Nora Barnacle: Pictor Ignotus

Sean O’Faolain

When Doctor Johnson defined a club as ‘an assembly of good fellows meeting under certain conditions’ he did not mention the essential condition – that each member shall assume that every other member is a good fellow. In practice, of course, it is a law of club life the world over that, apart from very small clubs indeed, no member can know every other member even by sight.

Dublin’s large, ancient, honourable and flourishing (well, anyway, ancient) boozing club The Wamps – writers, actors, musicians, painters, sculptors – offers one striking exception to this universal law. Lennox Yeates knows every Wamp and even the youngest Wamp knows him. Not surprisingly. A member for some fifty-four years who has practised, or at least tried to practise each of the aforesaid five arts, he is not only one of the most visible people in the club but in the city. Black cloak, black Camargue hat, tumbling tie once black, rimless monocle on a black ribbon, a Van Dyck beard so white it looks dyed. In all so distinguished a figure that some Wamps wag once said of him that when he comes shambling along to the club the very dogs in the street stop smelling one another and bow to him. And then, that Olympian name! Removed from fame by a bare letter. Before the poet died many a Wamp must have felt a small thrill of pride at some country cousin’s question: ‘The poet?’

Not that Lennox ever encouraged so absurd a misprisal. He would have you know that he is a gentleman, at one time a landed gentleman if now as far down in his luck as you like. But no boastings about it, no pretensions about anything and, dammit, no lies! In fact he is the most modest, timid and unpretentious old chap. Chin down, head up, eyes wandering. If he saw a dead cockroach he would probably growl ‘Basilisks!’ He has seen changes and revolutions, castles falling, dunghills rising, Jack as good as his master. In private how bitterly he mocks them, shivering slaves who always finish up their gossipy tales with a wheedling ‘Mind you, I said nothing!’ Not that anybody would ever be so tactless as to press him about some gossip that he has been scandalously whispering – he is a great sotto vocer. If so pressed, he will start grumbling horribly, groaning wickedly, winking scandalously, grunting ha-hos and ha-has and I-could-an-I-woulds. Could it be that he sees his prudence as part of his panache – a White Russian surrounded by former serfs grown fat; asking nobody to read the sorrow written on his brow, pleased if we care to read between its lines? Every man has his self-image. He sees himself as One of the Old Stock. Some members say he is a snob. He is. Some say he is a prig. Not really. A prig is a man who sticks pedantically to his principles. Lennox has no principles, except survival. He is a popular member – greeted cheerily by everybody. He has never said a hard word about any man, though among a group if he sees somebody he does not like it is comical to see how he will stare at the fellow from under the brows of his lowered head, fish in his pockets for a piece of paper and slowly, watchfully, tear it into smaller and smaller bits. As for his being an artist? He has the art of living. When somebody once teased him that he would probably have survived beautifully in Paris under its Terror, he nodded, and smiled: ‘I have survived in Dublin under its Liberty.’

‘The poet?’ that timid, eager, country voice used to ask him. ‘Yes,’ Lennox always replied, most courteously. ‘The name is Yeates. Poet.’

Not, you observe, ‘the’ poet. Not even ‘a’ poet. Just that pleasant, polite figure of speech defined long ago by some pedantic Greek as a paradiastole, indicating how far a little truth can go to create a large impression. We have all employed the trope, or been conned by it. STOPIT CONTROLS DANDRUFF. Futile to come pounding the ad-man’s desk six months later: he will merely blow your dandruff off his desk and ask you sadly when did he ever say that STOPIT stops anything. You think that this means that Lennox is sly? Apart from women and drink the old boy likes nothing better than being sly, as when he recounts yet once again and yet once again – the truth is he is a bloody bore – the miracle his Greek trope worked for him sixty years ago on the morning of his departure from Coughlan’s Royal Hotel in Killarney.

His filmy eyeballs defocus. He grins with browning teeth.

