Love is Unhappy When Love is Away - The Story of James Joyce and Nora Barnacle - The Gloss Magazine

Love is Unhappy When Love is Away – The Story of James Joyce and Nora Barnacle

Nuala O’Connor’s Nora, A Love Story of Nora Barnacle and James Joyce, imagines in stunning and often sordid detail the lives of the writer and his wife after they leave Dublin for the continent in 1904, the story zipping from Paris to Zurich to Trieste and back to Paris. In her fictionalised account, what shines through is the love that lasted until Joyce’s death in 1941, and the lines of a poem which inspired the author’s tattoo on her forearm …

This piece was first published in The Gloss Magazine April 2021.

Absence makes the heart lose weight, yeah, lamented Paddy McAloon in a Prefab Sprout song from the 1980s. The corollary of that, then, must be that presence makes the heart fatten, makes its rooms grow heavier on a tide of contracting and relaxing blood. Little red chambers, filled with love.

In 1909, when James Joyce and his beloved Nora Barnacle were parted – he was in Dublin on business, she was back in their home in Trieste – Nora’s absence made Joyce’s heart shrivel. It wasn’t just that friends of his tried to undermine his personal happiness by concocting a story that Nora had been unfaithful to him five years before, it was that he found it hard to function at all, without her steady presence by his side. A more loyal friend – John F Byrne – assured Joyce that Nora had never betrayed him and Joyce believed Byrne and rejoiced.

In this restored-to-faith mood, Joyce commissioned an elaborate gift for his absolved, absent lover. Using what he knew best – words of his own creation – he took the final line from his poem that begins “Winds of May that dance on the sea” and had them etched onto a necklace of five linked ivory tablets for Nora. The central, largest piece of ivory is inscribed on the front: “Love is unhappy”, and the line continues on the back, “when love is away”. The “Winds of May” poem is otherwise simple and old-fashioned – not exactly what readers might expect of Joyce – but that final line sings with simple beauty and truth: “Love is unhappy when love is away”. For both Joyce and Nora, who enjoyed a deep bond, this was very much the case. Neither of them thrived when they were parted. The air is cold in the Galway tattoo parlour – just a rook’s roar from Nora Barnacle’s homeplace – where I have Joyce’s words inked into my skin. Love is unhappy when love is away.

The tattoo artist is a quiet person, and he applies himself to his work with fixed concentration, while transferring the poem’s lines – and the galaxy I’ve designed to accompany them: moon, sun, stars – onto my forearm. He has tattooed me before, this reticent Russian, as well as my son and my husband and, as quiet people ourselves, we enjoy his aversion to small talk. While he works, I am free of small talk, able to let my mind flurry over this and that.

I look around me. The parlour is sparsely furnished, but the walls hold art: decorated deer antlers and a picture of a horned rabbit; and a sweet painting of a fat white Maneki-neko – the Japanese luck cat – who beckons blessings to the room. The tattoo gun burrs, pinching lightly at my skin, and my thoughts wander over absence and love and poetry, over Nora Barnacle and James Joyce and their full hearts. I think, too, about the worrying rise in Covid-19 cases; about my father who died a few months back after contracting the virus in hospital, and of all the things I want to chat about with him and can’t.

I look to the month ahead and the absences it will inevitably contain: tomorrow the country locks down again, and I won’t see my Ma for yet another long span of time. Weeks of late winter crawl into spring and I must stay within five kilometres of my Galway home and not visit my Dublin family. Will dementia have burrowed yet more wormholes in my Ma’s memory by the time I see her? Or will the presence of my siblings keep her tethered to the now? My biggest worry makes my heart palpate: will my Ma survive this pandemic or will we lose her too?

Back home, as my tattoo heals and sits with gorgeous clarity on my skin, I think about why I chose this James Joyce quote, above all possible Joyce quotes. Love is unhappy when love is away. For one thing, it speaks to my love and respect for Nora and Joyce as a pair, as the yin and yang of each other, as the Galway-Dublin hybrid that they were, and the European couple they became. The quote represents, also, my own writerly travels and the home, husband, and children I miss terribly when I am away. Travel is one of the perks of being a writer, but it’s lonely sometimes to be unanchored from all you know, especially when the trip is prolonged, or when the experience is not a smooth or enjoyable one.

This latest tattoo speaks for all the absences I endure: those of my dead, of far-away family, and of missing friends. In these up-ended, pandemic days, absence lies heavy and hard on me. My heart loses weight. But each time I read the ink on my arm – Love is unhappy when love is away – I am able to take some comfort and look forward to having a full, fat heart once more.

Nora by Nuala O’Connor, (New Island Books, €16.95) is out now.


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