‘i dream i am with you’: letters, language and Nora Barnacle

Nuala O’Connor, author of a novel about James Joyce’s wife, on the power of a letter

“…many times i dream i am with you but i find my great mistake when i awake from my sleep.” So wrote a 19th century Irish woman emigrant to the United States to her family back home. If you read that and presume the lack of capitalisation is probably because of haste due to the scourge of homesickness, you might be right. The run-on sentence and lack of capitals reads like a despairing, unfiltered keen borne of loneliness.

Studies show that women emigrants especially used a talky, conversational style in their letters, binding them closer to the reader who could probably hear the absent voice, the writer spilling words as if to an eager, in-person listener. And letters, however gappy or crudely rendered, were very welcome, no doubt, on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.

In my novel Nora, about Nora Barnacle, wife and muse to James Joyce, I have Joyce peep over Nora’s shoulder, as she writes a rare letter to Ireland, from their new home in Austria-Hungary. He looks and complains about her scant regard for punctuation and capitalisation. “Only you care about full stops, Jim,” she fires back, “the rest of us couldn’t give a fiddler’s fart.” Joyce did care about those things, but he cared more for novelty and genre-bending, and he co-opted Nora’s exact free and breezy style when writing the brilliant, beautiful final chapter of Ulysses – the Penelope episode – in which Molly Bloom, in eight long, breathy sentences, details her side of her marriage to Leopold Bloom.

Irish women emigrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including Nora Barnacle, were literate – most were educated at least until the age of 12. While some emigrant letters were chatty in tone, in others a certain school-girlish stiltedness took over, even when the women were writing to those who knew and loved them best. Greetings were often formal – set phrases the girls had learned in school – or maybe they used these learned sentences as a way to get the writerly juices flowing, and to signal, even to themselves, the importance of the communication: “I take up my pen to write these few lines to you hoping to find you and all the family in good health,” one wrote. It’s as if the correspondent has put on her Writer’s Hat to write which, up until then, was an activity monitored by a teacher. Other letters, as we have seen, are more heartrending in their openness and honesty. A young woman called Cathy wrote home: “I am heart-sick, fretting…to think it’s now going and gone into the third month since ye wrote me. I feel as if I’m dead…this is a world of troubles.”


I live on the opposite side of Ireland to my family – they are in Dublin, my hometown, where James Joyce was born and bred, and I am in Co Galway, home of Nora Barnacle. I am aware, when I write letters, texts, and emails home, that I bend my language to suit the recipient. With older relatives – my Ma, my auntie – I write more formally, being careful to be clear and newsy in a broad way; I put on that schoolgirlish hat and write to them in language that they might use themselves. With my sisters and close friends, I use a shorthand – my language is more sweary and slangy, and I’m more inclined to report on day-to-day things and about how I’m feeling. I’m more likely, too, to use new words with my peers – abbreviations, acronyms, emojis, and GIFs – to get my point across quickly or humorously. Like most people relatively fluent in internet-speak, when I write to my sisters, I often toss away punctuation, or choose to use spaces or capitals to show emotion or tweak the tone of a sentence.


My recently dead father loved language and was a great word-hoarder and maybe that’s why our family has always liked to invent and adopt new words. Like many families, we have a lexicon of made-up words, and particular phrases, that our ours alone. In our world, “nudjga” means irritating, “fee-fo-fee” means move over, and “delisimfolda” means delicious. Words we consciously take into our family language are often used, at first, for ironic effect, but they become such a part of our natural language that they’re barely noticeable. We started to say “I’m not wellsy-bubbles” – to mean “that’s daft” – at first as a way to parody someone we knew who spoke like that, but it stuck. And when, 35 years ago, my sister came back from an au-pairing stint in Canada, calling what we knew as “fellas” “guys”, somehow the word stuck with us too and we use it still.

Each generation makes the language anew and finds innovative ways to express itself and to communicate, and the internet now has us wedded to the written word in novel ways. It can be fun to test and try words and symbols that don’t seem to belong to us generationally. But language is also situational; I have to pause and think when I find myself wincing if, in novels, I come across expressions like LOL, or excessive use of exclamation marks, when I’m perfectly happy to see them in emails from my 11-year-old daughter, or to use them myself in a WhatsApp to my siblings. In reality, it shouldn’t matter how we communicate our ideas, thoughts, desires, fears and hopes – no one way is necessarily better than another – but as someone who uses language all day every day in my work, I find I’m always hyper-alert to other people’s chosen words.