‘There we are at the cashier’s desk in the hall, poor old Mossy O’Brien and myself, I’d been painting the whole week. Bags on the mat. The pony and trap outside on the gravel waiting to take us off to the GS&WR for Dublin. Behind the counter, in her black bombazine and gold chains, old Ma Coughlan, the toughest hôtelière between the Liffey and the Atlantic. Her good eye fixed on me like a cat’s on a bird, her glass eye amiably up to heaven, they say it was her late husband did it, I wouldn’t blame him. Her two fists holding up my account, twenty quid worth of bed, board and booze, her grip flexed for the rip. “I’ve just heard this minit,” she says, “that you are the poet Yeats. Is this true? You really are Mister Yeats?” ’

Like every club bore he waits for it.

‘And you said?’

‘Naturally, the truth. I knew what she was up to – he’d just been given the Nobel. “Yes, Madame. The name is Yeates. Poet.” She rips the page like a queen, lets it float into the wastepaper basket, leans over the counter to me and says: “Then why the divil in hell didn’t you tell me when you came here two weeks ago that you are a Somebody?” I needn’t tell you, gentlemen, that we went fast before she discovered that she had the wrong man.’

Obligatory laughter, noblesse oblige, his (although no nearer than near) fame his audience’s compulsion. And, anyway, a few years ago, he did come so very near it, so very near to being a Somebody!

What happened to him was this. One fine morning in late October his lifelong pal Maurice O’Brien died of a stroke, aged 82. Before noon four people in quick sequence – one suspects that they were all Wamps – rang up my old friend Bob Smylie, the editor of the Irish Times, to tell him of the death of this great painter. Now, Bob is a very fat man with a very thin skin and to adapt the remark of the old priest in a sermon on the Holy Ghost, ‘the one thing, dear brethren, that the Holy Ghost can’t stand is fornication,’ the one thing Smylie can’t stand is fame when it is bestowed by any other than himself. On the fourth asking he became infuriated at what he decided was another typical Dublin attempt to blow itself up into greatness, seized his house blower and shouted down to his chief sub-editor: ‘Mister Mullane, would you kindly tell me who the hell was this so-called great painter Maurice or Mossy O’Brien who has just kicked the bucket at the age of 82?’ Mister Mullane who also had never heard of the great departed but did not wish to say so replied that Mr O’Brien would, no doubt, be found listed in the morgue. Mister Smylie, who had been through this smart fandango more than once before retorted happily that ‘in that case’ he would like an obit of two hundred and fifty words on the great man for the city edition, and hung up.

Unfortunately for the boy the only reporter available at that moment was a new and overeager recruit, one Harry Hunt, good on fishing, archaeology and Bible history. Mullane told him to find out all about this famous painter who had just died, shouting after him as he went: ‘Try Lennox Yeates.’ Hunt who had so far learned only one useful thing about reporting – its best sources of information – hurried off to consult them, saying to himself as he hustled, ‘Yeates! Yeates! Where did I hear that name?’ and, of course, forgot it as he consulted the Scotch House, upstairs, the Palace Bar downstairs, Davy Byrne’s front, the Bailey’s back, Dwyer’s, MacDaid’s, Neary’s, and had it restored to him only in the late afternoon by an ancient barnacle heeling Kennedy’s door just before the end of The Holy Hour, grumbling, ‘Open up, will ye, open up!’ who, accosted, sourly said: ‘Why on earth don’t you go down to the Wamps and ask that queer fellow with the cloak and the eyeglass, what’s his name, Lennox Yeates? It’s well known that he was on for years with Mossy O’Brien’s sister Prue, and Mossy on with his sister Letty who has the bird shop in Fallon’s Lane, and the four of them drawing the Old Age Pension since the Crimean War.’ Heeling again, ‘Open up, ye bastards!’

Hunty waited sympathetically beside his kind informant, who turned out to be a professor of physiology at the older university. He even offered him a drink after the Holy Hour’s Lenten drought ended with the door opening like a Morning Glory. Indeed he became engrossed in the professor’s problem of what to do with the offspring of three sheep that the College had apparently – he had quite forgotten it – bought for him the previous January for the purpose of observing the effects of electrophoresis on human blood. The professor’s trouble now was that the sheep had meanwhile bred so fruitfully that the backyard of the Department of Physiology had become an ovine slum.

This incident is wholly relevant to its sequel. It illustrates how infallibly the hour after The Holy Hour, just before the twilight’s lamps blossom in every street and square, heralds the perfect confessional season in every pub. There are few customers. The silence is episcopal. The curate behind the counter is free to listen and absolve. Later, a chatter starts when the parcel-carrying women crowd in to warm up for the long drive home into the bogs. In their wake comes the gabble of businessmen like boys released from school. After them the shoulder-to-shoulder nightlong battalions rising and rising to a roar booming like the last fifty yards of the Grand National. You couldn’t hear a bomb go off with the noise they make.

