Sunday, 27 January 2013

The Lass of Aughrim


“The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill 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.”

―  James Joyce, The Dead, Dubliners

Nora Barnacle: James Joyce's lifetime companion and wife.

Those of you who have been following this blog know that my wife doesn't share my interest in James Joyce.  Not a bit. She hasn't read Ulysses and refuses to go anywhere near anything Joyce has written.

Yet she does love traveling and exploring new places -- so fortunately, over the years, we've discovered a few creative ways to intersect our interests.

In an earlier post I wrote about how my wife and I spent a wonderful vacation in Ireland a few years ago.  After enjoying three days of walking around Dublin and seeing the sites, we decided to rent a car and see some other parts of the country.    

We travelled westward via Ireland's southern perimeter, stopping for a while at Kenmare, which served as a base to explore the spectacular landscapes of the Kerry and Bearra Peninsulas.   They're the closest thing I've ever seen to God's country.   

View from the Kerry Peninsula
More scenery from the Kerry Peninsula
After visiting the breathtaking Cliffs of Moher, we took a ferry across the Shannon River towards the central port-city on the west coast of Ireland: Galway. 

When we arrived, we were surprised to find Galway bustling with activity and entertainment -- we came in the midst of Galway's annual arts festival and there wasn't a vacant hotel room to be found anywhere.  We spent what seemed like hours trekking from hotel to hotel searching for an elusive room - and finally landed a small place to stay above a pub near Galway's central Eyre Square.  

Galway offers an eclectic mix of historic monuments (such as the Spanish Arch), shops, seaside promenades, music and rows upon rows of restaurants with great seafood and inviting patios.

Galway also happens to be the birthplace of Joyce's lover, companion and later his wife, Nora Barnacle -- and I could hardly wait to visit the house where she was born, which at the time, had been transformed into Ireland's smallest museum. 

Surely my wife wouldn't turn down a chance to tour the house where Joyce's companion was born?  

But before I go there, I want to provide some background on Nora:

* * * * *

Nora Barnacle was born in March 1884 in Galway.  While in her teens, a teenager named Michael Feeney fell in love with her, but sadly, he died shortly after from typhoid and pneumonia.  Several years later another young man named Michael Bodkin fell in love with Nora, but he also took ill and died.  Joyce later used this unfortunate series of events as the basis for The Dead, the final short story in the Dubliners. 

By 1904 Nora moved to Dublin and started working as a maid at Finn's Hotel.  In June she met James Joyce during a walk, and he immediately and brazenly asked her out on a date.  Nora accepted, but her supervisor wouldn't let her leave the hotel and she wasn't able to meet Joyce at the agreed upon time.   She stood Joyce up, but he wasn't deterred;  he asked her out again, and their first date took place on June 16, 1904 -- the day upon which the events of Ulysses occur. 

When Joyce's father initially heard Nora's name, he joked: "Barnacle? She'll never leave him."   He was right.  From that date on, Nora and Joyce stuck together.  

Not too long after they met, Joyce decided to take a self-imposed exile from Ireland, and he asked Nora to leave with him.  They took an excursion through a series of European cities, until they ultimately landed in Trieste, Italy, where the couple stayed for 10 years. 

Along with being Joyce's model for Greta Conroy, the female lead in the Dead, Nora served as Joyce's role model for Molly Bloom in Ulysses, Bertha in Joyce's play Exiles and Anna Livia Plurabelle in Finnegans Wake.   Her personality and experiences have influenced some of the most iconic characters in modern literature.

Although Nora spent much of her life in the shadow of Joyce, she was the subject of a fabulous biography by Brenda Maddox called Nora, the Real Life of Molly Bloom.  In 1999, the book was made into a critically acclaimed movie starring Ewan McGregor as Joyce and Susan Lynch as Nora. 

Here's a short YouTube video clip from the movie Nora featuring Susan Lynch and Ewan McGregor singing The Lass of Aughrim, the signature song from The Dead:

Susan Lynch and Ewan McGregor (as Barnacle and Joyce)  

Director Pat Murphy cleverly seems to have based the image of Joyce in this scene on an actual photograph of Joyce playing guitar.  If you click on my previous post Music in Ulysses, you'll see the similarity to the image in the video.  

Aughrim is a town in County Galway -- as such, the song is about a girl from Galway, just like Nora.

