Interview – —Love, says Bloom curated by Nuala O’Connor

Interview – —Love, says Bloom curated by Nuala O’Connor

Love, says Bloom, is a new exhibition at MoLI (Museum of Literature Ireland), celebrating the love at the heart of the Joyce family. Irish writer James Joyce, his wife Nora Barnacle, and their children Giorgio and Lucia faced many hardships in their life together, but also shared a deep love and devotion to each other. Through all the difficulties, music was something that anchored them, bringing them joy and moments of family bonding. In the centenary of Joyce’s Ulysses, there will be an abundance of exhibitions, events and projects celebrating the life and legacy of James Joyce, but there is something particularly intimate about this exhibition. Curated by writer and editor Nuala O’Connor, whose most recent novel is the captivating Nora – a loving re-imagining of the life of Joyce’s wife, true love and muse – this exhibition looks beyond the academics to the family life from which the great works emerged. 

The exhibition comprises a main screen showcasing archival imagery of the Joyce family and friends, and places important to their story, with a separate screen to the side showing accompanying text, which captures pivotal moments and quotes from their story. Decal portraits of the family loom large and quietly in the beautiful ceiling-height bay windows of the room, watching over our shoulders as we watch their life unfold before our eyes, while a small decorative detail of family portraits on the mantelpiece lends a very intimate feel to the room. The archival visuals on the main screen are interspersed with contemporary musical and dance performances of musical pieces important to the Joyce family, which draw the exhibition into the present; tracing a thread through history to the here and now. The dim setting, with cosy seating area, invites you to sit back, stay awhile and enjoy; allowing yourself to be enveloped by the Joyces and their life story.

Detail of -Love, says Bloom exhibition curated by Nuala O'Connor at MoLI, about love between James Joyce and his family
Installation detail from —Love, says Bloom at MoLI curated by Nuala O’Connor

Keen to find out more about the drive behind this project, and the process of putting it together, I caught up with curator Nuala to hear more from the woman behind the exhibition. 

The Joyce family faced a lot of uncertainty, upheaval and financial struggles over the years, as well as varying health issues and troubled family dynamics, so things were often difficult for them. Music, as is often the case, seems to have been something which brought them not only joy but also respite from the troubles in the world around them. Could you talk to us a bit more about this?

Yes, they all loved to sing, and they hired a piano no matter how poor they were, in Trieste and Paris and so on. Both Joyce and Giorgio had fantastic voices, and all four loved to gather and sing with friends and family. They often sang favourite Irish ballads, like ‘The Lass of Aughrim’ (which Joyce called ‘your song’ to Nora). Joyce’s own favourite was the rather strange, unsettling song ‘The Brown and the Yellow Ale’, which is about a man ‘borrowing’ another man’s wife and the consequence of that.

In my exhibition at MoLI, —Love, Says Bloom, Lisa O’Neill sings Nora’s song and Ian Lynch of Lankum sings Joyce’s. Both are powerful.

There is something very intimate and loving about the way this exhibition has been put together, right down to the mantelpiece detail, which almost makes you feel as if you might have stepped into their home. With all the research you have done for your book, and related projects like this exhibition, would you say you have become fond of them as a family?

Oh yes, I already loved Joyce from his writing and Nora Barnacle from Maddox’s biography of her, but doing this work – the research on the ground, in books, and from images, reading the bios, letters, and testimonies of others – has made me connect with them more deeply still. I feel I understand them better now and, in the way we grow fond of people we know well – despite their madnesses – I am more forgiving of their trickier sides.

Detail of -Love, says Bloom exhibition curated by Nuala O'Connor at MoLI, about love between James Joyce and his family
Installation detail from —Love, says Bloom at MoLI curated by Nuala O’Connor

As a writer, you usually write words that people will mainly read in a private setting. This exhibition is composed of words, but also imagery and music, that people are now enjoying in a public setting. From this perspective, how was the experience of putting this exhibition together?

This was a collaborative experience, which is not my norm, and therefore different. I wrote the texts and the storyboard, but I also chose most of the images and music (alongside choices from Benedict Schlepper-Connolly and others at MoLI). I loved the can-do attitudes of the staff at MoLI, and the filmmaker and artists, and their willingness to explore my notions (e.g. the dancer being like a zoetrope; my choices of songs and artists). Plus their creative input and the way their technical expertise put lifeblood into ephemeral ideas – that was a joy to witness. I loved the whole experience from start to finish.

The exhibition features an array of beautiful contemporary musical and creative performances, in a variety of settings. Could you talk to us about this aspect of the exhibition, in terms of performers commissioned, and locations used?

I had heard Julia Spanu on the radio and I knew she’d be a perfect Molly Bloom. I wanted a modern Molly, so chose to give her Kate Bush’s song ‘The Sensual World’. We filmed in the Ox Mountains in Sligo on a freezing January day, and it was just marvellous. Julia was, predictably, wonderful.

Lisa O’Neill has a deep connection and feeling for Joyce, and she has such an original voice and delivery, she was an excellent choice for Nora’s ‘The Lass of Aughrim’. I love her strength and melancholy.

Simon O’Connor, director at MoLI, had the idea to ask Ian Lynch to perform Joyce’s party piece, ‘The Brown and the Yellow Ale’, and Ian’s singing has such emotion, guts, and power, it blew us all away. Filmed in an empty pub, there is a perfectly dark atmosphere that mirrors the song.

I love all the performances, all the music: Aoife McAtamney’s glorious dancing and Barry McGovern’s moving reading of Joyce’s poem for his grandson, ‘Ecce Puer’. We felt so honoured to get permission to use the recording of Giorgio singing Joyce’s song ‘Bid Adieu to Girlish Days’ – it’s one of the most poignant moments of the exhibition for me. That and the music from Joyce’s funeral – ‘Tu se’ morta’ by Monteverdi – played over the dancer, Aoife, who represents Lucia. So magical and moving.

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Love, says Bloom continues until July 3rd, and is well worth the visit. Full details and visitor information can be found at the MoLI website.

A big thank you to Nuala for taking the time to talk to me, and for providing such wonderful insights on this exhibition, as she gears up for a very busy month of April. —Love, says Bloom ties in with a further programme of events curated by Nuala (in collaboration with Dublin City Libraries) for this year’s One Dublin One Book happening in April, with Nora as the chosen book for this year. A special event will take place at MoLI on April 14, where Nuala will be discussing this exhibition with Conner Habib.

Writer, editor and curator Nuala O’Connor

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Main exhibition graphic and author photo provided courtesy Nuala O’Connor.

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