It was during this calm, intimate, unbuttoned interlude that Hunty entered the Wamps. Silence and emptiness. Only an elderly barmaid polishing glasses and an old gentleman dressed like Sandeman’s port hooped into a leather armchair reading the London Times. The balloon glass before him had sunk to a low tide.

‘Mr Yeates? May I venture to intrude? I am a journalist. Name of Hunt. The Irish Times.’

Lennox wearily levered his torso forward to look down at Hunty’s brown and punctured shoe tops. As slowly he lowered himself backward to look strabismally into Hunty’s boyish face. Hunty, his quarry at last in sight, could not but offer to refresh the balloon glass. On the nod he brought back two doubles, sat, notebook flapped wide.

‘I am told, sir, that you knew the late Maurice O’Brien the painter.’

‘I ought to. We went to Downside together. We hunted girls together. We taught one another the faxolife. We went to Paris together to study painting, and mostly studied women. Then we came home. I nearly married his sister Prue. He nearly married my sister Letty. Poor old Mossy. He went very fast. And nothing at all wrong with him only a pain in his gut.’

‘But he was, he did become a great portrait painter?’

‘My dear boy!’ Lennox said, amused-sad, cross-sad, stoic-sad. ‘Mossy O’Brien couldn’t paint for monkey nuts. He made a living getting commissions to copy photographs in oils. Still, let us be just!’ Balloon glass aloft. ‘He nearly did make it. In fact he just barely may have his own particular corner in the temple of fame. In a brush box? On a shelf? In a nook behind a side, side, side-altar, bearing a rumpled linen cloth, with one electric candle bulb askew? We often prophesied it for one another. In, precisely, January 1932, he achieved a controversial appearance, three days running, in your paper when the then editor reproduced a small photograph of a small portrait copied from a very small photograph of a young woman named, so Mossy averred, Nora Joseph Barnacle. A name, I need not tell you, well known by then throughout the world of literature.’

‘Barnacle?’ said Hunty. ‘But that is a kind of goose.’

‘Mossy’s story about it was that some ten years before, that is in 1922, a tiddley old gentleman who gave his name as J.S. Joyce had come to his studio with a snapshot of this young Galway woman who (he said) had eloped with his son James to Paris some eighteen years before. Mossy agreed to copy the photograph in oils, two feet by 18 inches, unframed, for the usual flat rate of five quid, ten bob down, the rest on delivery, asked the usual questions, colour of hair, auburn, colour of eyes, brown, and in due course the job was done. Alas! The old chap, presumably strapped for cash, never came back for his picture. When we read in the paper some time around December 1931 that he had died, Mossy remembered the visit. After a search among the many unclaimed copies of unknown men, women and children stacked around the walls of his studio he found the lady.’

Hunty’s pen raced.

Lennox emptied his brandy glass. Hunty loudly called for more. The beautiful young colleen who enchanted the heart of James Joyce, shapely and red-haired, her eyelashes still moist with the dews of Connemara ... Great stuff! Marvellous! Romantic!

‘It was, of course,’ Lennox grunted, ‘a fake.’

Hunty’s pen stopped dead. Anyway who the blazes was he supposed to be writing about?

‘Why was it a fake?’

‘No photograph. No old man. No commission. I know. I usually painted the pictures. With a better-paid commission Prue painted them. She was a real painter. Mossy just got the commissions, though now and again we might let him paint a two quid one. We were a school. Scuola di Prunella.’

‘You mean,’ Hunty pointed out with all the crude honesty of youth, ‘ye were just copyists.’

Lennox bridled.

