The lost story of James Joyce’s daughter as a Parisian dancer

James Joyce’s daughter Lucia was a remarkable dancer – something that has been buried in her troubled history

Lucia Joyce, born to James Joyce and Nora Barnacle in Trieste in 1907, has captured the imagination of many writers and artists as tragic muse. Film-makers, dramatists and novelists have projected everything from Mills & Boon-style narratives where the real protagonists are famous male writers – Samuel Beckett, one of Joyce's many boyfriends; and her father – for whom she is just a bridge, to unfounded stories of incest and child abuse, to comic-strip extravaganzas.

How did Lucia get to be such a supine, empty space? Apart from Carol Loeb Shloss's groundbreaking and controversial 2003, biography Lucia Joyce: To Dance in the Wake, you don't hear much about the facts of Joyce the dancer, who once declared in exasperation, "C'est moi qui est l'artiste," or "It's me who's the artist." I'm most intrigued by Lucia Joyce the artist in her own right, of whom the Paris Times remarked, in 1928: "When she reaches her full capacity for rhythmic dancing, James Joyce may yet be known as his daughter's father."

With her impressive avant-garde dance training, Joyce would have had a lot to contribute to the Abbey Theatre Ballets

While making Georgie's Vision, the first ever documentary about Mrs WB Yeats – Georgie Hyde-Lees, another extraordinary and overlooked woman – for RTÉ Lyric FM I was thrilled to discover that news of Joyce's prowess had found its way into Yeats's correspondence with his wife, a month before that Paris Times mention. The poet had just founded his short-lived Abbey Theatre Ballets with Ninette de Valois, the Irish dancer and choreographer who later founded the British Royal Ballet, and was on the lookout for outstanding dancers to help him realise his vision in his Plays for Dancers. "Tom [MacGreevy] has written praising above all other public dancers, James Joyce's daughter," he wrote to his wife. "We may use her someday." The unfulfilled possibilities hinted at here are exciting, both for Lucia Joyce and for the ultimate development of dance as an art form in Ireland.

Joyce, who was 21 at the time, was causing a stir with her modern dance performances in Paris and the south of France. In 1927 she had even toured back to Trieste, city of her birth, with Les Six de Rythme et Couleur, a group of dynamic and idealistic young artists "in bare feet and tunics, wholeheartedly and unselfconsciously bringing in a new age".


The finest moment of Joyce's dance career, when she was a runner-up at Paris's first international festival of dance, was witnessed by her father and his guests, Tom MacGreevy, who had tipped Yeats off about Joyce; Alan and Belinda Duncan, friends of Yeats; and Samuel Beckett, fan of Yeats's Plays for Dancers, in May 1929. To their delight the dissatisfied crowd cheered support for Joyce: "L'Irlandaise! Un peu de justice, messieurs!" or "The Irish woman! A little justice, gentlemen!" Beckett kept a photograph of Joyce that night, in her magical, self-made and indeed rather Yeatsian silver fish costume, for the rest of his life.

With her impressive avant-garde dance training, Joyce would have had a lot to contribute to the Abbey Theatre Ballets, which ran from 1927 to 1933. She began at the age of 15, in 1922, with Émile Jacques-Dalcroze's eurhythmics, and immersion at Akademia Raymond Duncan, a hippy-style commune in the Paris suburb of Neuilly. Duncan, a counterculture guru – and brother of the renowned interpretive dancer Isadora Duncan – lived as if he were a contemporary of Ulysses himself, wearing sandals and togas while advocating a vegan lifestyle.

Beginning to create her own choreographies, Joyce embraced his unconventional philosophy, and the "Greek dancing" movement style, emulating poses like those depicted on Grecian urns, accompanied by lyres and other antique instruments. In 1925 Joyce took up training with a new mentor, Margaret Morris, granddaughter of the English designer and craftsman William Morris and founder of a free-movement style that is still going strong in the UK.

