Colm Tóibín

Colm Tóibín’s Vinegar Hill, a book of poems, is forthcoming from Carcanet.

Snail Slow: Letters to John McGahern

Colm Tóibín, 27 January 2022

McGahern was amused by many things and people. There was no telephone in the house in Leitrim on my first visit (‘I’m uneasy on the phone,’ he wrote in 1998. ‘I think it comes from having to “mind” the phone when I was a boy in my father’s police station’) and I noticed no television. I realised that he had no interest in music as he was tone deaf. But most of all, he had no interest in Dublin.

Pessoa evokes the city of Lisbon with a nostalgia all the more intense because he has not lost it. Sometimes he is nearly a novelist, managing to make his own quotidian life almost credible and his voice, as he narrates ‘my factless autobiography, my lifeless history’, almost real. What he doesn’t do in ‘my haphazard book of musings’ is relax his control. He can be precise, exact and restrained – like a chess player or a mathematician. But the thinking in The Book of Disquiet is almost light. At times, he can make Bernardo Soares sound like Oscar Wilde (‘I see humanity as merely one of Nature’s latest schools of decorative painting’); at other times, like the J.M. Synge of The Aran Islands, utterly alone in strange weather, trying to make sense of his own solitary condition. Like Synge, he can write simple phrases that do nothing more than say something simple: ‘I love the stillness of early summer evenings downtown.’

Open in a Scream

Colm Tóibín, 4 March 2021

Since Bacon was known for his tangled personal life, his gambling, his drinking and the chaos of his studio, with the stories of his sexual habits and ghastly Irish childhood in circulation, something needed to be done to explain that his paintings were not just garish expressions of his own neuroses. David Sylvester and Michel Leiris, who both wrote perceptively about his work, emerged as friends and champions. As early as 1951, Sylvester asserted that Bacon was ‘the major English artist of his time’. He soon had access to Bacon’s studio and saw paintings before anyone else did. Sylvester was practised at making eloquent, high-toned, oracular statements and, spurred on by John Berger’s contrary judgments, applied this skill to Bacon: ‘In these claustrophobic curtained settings, there loom up before us beings whose shadowy, ambiguous, unexpected presence takes command of any setting they survey, making real beings seem like shadows. They are as appalling as they are compelling, for these are creatures faced with their tragic destiny.’

The Bergoglio Smile: The Francis Papacy

Colm Tóibín, 21 January 2021

Pope Francis at the Basílica de Guadalupe in Mexico City on 13 May 2016.

The trial​ of Argentina’s military leaders took place in Buenos Aires between April and September 1985. The court heard evidence against the nine most senior figures in the regime, including three former presidents – Videla, Viola and Galtieri. Sittings began each day in the early afternoon and...

Diary: Alone in Venice

Colm Tóibín, 19 November 2020

Suddenly,​ there was nothing to complain about. No cruise ships went up the Giudecca Canal. There were no tourists clogging up the narrow streets. Piazza San Marco was often completely deserted. On some bridges a few gondoliers stood around, but there was no one to hire them. Instead, dogs and their owners walked the streets, with no one pushing them out of the way. People greeted one...

Andy Warhol in 1955

‘Overlooked No More’ is the title of an occasional series in the obituaries section of the New York Times that prints obituaries of those – mainly women but also African Americans and homosexuals – who were ignored by the paper at the time of their deaths. Since the Times was launched in 1851, the omissions go back a long way. They include...

When Robert Lowell wasn’t writing sonnets, he was revising them, moving lines from one to another, giving them new titles, putting them in a new order. He turned old poems into sonnets, in the process ruining some of them, such as ‘Water’, first published in For the Union Dead in 1964. He used bits of his mother’s diary in a sonnet called ‘Clytemnestra 1’. Anyone’s words could be appropriated. A sonnet sequence dedicated to Elizabeth Bishop includes very personal lines in a letter from her (‘That’s what I feel I’m waiting for now:/a faintest glimmer I am going to get out/somehow alive from this’); a sequence called ‘To Allen Tate’ quotes from a letter by Tate; ‘Publication Day’ is a letter from Marcia Nardi rewritten as a sonnet. Elizabeth Hardwick felt a certain schadenfreude that the poems were, in her opinion, so bad. ‘It seemed so sad that the work was, certainly in that part that relies upon me and Harriet, so inane, empty, unnecessary,’ she wrote to Bishop.  

