A Song Cycle for Nora Barnacle

A Theatre/Concert Review by Deirdre Gillespie

Nora and Joyce on their (belated) wedding day in 1931

Nora and Joyce on their (belated) wedding day in 1931

On the 16th June in Dublin no one in the National Concert Hall could be distracted by anything for almost two hours.   Nora Barnacle, a song cycle by Shaun Davey and Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill,  about Nora’s life from the moment she met James Joyce until he died, proved to be an indisputable hit.     The audience was happy to listen to Nora telling us in her own words about her life with James Joyce.    She was known to be a plain speaking woman, practical, stoical, yet with as much mettle in her as there was in Joyce.   They loved hearing Nora’s focus – scholarly issues were negligible – about love in all it’s many guises for there can be no doubt that love was the bond that held Nora and James together from their first meeting in 1904 and underlay events in their later years.  

The song titles gave the clues as to how their life unfolded through the years.  The show opened with ‘I met a young man in Dublin’.   ‘The Boat Train’ took us to Trieste, a rooftop in Rome, Cinema Volta, Lucia’s madness and conluded with ‘Roaring with the Lions’. The only song which relied on words from Joyce’s work was ‘I rush into your arms’   taken from the last pages of Finnegans Wake.   If there was a criticism to be made it came early in the first half when there seemed to be a sameness to one or two of the songs.   However, once the story moved from the lethargy of the heat of Trieste and Rome, the excitement of Stannie, Jim and Nora going to the opera changed the mood entirely.   It changed again when Nora declared ‘I won’t look at you Jim’ in frustration at JJ’s drinking, the disastrous Volta Cinema venture, and when the cold winds of war are first felt and Stannie is interned.   ‘Lucia’s Dance   and ‘Lucia is Mad’ were poignant reminders of how life dealt an unfortunate hand to Lucia Joyce.   The concluding numbers ‘I rush into Your Arms’   and ‘Roaring with the Lions’. were a perfect finale for a great show. Nowhere in the song cycle do we hear about the deeply erotic relationship with Joyce.   Did we   need to, though?   The dirty letters’ shared by Joyce and Nora are already famous/notorious for their frankness. 


Rita Connolly as Nora Barnacle (media release).

A good deal of the success of the production was down to Rita Connolly’s wonderful performance but it also had to do with Davey’s and Ní Dhomhnaill’s ability to find Nora’s voice and sweep aside academic concern in order to tell us about the things that mattered to her.   A small band was chosen to present the soloist incorporating a loose framework of traditional-style themes and rhythms, echoes of music of Nora’s era intending to suggest time and place.   The resulting eighteen songs are true to the person Nora was and find a way into the heart of her intense and fiery relationship with Joyce.

 Nora Barnacle is the latest in a series of pieces specially composed for Rita Connolly who has been performing since the age of 14.     As well as releasing two solo albums, performed with the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra, a Romanian Male choir, Rita performed The Deer’s Cry   at the inauguration of the president of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins in 2011.  Rita recently sang the orchestrated premiere of Carriage Aonair  at the National Concert Hall in Dublin to commemorate the centenary of the sinking of the Lusitania.

Shaun Davey has composed a significant number of concert pieces.  They include The Brendan Voyage, Suite for the Dublin Special Olympics and Relief of Derry Symphony  which was commissioned as part of the early Northern Ireland Peace Process.  His work also features in the Irish Schools syllabus. The catalyst for Nora Barnacle was a reading in1988 of Brenda Maddox’s biography Nora.   In 2014 a collaboration with the poet, Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill and Rita Connolly  opened up the way in which to proceed.

Nóra Ní Dhomhnaill, born of Irish speaking parents in England, was brought up the Dingle Gaeltacht in Co. Kerry.  After living in Holland and Turkey she returned to the Gaeltacht to write full time.  Currently Writer-in-Residence at St. Patrick’s College of Education in Dublin, Nóra is also a member of Poetry Ireland and is on the board of Dublin Writers’ Centre.  She has also frequently been appointed Visiting Professor at several notable universities in the USA and her work has been translated into many different languages. 

Deirdre Gillespie, is Dublin-born, and herself a thespian and lover of Joyce.