” he said coldly.

She looked at him and asked in surprise: “What for?”

Her eyes made Gabriel feel awkward. He shrugged his shoulders and said: “How do I know? To see him, perhaps.”

She looked away from him along the shaft of light towards the window in silence. “He is dead,” she said at length. “He died when he was only seventeen. Isn’t it a terrible thing to die so young as that?”

From John Huston’s film version of “The Dead”

The long walk from St Nicholas’ Church, up the Shantalla Road, past the home of my grandfather, Michael Noone, is one I have made many times since those childhood years. My grandparents have long since made that final journey and my own parents (my mother and grandmother, both also named Nora) now lie in Rahoon Cemetery, too, not far from the resting place of Michael Bodkin. Many loved ones and friends, some gone far too soon, also rest there in what Emily Bronte once imaginatively described as a “sleeping slumber”. It is, truly, an oddly tranquil place to visit. I believe that if we can learn one thing from James Joyce as a result of his meeting with Nora Barnacle, it is that the dead remain with us in powerful, meaningful ways and their stories become an inescapable, vital part of who we are. We did not need Joyce to teach us this lesson, but that meeting in 1904 records it as a universal truth for posterity.

Our story, as we reflect upon another passing year, is, of course, also the account of those who have gone before us, who have made us who we are, whose memories we carry with us. Like Joyce, we all have our own personal Rahoon and, at times like Christmas, the past is very much brought to mind, just like our childhood images of icy, winter streets and blissfully unaware, mortal, bustling shoppers … oblivious to what lies before them, a place to which our minds are drawn in moments of serenity and reflection. Here, in Joyce’s powerful conclusion to “The Dead”, the weeping rain of the earlier poem, is replaced by the cold, mournful snows of Christmas, a shimmering blanket unifying us all, a solemn invocation of that vital, hopeful singularity.

Snowy Graveyard
Snow was general all over Ireland

from The Dead
Yes, the news­pa­pers were right: snow was gen­eral all over Ire­land. It was falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, fur­ther west­wards, softly falling into the dark muti­nous Shan­non waves. It was falling too upon every part of the lonely church­yard where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and head­stones, on the spears of the lit­tle gate, on the bar­ren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the uni­verse and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the liv­ing and the dead.