More a Voyeur: Elton Took Me Hostage

Colm Tóibín, 19 December 2019

He went to a hospital on the outskirts of Chicago where the patients had to do things for themselves. Elton found this hard: he had got ‘to the stage where I shaved and I wiped my arse, and paid other people to do everything else for me.’ He had to learn how to use a washing machine and try to work out how much things cost. ‘It was years since I’d done any shopping myself that didn’t involve an auction house or a high-end designer boutique.’ Being sober came at a cost. He didn’t feel like going to clubs anymore. ‘I tried not to think about how long it was since I’d last had sex, in case the sound of me howling in anguish frightened the staff.’

After he left school, his father took a piece of sculpture – a sandstone horse, almost two feet high, ‘three legs serving convincingly as four’ – that Lucian had made, to show to the Central School of Art. Lucian was accepted as a student. His mother was proud of the piece, and displayed it on the mantelpiece. ‘My mother started worshipping it so I smashed it,’ he said. When his father introduced him to a potter friend, he said: ‘This wild animal is my son.’

Soon a routine began. A sleeping pill every night gave me rest from about 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. I woke knowing it wouldn’t be long before I heard noises in the corridor; a nurse would come to check my blood pressure and take my temperature. Then someone – often a very glamorous Asian woman – would arrive to take blood that would go to the laboratory. Then – usually between 6.30 and 7 – the oncologist would arrive, turn on the light, and ask me in a soft voice how I was. Early on, I decided that unless I was fully falling apart, I would tell him I was well. I enjoyed adding that there were ‘no issues’. I had never used the word ‘issues’ before.

Looking at the list of poets was like having one’s Irish nose pushed up against the polished glass of a posh window in some imaginary Big House. But it was clear to me that there was one poet included in both these anthologies who really meant business. His name, like his poems, had a wilful, manufactured look. (He had, in fact, changed it by deed poll from William Guinneach Gunn to Thompson William Gunn.) It was clear, too, that he enjoyed his own style, his wit, his urge to dismiss what was dull and cautious, to celebrate what was dangerous and alive. This was a poetry that spoke as loudly to provincial teenagers as it did to thoughtful anthology-makers.

His Spittin’ Image: John Stanislaus Joyce

Colm Tóibín, 22 February 2018

‘A father​ is a necessary evil,’ Stephen Dedalus says in Ulysses. In Yeats: The Man and the Masks, Richard Ellmann quoted Ivan Karamazov: ‘Who doesn’t desire his father’s death?’ ‘From the Urals to Donegal,’ Ellmann writes,

the theme recurs, in Turgenev, in Samuel Butler, in Gosse. It is especially prominent in Ireland. George Moore, in his...

It was​ June 2004 and I was in the Special Collections section of the Union College Library in Schenectady in upstate New York. About an hour earlier, I had heard one of the librarians telling someone on the phone in a half-whisper that someone called Colm Tóibín was in the library looking at the correspondence of John Butler Yeats, which had been transcribed, then typed, then...

The Road to Reading Gaol

Colm Tóibín, 30 November 2017

In October​ 2016, three years after it was closed, I went to Reading Gaol. The prison had been laid out in 1844, each floor cruciform, so that all four corridors could be seen from a single, central vantage point. In cell after cell where, most recently, young offenders had been held, there was a set of metal bunk beds riveted to the wall, with a small table and two stools opposite, and a...

