Like all recovering English majors, I've always been mesmerized by June 16, 1904. The date on which Ulysses takes place, it is also the day that James Joyce's first date with his beloved—the wonderfully named Galway maiden, Nora Barnacle. It's easy to picture James and Nora strolling by the River Liffey, punning and thinking about Hamlet.
But as described in this lovely excerpt from Richard Ellman's biography—which I found, for some reason, on this nifty blog—James and Nora's meeting was much more ordinary, and all the sweeter for it.
The experience of love was almost new to [Joyce] in fact, though he had often considered it in imagination. A transitory interest in his cousin Katsy Murray had been followed by the stronger, but unexpressed and unrequited, interest in Mary Sheehy. He shocked Stanlislaus [Joyce's brother] a little by quoting with approval a remark of a Dublin wit, ‘Woman is an animal that micturates once a day, defecates once a week, menstruates once a month and parturiates once a year.’ Yet tenderness was as natural to him as coarseness, and secretly he dreamed of falling in love with someone he did not know, a gentle lady, the flower of many generations, to whom he should speak in the ceremonious accents of Chamber Music.
Instead, on June 10, 1904, Joyce was walking down Nassau Street in Dublin when he caught sight of a tall, good-looking young woman, auburn-haired, walking with a proud stride. When he spoke to her she answered pertly enough to allow the conversation to continue. She took him, with his yachting cap, for a sailor, and from his blue eyes thought for a moment he might be Swedish.
Joyce found she was employed at Finn’s Hotel, a slightly exalted rooming house, and her lilting speech confessed that she was from Galway City. She had been born there, to parents who lived in Sullivan’s Lane, on March 21, 1884. Her name was a little comic, Nora Barnacle, but this too might be an omen of felicitous adhesion. (As Joyce’s father was to say when he heard much later her last name was Barnacle, ‘She’ll never leave him.’) After some talk it was agreed they should meet in front of Sir William Wilde’s house at the turning of Merrion Square on June 14. But Nora Barnacle failed to appear, and Joyce sent her a note in some dejection:
60 Shelbourne Road
I may be blind. I looked for a long time at a head of reddish-brown hair and decided it was not yours. I went home quite dejected. I would like to make an appointment but it might not suit you. I hope you will be kind enough to make one with me — if you have not forgotten me!
—James A. Joyce 15 June 1904
The appointment was made, and for the evening of June 16, when they went walking at Ringsend, and then arranged to meet again.
To set Ulysses on this date was Joyce’s most eloquent if indirect tribute to Nora, a recognition of the determining effect upon his life of his attachment to her. On June 16, as he would afterwards realize, he entered into relation with the world around him and left behind him the loneliness he had felt since his mother’s death. He would tell her later, “You made me a man.” June 16 was the sacred day that divided Stephen Dedalus, the insurgent youth, from Leopold Bloom, the complaisant husband.
Joyce's work is weighed down with so much critical blather, but at heart, he was a man with a sense of humor. How nice to see him being happy.
On a related note, would it be too too cute to name a character in something Nora Barnacle? It's such an unbelievably wonderful name—I want to hear it every day.