‘We were painters! And more than painters! We lived with our subjects. We observed, took notes, recorded. Prue and I painted scores and scores of the most famous people in Dublin, from memory, from notes on my cuffs, little sketch blocks hidden in her purse, at first nights in the theatre, at marriages and funerals, at the races, at the Vice Regal Lodge, at garden parties, at openings of exhibitions, those pictures still turn up at auctions, and fetch good prices too, chief justices, lords lieutenant, lords mayor, George Moore, Sir William Orpen, Sir John Lavery, Walter Osborne, Jack Yeats, my famous namesake his brother Bill, Padraic Colum, John Millington Synge, young painters like Paddy Tuohy who really did paint old J.S. Joyce and died of his own hand, poor Sean O’Sullivan who died of liquor and love and loneliness, English and Irish politicians like Augustine Birrell, Stephen Gwynn, Arthur Griffith, social stars, Lord and Lady Glenavy, Count Cassy Markievicz, the Countess, actors from the theatres, the Abbey, the National, the Celtic, the Hardwicke Street, the Little, the Trinity. You can see a couple of them hanging up there in the bar. That Colum is mine. That AE is by Prue. But, mind you! No deception! No lies! No pretensions! We never called them portraits, we called them impressions. As far as I was concerned that picture that Mossy said was a portrait of Joyce’s wife was my impression of a Solitary Highland Girl. It was Mossy who said she was Nora Barnacle, it was coming on to Christmas, il faut vivre! Anyway who could prove or disprove what he said? The old man was gone. The few Dubliners who had known her away back in Oh Four were dead or scattered. Joyce’s loyal old college pal Jack Byrne. His Judas friend Vinny Cosgrove who drowned himself in the Thames in ’27. But in the heel of the hunt Mossy didn’t get a penny out of it. Nobody wanted to buy it. We couldn’t even hock it.’

‘Where is the picture now?’

‘I gave it to Prue as my image of her as a young red-headed Irish beauty. I was gone about her at the time. She still has it hanging in her bedroom. A great mutual compliment.’

Hunty stared at him.

‘In her bedroom?’

Lennox convoluted, gurgled, hunched, grunted, shook all over, whispered incomprehensibly, wickedly, Hunty went on staring: this infertile, this wicked ancient had once been a seeded sapling in a forest of blossoming talent, rare genius, great hopes, great dreams under Victoria Regina, Edward VII, George V.

‘Mr Yeates. Did you really know all those people?’

‘Why not? And more!’

‘The whole Irish Renaissance?’

Lennox hooted, his mocking O encircled his rotted teeth.

‘There never was such a thing!’

‘But you recorded it!’

‘We invented it,’ the old man snorted, called to the barmaid, and for the next ten minutes Hunty was hurled through the rapids of fifty years of an old man’s smouldering memories. The hole in the heel of Lady Gregory’s stocking. Willy Yeats’s two sisters always looking as if they had lost a third. Maud Gonne’s gumboil. Countess Markievicz collecting cock’s feathers in the fowl market before Nineteen Sixteen to make herself a bersagliere’s hat. Gogarty’s yellow Rolls Royce getting a puncture in Grafton Street. Jack Yeats drawing tinkers at the Curragh Races and giving them an Atlantic Ocean background. Madame Bannard Cogley in her basement cabaret in Harcourt Street selling poteen out of teacups. Muttonhead the barman in the House of Laurels opposite the Gaiety Theatre, always good for drink on tick. George Moore’s yellow front door. Martin Murphy the stage manager at the Gaiety whom Count Markievicz taught how to welcome Pavlova to Dublin in Russian that meant Kiss my Bottom. The Bird Flanagan, undefined. The Toucher Doyle, a famous bookie. The little Jew tailor Dubronsky always shoving himself into the front row of press photographs – front row of the Past Pupils’ Union of the Christian Bross, front row of the annual convention of the Gaelic League, front row of the Sisters of Mercy. The night Lennox saw Arthur Griffith plotting revolution with Gogarty upstairs in the Bailey over fried chops, dried chips and black porter. James Joyce selling tickets in Ireland’s first cinema on Talbot Street. The lies poured like Niagara.

‘Knew them all! Perfectly ordinary people! Drop in here for a drink and a chat just as we’re doing now! All that Renaissance stuff is pure ballyhoo. Life is heedless. Fame is post-humous. Can you have immortality without Death? Let’s have another. I’d give the whole of Dante, Michelangelo, Raphael and Leonardo da Vinci for one night with some beautiful woman I loved. Wouldn’t you?’

‘Of course not,’ Hunty cried in horror. ‘Michelangelo?’