Short Cuts: In Barcelona

Colm Tóibín, 7 September 2017

On the route the van had taken, shrines were placed where people had been killed. The first one, opposite Bar Núria, marks the spot where the van had come onto the pedestrian boulevard. Among the candles and the flowers and the handwritten messages was a brand new edition of the collected poems of Federico García Lorca. Lorca, who came to Barcelona first in 1925, said that the Ramblas was a street he hoped would go on for ever.

The week​ before he was fired from MGM, late in 1931, Scott Fitzgerald was having lunch with the screenwriter Dwight Taylor in the company canteen when something, or even two things, more disturbing than his own drunken dreams appeared and sat at his table. The apparition was a pair of Siamese twins. ‘One of them picked up the menu,’ Taylor remembered, ‘and, without even...

What happened on Easter Monday in Dublin is open to interpretation. As a military event, it makes almost no sense. Did what happened arise from Thomas Clarke’s notion (however hamfisted and badly thought out) of taking power in Ireland by use of arms, or did it take its bearings from Patrick Pearse’s more messianic and dreamy illusions: to have a small number sacrifice themselves at Easter in order to inspire a larger number?

Ravishing: Sex Lives of the Castrati

Colm Tóibín, 8 October 2015

Balzac’s Sarrasine tells the story of a young woman’s wonder at the strange appearance of an old man at a party in Paris. Balzac has tremendous fun describing the man. First his clothes: he is wearing ‘a white waistcoat embroidered with gold’ and ‘a shirt-frill of English lace, yellow with age, the magnificence of which a queen might have envied’. Then the face: ‘That dark face was full of angles and furrowed deep in every direction; the chin was furrowed; there were great hollows at the temples; the eyes were sunken in yellow orbits.’

’s latest novel, Nora Webster, has been much praised.

Antoni Tàpies​’s monument to Picasso was commissioned by Barcelona City Council. It sits on the edge of Parc de la Ciutadella on the busy, dusty downtown street named for Picasso. It has a more mysterious and shadowy presence than any other piece of modern public sculpture in Barcelona, such as Chillida’s stark, severe piece of cast-iron in Plaça del Rei, or...

Places Never Explained: Anthony Hecht

Colm Tóibín, 8 August 2013

In January 1945, as she was preparing her collection North & South for publication, Elizabeth Bishop wrote to her publishers to say she was worried that she had written nothing about the war:

The fact that none of these poems deal directly with the war, at a time when so much war poetry is being published, will, I am afraid, leave me open to reproach. The chief reason is simply that I...

It was Casement and a Frenchman living in England, E.D. Morel, who first drew attention to the crimes committed in the Congo in the name of progress and trade. Mario Vargas Llosa wrote about them in an essay published in 2001: ‘Both deserve the honours of a great novel.’ Such a novel would have to live in the shadow of the short work Conrad produced nine years after he left the Congo, where he had been for six months. Conrad arrived in June 1890. ‘What makes me rather uneasy,’ he wrote to a friend, ‘is the information that 60 per cent of our Company’s employees return to Europe before they have completed even six months’ service.’

In May 1895, the day before Oscar Wilde’s trial began, W.B. Yeats called at Wilde’s mother’s house in London to express his solidarity and that of ‘some of our Dublin literary men’ with the family. He later wrote of ‘the Britisher’s jealousy of art and artists, which is generally dormant but called into activity when the artist has gone outside his...

Flann O’Brien’s Lies

Colm Tóibín, 5 January 2012

There were three cities; each of them had known a certain glory. In each of them, there was a sense that the glory was absent or ghostly, that the real world was elsewhere, that the cities in which there was excitement, or cultural completeness, or publishers and readers, were elsewhere. All three cities remained untouched by the Second World War; they were not bombed, nor were they...

Mann v. Mann: The Brother Problem

Colm Tóibín, 3 November 2011

The imposing house on Stockton Street in Princeton where Thomas Mann lived between 1938 and 1941 is these days owned by the Catholic Church. The main room is large enough for a congregation to assemble, and now contains pews and an altar. At either end of this room there are two beautiful smaller rooms with walls of glass, one made for summer light and the other designed for the winter....