Young women have long been language innovators, re-newers and disruptors; they tend to bend their language to fit their social group, and the phrases and words they use – much like me and my siblings – show that they belong to that group. According to linguist Gretchen McCulloch “women are on the bleeding edge of a lot of linguistic innovation… it is related to their social position”. She points out that women generally have a wider network and are more attentive to language choices because of language policing, so they re-invent their word-store to suit their lives and what they want to say to each other.

Writer and language enthusiast Stan Carey says, “People do language much as finches fly or trees leaf: it’s in our nature”. Language is built into us and is ever-ripening, and it’s helpful to stay open to that fact and not fear language shifts. Language is not under the exclusive ownership of anyone in particular – we are all entitled to use the words we find in the ever-evolving lexicon to express ourselves in whatever way we want. Still, the language police are alive and active, and I’m as culpable as anyone when I groan about certain words and usages I dislike (younger people’s endless use of the word “like”, for example).

I’m also a member of a Facebook group that posts pictures of signs or articles featuring poor grammar and spelling, superfluous use of apostrophes in shop signage, and so on. What this disdain doesn’t take into account is the fact that English may be the second language of the person writing the sign, or maybe the signwriter left school early, or maybe they just hate writing things down – perhaps our group’s time would be better spent checking our privilege and recognising that stray apostrophes and curious spellings are not the enemy, but a type of linguistic innovation.

A cruel silence

Nora Barnacle, when she left Ireland for Europe in 1904, didn’t write to her mother Annie Barnacle for years. Nora’s was a cruel silence, but she was fostered out to her Granny Healy at an early age and, although she lived near her parents and siblings in Galway city, Nora always felt a little disconnected from Mrs Barnacle. Granny Healy was her true mother and she died when Nora was 12. Nora was annoyed with her mother for not stopping the final beating that her Uncle Tommy gave her – the one that caused her to flee Galway – and she retained that hurt. So she didn’t bother to write to her mother from Europe, but often composed letters to Mrs Barnacle, which she dictated aloud to herself as she wrote, stuffed into envelopes, and propped – stampless – on the table for James Joyce to see. These letters outlined the fact that she was going to leave Joyce because he couldn’t provide properly for her or their children, Giorgio and Lucia. The letters were threats to Joyce; Nora knew the power of words and the power of shame, and she kept Joyce in line with these unmailed missives.

What must Annie Barnacle have felt about Nora’s lack of correspondence, about having no pretty envelope with newsy pages to share with her neighbours? What must she have told relatives and friends when they enquired after Annie’s fine daughter, with the beautiful head of auburn hair, and charming, earthy personality? No doubt Mrs Barnacle had some vague answer ready for them about Nora’s marriage to a college man from Dublin, and their new home in Europe, but it must have hurt her not to receive even a few short lines about how Nora was faring. Later, two more of Mrs Barnacle’s emigrant children failed to write to her, so there may have been a family-wide aversion to writing, or perhaps there were deeper disconnections at play.

Like much emigrant correspondence, Nora’s letters that she eventually began to send home – unpunctuated and uncapitalised – and the ones sent by Annie Barnacle, were a run-on catalogue of triumphs and woes: Jim’s had another book published, this person is dead, so-and-so is in trouble. But there was warmth and heart in them, too, an essential link to home, and for those in Galway – at last – solid news of the life abroad. For all their time apart – most of Nora’s life, truly – the letters that she exchanged with her mother were no doubt an essential bonding tool for both parties.

What nicer anticipatory joy than a letter arriving through the mail, with familiar handwriting on the envelope? There is honour in a letter, and love – the writer has taken the time to choose paper and to handwrite their thoughts just for you. The sender might include a carefully chosen photograph or postcard for your enjoyment. They most likely bend their language to suit your relationship, to best get across what it is they want to say to you, and to best reflect the kind of relationship you share. Most likely their aim is to please you, to inform you, to make you laugh, or to help you understand them better, and they do this with the careful choosing of words.

A letter is a special kind of gift, an appreciation of the receiver, and as such, a unique way to tether ourselves to those who are far away. Our pandemic-ridden world seems the perfect place for all of us to become if not great correspondents, at least aspirants to the inclusive, respectful art of letter writing. Surely a handwritten letter or two can only bring us closer in these disconnected times.