‘If I saw you drowning in the Liffey shouldn’t I drown the whole world’s art to save your life?’

‘No!’ said Hunty firmly. ‘A hundred thousand times. No!’

The club became as silent as a cobweb. The barmaid, a quarter fag drooping from her rougeless lips, polishing still, hummed that when she smiles as each flame dies the lovely smoke gets into his eyes. Lennox looked quizzically at her and crooned, ‘Some day I’ll find you, with the moon lit behind you.’ Hunty singing to the ceiling in a glass-clear tenor bade her keep her breathless form, never, never change, because I love you just the way you look tonight. He banged the table.

‘We’ll make a play about it! Make a filum ov ut! You remembering everything. The Rembrandt of the Renaissance. But first I must see that portrait of lovely Nora Barnacle.’

The fluorescent street lights hung pallid oranges along Rathgar Road. No traffic. Silence. Suburban seclusion. The house unlit, up eight granite steps, one storey and a basement, Regency style. Clandestine. Lennox coded his ting-tingting ting – tingle-ting. Waiting, ears cocked, the two swayed to and from one another, until suddenly there she was in the hall, his beauty, his beloved, so old, so frail, hooped, white of hair, and half-jarred. They enlaced in mutual grief and compassion.

‘This,’ he wheezed, still octopussed, ‘is young Mister Hunt, a journalist from the Irish Times.’

At the word her eyelids clicked open. Sheep smell of Harris, breath smell of Hine, a mouthful of Harrods brogue, she could be his stepmother, the same bloody chic-Irish voice, the same speckled, braceleted wrist, jewellery jangling him forward under a battery of lights into ‘My sacred rrroom! My adorable Irrreland!’ Studio, antiques museum, picture gallery, no painting, she laughed, older than herself, not one bibelot, she assured him, later than George IV. Every piece of mahogany and silver that she touched bloomed a price tab under her fingers.

‘My beloved Morning at Malahide. By Nathaniel Hone. Ah! The Irish light! Sure and isn’t that why we all adore Irrreland! My two precious Leechs.’ (At his left Lennox whispered: ‘I did one, she did the other.’) ‘Sir William Orpen’s portrait of Oliver St John Gogarty dressed in his hunting pink. Pure Bronzino. Lennox! Shall we ever forget Firenze in 1913? And the Louuuuvur!’ (At his elbow the serpent’s ‘Pure fake.’) ‘A masterly portrait of poor Paddy Tuohy by Leo Whelan. What a sad end! An ivory-handled razor I believe. Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, by poor Shawn O’Soolavawin. A genius with the crayon. A muff with a brush. My most prized Paul Henry. His good period. Before he sank Paris into the bogs of Achill. Now! Here is a truly rare piece! An Augustus John sketch I picked up in a pub in the West of Ireland.’ (From Lennox, ‘A truly rare piece by Mossy O’B.’) ‘And right there, in the middul of them awl is little mee – a genuine Prunella.’

‘The only genuine thing,’ Lennox whispered, ‘in the room. A queen,’ he loudly flourished, ‘among her minor minions.’

‘Darling, you spoil me!’ From behind a Chinese screen she outwhisked the Hine. ‘You wished to interview me?’ she queened to Hunty, pouring freely.

Lennox gargled, stuttered, bumbled.

‘Well, actually, ducksey, it is me he wants to interview.’

‘You!’ she flashed. ‘Why you? You are not a painter!’

Hunty explicated.

‘Mister Yeates has had such an interesting life.’

Her storm wind blew.

‘Has he indeed now?’

‘He brought me along to see his portrait of Mrs James Joyce.’

She bayed.

‘HIS portrait? HIS?’

‘My Solitary Highland Girl, ducksey. There’s a story attached to it that I never told you.’

‘It is my portrait. That I painted. In my studio. Of my dear Nora Barnacle. Touched by the regal brush of my dear Sir William Orpen. Appointed Major Orpen in 1914 to paint war pictures for the Government. Knighted when the Kaiser fell. I first met him at the War Office. I remember the three of us, precisely, Mister Hunt, in this room – Sir William, Nora Barnacle and I. I will show you the picture and the two signatures.’

Gone, Lennox whirling his cloak, wild-eyed, over one shoulder, First Conspirator, seized Hunty’s arm.