Despite Joyce's refusal of a job offer from Duncan's sister Elizabeth, to teach at her school in Darmstadt, near Frankfurt, a focus on solvency and independence is evident from the "Physical Training" business cards she made for a prospective venture with her fellow dancer Kathleen Neel, aka Kitten – with whom she had also danced a duet in Jean Renoir's 1928 film, The Little Match Girl.

A modern young woman, Joyce had a series of boyfriends. Not unlike the German expressionist dancer Mary Wigman, after a few broken engagements Joyce had a nervous breakdown. While Wigman survived hers to become one of the most important figures in modern dance, Joyce was incarcerated by her brother, Giorgio, and ended up trapped in mental asylums for most of her life.

With many equivocal diagnoses, she was straitjacketed and once even injected with bovine serum. (Giorgio Joyce, a tragic figure himself, would also commit his "marvellously wealthy" older wife, Helen Fleischmann, to a mental institution.) Joyce's father, who was her greatest champion and supporter, died when she was just 34. After his death, Barnacle never visited her again. Giorgio visited her only once, in 1967. Lucia Joyce outlived them both and died in 1982 in St Andrew's asylum in the English town of Northampton.

But the family meddling didn't stop there. Lucia Joyce's only nephew, Stephen, for whom she knitted a jumper when he was born, in 1932, took most of her writing – allegedly including a novel and poetry – as well as her cherished correspondence with her father, from the National Library of Ireland, and destroyed it in 1988. Family friends were also encouraged to destroy all correspondence, so silencing Joyce, robbing her of agency, and rendering her a supine empty space, albeit a compelling one on which anyone could project any narrative they liked.

As a dance historian keen to restore the lost “herstory” of modern dance in 20th-century Ireland, in which Joyce is a key figure to be reclaimed, I believe she deserves to be considered for her actual artistic trajectory and achievements, unmuddied by subjective fictional flights of fantasy.

Paradoxically, while the 'Ulysses' author delighted in avant-garde dance, he pronounced it unseemly for a girl to dance on stage

Could Joyce have continued the legacy of the Abbey Theatre Ballets, Ireland's answer to the Ballets Russes, when de Valois left, in 1934, to found Vic-Wells Ballet, the Royal Ballet's forerunner? After Frederick Ashton turned Yeats down, was Joyce the answer to the poet's search for a dance artist to take over from de Valois? Emulating de Valois's Ballets Russes pedigree, Joyce had trained rigorously in Lubov Ergova's Ballets Russes feeder school in Paris in 1929. It's wrong to equate this with the ill-fated Zelda FitzGerald, seven years older than Joyce, who had started training at the school two years earlier.

Joyce would have been familiar with what was afoot at the Abbey Theatre Ballets via George Antheil, the American avant-garde pianist, who was composing an iconoclastic score for Yeats's Fighting the Waves, which de Valois choreographed and in which she featured. At the same time he was a guest at Joyce's 1928 Paris birthday party, bringing the Joyces to see the Ballets Suédois, and working on an opera with Ezra Pound and James Joyce. All evidence that the Abbey Theatre Ballets was very much on Lucia Joyce's radar.

Paradoxically, while the Ulysses author delighted in avant-garde dance, and his daughter's artistry fed his work – he cast her in Finnegans Wake as Issy the temptress, who magically dissolves into the colours of the rainbow – he pronounced it unseemly for a girl to dance on stage. Unfortunately, and perhaps reluctantly, he ultimately encouraged her to jettison dancing for a career in illustration.

For Nora Barnacle, a victim of unconscious misogyny herself, a woman could be only a muse and a servant, and certainly not an artist with her own agency. She was even less enthusiastic about their daughter’s dance career and, according to Giorgio’s wife, nagged her until she finally gave it up, around 1932.

Could Lucia Joyce be Ireland's Camille Claudel, an artist who died in obscurity and whose originality, and significance, came to be appreciated only after her death?

  • Deirdre Mulrooney, who is developing a documentary about Lucia Joyce's dance career, will be talking about her at Trieste Joyce School on June 28th