The Importance of Aunts

Colm Tóibín, 17 March 2011

In November 1894 Henry James set down in his notebooks an outline for the novel that, eight years later, became The Wings of the Dove. He wrote about a heroine who was dying but in love with life. ‘She is equally pathetic in her doom and in her horror of it. If she only could live just a little; just a little more – just a little longer.’ James also had in mind a young man...

That you were gay was something you managed to know about yourself and not know at the same time. I am almost certain, for example, that when I was warned by a priest at school that a boy who had parted his hair in the middle had by this act given a sign that he was homosexual (the only time the term was mentioned in those years), the priest himself had no clear and open idea that he himself liked teenage boys. (He would spend time in jail more than 20 years later for abusing teenage boys.) He would have had a way, learned for good reasons in adolescence, of keeping some of his actions and desires secret from himself. His sense of power and entitlement would also have meant that such crimes as he committed would most likely not see the light of day. The priesthood had, as far as he was concerned, solved his problems for him.

The sense of vibrant imperfection in his work – which had seemed odd or outlandish, or just not very interesting, to his contemporaries – appeared to match something in the art and in the critical sensibility emerging at the end of the 19th century. Lotto was re-created as a Renaissance neurotic in the likeness of the age by Bernard Berenson, who wrote a book about him in 1895. Since then he has often had the dubious honour of being considered one of the most ‘interesting’ painters of the Renaissance, rather than, say, one of the best.

My God, the Suburbs! John Cheever

Colm Tóibín, 5 November 2009

One of John Cheever’s most famous stories is called ‘The Swimmer’. It is set, like much of his fiction, in the lawned suburbs somewhere outside New York City, and it is filled, like most of his fiction, with despair. The hero, Neddy Merrill, the father of four daughters, is sitting by a neighbour’s pool drinking gin when the idea comes to him that he might reach home...

Who to Be: Beckett’s Letters

Colm Tóibín, 6 August 2009

In his essay on the painter Jack Yeats, which he sent to Beckett in 1938, Thomas McGreevy wrote: ‘During the 20-odd years preceding 1916, Jack Yeats filled a need that had become immediate in Ireland for the first time in 300 years, the need of the people to feel that their own life was being expressed in art.’* Beckett was in Paris when he read the essay. He wrote to McGreevy to...

Follow-the-Leader: Bishop v. Lowell

Colm Tóibín, 14 May 2009

Thom Gunn reported that Bishop told him that Lowell was her best friend; he seemed pleased to record that when he met Lowell a few years later and mentioned that he knew Bishop, Lowell also said: ‘Oh, she’s my best friend.’ What was peculiar and perhaps what was sustaining to the friendship was how little Lowell and Bishop ever actually saw each other.

Urning: The revolutionary Edward Carpenter

Colm Tóibín, 29 January 2009

‘On or about December 1910,’ Virginia Woolf noted, ‘human character changed.’ It was hard in or about March 1977 in Barcelona not to feel that human character had changed again, or had changed back, or might change more. Franco was less than 18 months dead, and many of the sights and images in the city were puzzling. One day, as I stood watching a newly formed Communist group march by, I saw in the middle of the marchers a barman whom I had grown to love for his winning smile and general meekness. His fist was raised; he was roaring out some radical slogan. He was not simply looking for better wages for barmen, but wanted, it seemed, something new for all mankind.

Thomas and Katia Mann had six children. It was clear from early on that Katia most loved the second child, Klaus, who was born in 1906, and that Thomas loved Erika, the eldest, born in 1905, and also Elisabeth, born in 1918. The other three – the barely tolerated ones – were Golo, born in 1909, Monika, born in 1910, and Michael, born in 1919. Erika remembered a time during the shortages of the First World War when food had to be divided but there was one fig left over. ‘What did my father do? He gave this fig just to me alone … the other three children stared in horror, and my father said sententiously with emphasis: “One should get the children used to injustice early.”’