‘These last few years!’ Head tapping. ‘Gone with the fairies.’

She bore it in like a banner, a piece of plyboard, about eighteen inches by twelve, stamped OXO, OXO, OXO, OXO all over the back, a haughty staring female face, neck muffled, one shoulder angled. The brown-speckled hand indicated the two cornered signatures.

‘My initials and Sir William’s. I am, you observe, rigidly truthful. I always acknowledge my collaborator.’

‘But, my darling Prunella, you know well.’

‘Don’t you darling me, I know very well.’

‘That that is not W.O. That is M.O. Your own poor, dear dead brother Mossy O’Brien.’

‘You mean,’ from Hunty, in triple vision, ‘that three painters worked on it.’

‘You may borrow it, Mister Hunt, on condition that you have it reproduced over my sole name.’

‘For God’s sake, Prue! Be careful! Everyone knows that Bill Orpen wouldn’t.’

‘I painted that portrait in the spring of 1922 to the sound of gunshot shortly after Nora Barnacle returned to Ireland with her children, and her famous husband wiring and telephoning every minute to her from Paris to come back to hell out of this, look it up in your files, Mister Hunt, and you will see that I am right, take it, Mister Hunt, but return it carefully, it is a priceless record of a most interesting event in modern Irish history.

Hunty sloped away from the battle. He paused at the door to ask the combatants where and when the mortal remains of Mossy O’Brien would be laid. Pivoting her hooped back she pointed downward. Meaning? That her brother’s body was at that moment lying in the basement? Awaiting the funeral? He fled. From the tall steps leaning sidewards over the railing to peer through the window he saw the old villain lift a protective arm and duck. Against the fake Orpen a thrown glass silently splashed, scattered, dripped. The silence of Rathgar Road lamplit through lingering leaves perspectived into Joyceian dusk and fog. Swaying on his platform Hunty felt that he in a former life had Ulysses written ... Low on his catafalque at last he lies of all light loves bestially bereft. Scion of the O’Briens. Killaloe. All Munster kings. Remembering thee O scion. From a branch a lit leaf undulant falls as soft as the rainfall falling softly, softly falling, on Rathgar. The Times had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Super antiquas vias. Dawdling along the pavement’s edge he dallied into the dusk of Verschoyle Lane and pleasantly pissed. Deep blue dusk, dark under the lighted clouds above the city’s night. Return, return O Shulamite. There is death in the pot. I could do it on me left ear.

What time was it? He sidled into the first pub he met to write the obituary of the dead painter. It took six drafts and several draughts to produce it. Maurice O’Brien was in Dublin’s artistic circles widely known. In his heyday as a painter? (struck)/transcriber? (struck)/reproducer? (struck)/restorer? (struck) as a copier (stet) of portraits he by his contemporaries was with the Irish Renaissance commonly associated. His few remaining loyal (struck) friends link him with painters like W.J. Bleech, Hone and Orpen, and writers like Gogarty and Joyce. A small portrait allegedly of Mrs James Joyce (née Nora Barnacle) said to be partly inspired or perhaps even painted by him can still arouse strong feelings. There is also extant a portrait of Oliver Gogarty attributed to Orpen. There have been words about it. It bears the emotive stain of brandy. It could nevertheless be truthfully said that he did more than his share as a recorder of his time. He is mourned by his sister Prunella O’Brien and his life-long associate Mr Lennox Yeates. His life and death may recall the words of the Vulgate. Stare super antiquas vias. Ask ye for the old way which is the straight way and walk thereon.

It was night, rain from the south-west as usual, when he stood before Smylie’s desk to present his text in person. From beyond his green-shaded lamp unsmiling Smylie took the page, decoding easily as he read. He looked at the youngster’s bowed head and knew he had been sent up by Mullane for the chop. He lifted the blower and spoke softly: ‘Mister Mullane. That obit on Maurice O’Brien. I’ve decided we don’t want it. Great painter? God help us all. He never painted a damned thing. The Wamps invented him. Tell young Hunt to watch his step. If he doesn’t do better the next time he’s for it.’ He gazed at Hunty. ‘Good night,’ he said gently. ‘You’d better go home and sleep it off.’ And enviously watched him float away through the glass doors.

How wonderful to be young, and betrayed, and still able to care.