‘All the living and the dead’ — Ray Burke on James Joyce, Nora Barnacle and Michael ‘Sonny’ Bodkin

President Michael D Higgins unveiled a plaque at the graveside of the man whose early death is recalled in The Dead’s pivotal sequence

The New York Times newspaper’s description of the James Joyce short story The Dead, which is set on January 6th 1904, as “maybe the finest story in the English language” was cited by President Michael D Higgins in Galway this month when he unveiled a plaque at the graveside of the man whose early death is recalled in the story’s pivotal sequence.

Michael “Sonny” Bodkin, from Prospect Hill in the city, was a teenage sweetheart of Nora Barnacle, who became Joyce’s adult life companion, and he is the model for the tragic Michael Furey in The Dead, which President Higgins hailed as “one of the great stories of the world” and “an incredibly important story”.

The President said that the unveiling at the Bodkin vault in Rahoon Cemetery was to commemorate and acknowledge “something incredibly important” – the influence of Nora Barnacle’s “sense of recall and her sense of embedded memory” on Joyce’s life and work.

Nora Barnacle, who was born in the Galway Workhouse maternity ward in March 1884, took Joyce to Michael Bodkin’s grave during their joint visit to Galway in 1912. Her memory of her grief when her young lover died aged 20 is what transforms The Dead and it is the theme of the poem She Weeps Over Rahoon and also at the core of the character based on Nora in Joyce’s only stage-play Exiles, both of which he wrote after the visit.


Michael Bodkin was Nora’s “buried life, her past”, Joyce wrote. “I think he died for me”, the Nora character, Gretta Conroy, says of him The Dead. He was “the dark boy whom, as the earth, she embraces in death and disintegration”, Joyce wrote in a line that President Higgins repeated at the unveiling, which took place on the 83rd anniversary of Joyce’s own death in 1941 and nearly 110 years after the publication of The Dead in the collection Dubliners.

The President said that Joyce and Nora’s only grandchild, and last direct descendant, Stephen James Joyce, had told him before he died in 2020 of the importance that he attached to The Dead. He said that Stephen Joyce had also said that he felt that sometimes the scholarship and critical concentration on the novel Ulysses, particularly in the United States, had detracted from Joyce’s important earlier work.

“In its poetic, romantic acceptance of all that life and death offer, The Dead is a linchpin in Joyce’s work. It is a work of tenderness and passion, of disappointed love and frustrated personal and career expectations”, President Higgins said.

He recalled to laughter how when he first arrived to live in Galway as a 19-year-old in 1960 the popular preoccupation there about Nora Barnacle was whether she might have managed “to save her soul” – she had lived with the notorious James Joyce for 27 years before they married in 1931.

He mentioned a recent conversation he had had with the novelist Edna O’Brien about their frequent re-readings of The Dead and he noted how the story had influenced the songwriter Leonard Cohen and the poet TS Eliot, among others. (Cohen said in 1986 that he had never forgotten the story’s final paragraph and that he had read it over and over again; Eliot’s Faber and Faber paperback James Joyce: Selected Writings was Edna O’Brien’s gateway to Joyce and it introduced University of Galway English literature undergraduates to Joyce’s work in 1967, a quarter of a century after it was first published).

Michael Bodkin’s only grandniece, Mary O’Connor, flanked by her family, was the principal guest at the unveiling.

Also present were Sheila Gallagher of the Nora Barnacle House museum in Galway’s Bowling Green; the city’s lord mayor, Cllr Eddie Hoare; the city council’s head of Economic Development, Tourism and Culture, Gary McMahon, who oversaw the installation of the plaque, and Claire Power, one of the president’s advisers, who lives in Rahoon.

The song that transforms The Dead, The Lass of Aughrim, was sung by tenor Noel O’Grady after President Higgins had finished his oration by reading from the story’s last paragraph, the final lines of which are engraved on the graveside plaque: “His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead”.

The plaque doesn’t have sufficient space to include the line with which the president began his recitation of the paragraph, (a line much-loved by print journalists): “Yes, the newspapers were right.”