The song, The Lass of Aughrim, is of central importance in The Dead -- it's the catalyst which motivates Greta Conroy to remember the young man named Michael Furey who died in a similar fashion to the two teenagers who died during Nora's youth.  In Proustian madeleine-cake-like fashion, a flood of memories wash over Greta when she hears the Lass of Aughrim -- which causes her to reveal the death of the teenager to her husband, Gabriel.   In the final lines of The Dead, as Greta falls asleep in the hotel room, Gabriel is left looking out the window in utter solitude, realizing that he's been deceiving himself for all these years --  he was neither Greta's first love nor her greatest love.   The quote at the beginning of this post encapsulates his severe desolation and loneliness -- it's one of the most profoundly stirring passages in all literature. 

* * * * *

Fast-forwarding back to modern day Galway...

As you'd expect, my wife declined my invitation to visit the Nora Barnacle House Museum.

"Why don't you go see it yourself, Michael.  It's really not my thing," she said with a smile. "I'll go shopping."  

As she headed off in one direction towards the excitement of Galway's pedestrian shopping mall, I made my way through a quiet lane to the smallest house on Bowling Green which was once occupied by Nora and her family.   

Entrance to the Nora Barnacle House Museum, Galway

As I entered the two-room house, I was shocked by how tiny it was; particularly since Nora lived in it with her mother and six siblings until she left in 1904.  The room on the ground floor served as a living room and a kitchen. Upstairs there was a communal bedroom;  I had no clue where the entire Barnacle family slept.   

The museum was staffed by a friendly young Irish woman sitting at a desk by herself; unsurprisingly, she had the slightly lonesome look of someone who spends a great deal of time in a house that few people visit.  During the hour that I was there, no-one else came by.

The inside of the Nora Barnacle House Museum
After touring the tiny upstairs bedroom, I went downstairs and started chatting with the woman in the museum; she told me she was studying to be an actress.  She had a copy of the Dubliners on her desk, and we started talking about what a beautiful story "The Dead" was.  As we spoke about the final passage, I asked her to read it aloud -- and she seemed very pleased with the change of pace.  She did a beautiful job of reading the section of the Dead which I've quoted at the beginning of this post. 

There was electricity in the air as she read it.  After all, it was based on the woman who lived in this house a century ago, the woman who suffered the deaths of Michael Feeney and Michael Bodkin, and the woman whose husband visited this house and wrote about the death of a fictional teenager named Michael Furey, echoing the deaths of the other two Michaels.

And that day, another Michael was in Nora's house.

As I was getting ready to leave, the young woman wanted to know if I was the mayor of a Canadian city.  I told her I wasn't, but I was curious why she asked.

"I don't know, Michael," she said. "You just look like a mayor."

No-one had ever said that to me before -- and it's not something you easily forget.   I wonder if the young woman might someday come across this blog and remember reading a passage from The Dead to a guy who looked like a mayor.

As I left the petite museum and the girl from Galway, I headed towards the lively crowds of Galway's effervescent arts festival, and felt myself returning from the dead to the living.  

* * * * * 

While researching this post, I read that the Nora Barnacle House Museum did not open last year due to budget cuts by the Irish government; I wonder if this tiny -- yet meaningful -- museum will ever open its door again.

                                                                           * * * * * 

One more note about the song "The Lass of Aughrim" -- there's something quite familiar about it.  No?  That's because the song's structure is very similar to the academy award winning tune "Somewhere Out There" which appeared in the 1986 movie "An American Tail."   Listen again and you'll hear it.  Who knows how many songs "The Lass of Aughrim" may have inspired over the years...


  1. And ye take the high road,
    And I take the low road,
    But never shall the two of us meet again,
    As upon the shores of Lach Lomond.

    Ah yes, there are a million Celtic meetings, and I shall one day meet you, the author of this blog.

  2. Thank you for this. I'm preparing for teaching a class on the story The Dead.

  3. I fell in love with a production of The Dead performed a number of years ago at The Arden Theater in Philadelphia, Terry Nolan, Artistic Director. The music was hauntingly beautiful and for years I wondered what it was. Years later I encountered the Irish song The Lass of Aughrim and had the same feeling, not knowing that this was indeed the missing melody I still kept in the recesses of my mind. How wonderful to learn that this melody was part of The Dead, one of my favorite plays!

  4. Just watched The Dead for the first time, and was captivated by the Lass of Aughrim. Must find the music.