Joyce letters reveal author’s angst over wedding

Nora Barnacle & James Joyce married in Austria in 1904 and again in London in 1931
Nora Barnacle & James Joyce married in Austria in 1904 and again in London in 1931

A first-hand account by James Joyce of his unsuccessful attempts to avoid publicity when he married Galway woman Nora Barnacle in London in 1931 has been published by the National Library of Ireland.

by Ray Burke

Two previously-unpublished letters from Joyce to his son Giorgio in the days before and after the wedding are among more than 160 items bequeathed to the James Joyce Foundation in Zurich that have been digitized for online viewing on the National Library website in recent weeks.

The handwritten letters contain a detailed account of Joyce’s alarm and distress when the English newspapers discovered that he was about to marry Nora Barnacle in a civil ceremony in London after they had been living together as man and wife for nearly 27 years in Austria, Italy, Switzerland and France.

Joyce had tried to keep the wedding secret by applying for a marriage licence only two days before the civil ceremony using his full name – James Augustine Aloysius Joyce – and also by declining to include his birthplace or his profession on the application.

But because he had become world famous in the near-decade since the publication of Ulysses in 1922 his identity was guessed by a Press Association reporter checking the notices at the Kensington Register Office and journalists laid siege to Joyce at his home and at the Register Office over the following days.

“All day the bell went and the telephone. Even at midnight when we came back from supper there was a reporter posted on the steps,” Joyce told Giorgio five days after the wedding, adding that anyone who thought the ceremony was a publicity stunt “must be a complete imbecile”.

The four-page closely-written letter goes on to outline the persistent demands of the “Press Association man” for a statement, as well as the scene outside the Kensington Register Office on the wedding day when the street was full of newspapermen and a “pure blackmail” attempt by a Sunday Express reporter who tricked his way into Joyce’s home later that day.

The Press Association man had approached Joyce near his home – in exclusive Campden Grove, just off Kensington Church Street – within hours of the advance wedding notice being posted at the Register office.

Joyce told Giorgio that he tried to buy time by continuing to chew a cake or sweet that he was eating, but the reporter “went on to say he had been sent to me for a statement as to why, if I married N. B. in 1904, I was etc etc”.

The material put on display online this summer by the National Library of Ireland is owned by the Zurich James Joyce Foundation, to which it was bequeathed by Giorgio’s step son from his second marriage, Professor Hans Jahnke, who died in 2010. It cannot be reproduced without the permission of the Zurich James Joyce Foundation.

For more see this week’s Connacht Tribune or Galway City Tribune

■ Ray Burke is Chief News Editor of RTE News. He is a native of Oranmore.