On 23 January 1894, Henry James entered in his notebook two stories told to him by Lady Gregory, whom he had met first in Rome 15 years earlier. She had given one of them to him, he wrote, as a plot, and ‘saw more in it than, I confess, I do myself’. ‘At any rate,’ he went on, ‘Lady G.’s story was that of an Irish squire who discovered his wife in an...

After the death of Henry James’s father in 1882, his sister-in-law Catharine Walsh, better known as Aunt Kate, burned a large quantity of the family papers, including many letters between Henry James senior and his wife. Henry James himself in later life made a number of bonfires in which he destroyed a great quantity of the letters he had received. He often added an instruction to the letters he wrote: ‘Burn this!’ To one correspondent, he wrote: ‘Burn my letter with fire or candle (if you have either! Otherwise, wade out into the sea with it and soak the ink out of it).’ In two of his stories, ‘The Aspern Papers’ and ‘Sir Dominick Ferrand’, valued letters are turned to illegible ashes – ‘as a kind of sadism on posterity’, in the words of his biographer Leon Edel. James was fully alert to the power of letters, having paid close attention to the published correspondence of Balzac, Flaubert and George Sand, and alert to the power of editors. After reading Sidney Colvin’s edition of the letters of his friend Robert Louis Stevenson, he wrote: ‘One has the vague sense of omissions and truncations – one smells the thing unprinted.’

The Wickedest Woman in Paris

Colm Tóibín, 6 September 2007

In listing Rupert Everett’s offences against decency, decorum and respect for his betters, it is hard to know where to start. For example, he is filled with pride over the telephone hoaxes which he – out of work and idle more often than not – in the company of a woman called Min Hogg, perpetrated against people who were, one presumes, rich and famous for very good reasons. ‘Our idea,’ he writes, ‘of an enjoyable night at home was to get on the phone to rich and famous people whose numbers we knew . . . pretending to be the Water Board, and ask them to turn on all their cold taps because there was a “build-up in pressure” under their house, with a risk of explosion.’ He and his friend would give them the number of other celebrities, pretending it was the emergency number of the Water Board, to call when the taps had finally run dry. Often, they gave them the number of poor Lord Snowdon.

Dissecting the Body: Ian McEwan

Colm Tóibín, 26 April 2007

The penis, in the contemporary novel, has been a mighty matter, looming large. Who will forget the narrator of The Bell Jar seeing an adult penis for the first time and being both fascinated and repelled? (‘The only thing I could think of was turkey neck and turkey gizzards and I felt very depressed.’) It is not hard to imagine the surprise of Florence, the girlfriend of Edward Mayhew, a nice girl in her early twenties from a nice background in Ian McEwan’s new novel, On Chesil Beach, when ‘one Saturday afternoon in late March, with the rain falling heavily outside the windows . . . she let her hand rest briefly on, or near, his penis.’ What she experienced was ‘a living thing, quite separate from her Edward – and she recoiled.’ Edward, also in his early twenties, was so excited that ‘he could bear it no more’ and asked her to marry him.

Samuel Beckett’s father ran his quantity-surveying business from Number 6 Clare Street, but there is no plaque, or anything like that. When their father died in 1933, Beckett’s brother took over the business, while Beckett, who was idling at the time, took the attic room. Like all idlers, he made many promises. He promised himself that he would write and he promised his mother that he would give language lessons. But he did nothing much, except get away from her, which must have been a full-time job. It would look good on a plaque: ‘This is where Beckett got away from his god-forsaken mother.’ Must tell the tourist board.

Avoid the Orient: The Ghastly Paul Bowles

Colm Tóibín, 4 January 2007

Long before the sin of Orientalism was discovered, Paul Bowles had frequently been guilty of it, in word, in thought and in deed. In his first stories, for example, the natives are shining examples of naked otherness, created partly to refresh our view concerning the mixture of simplicity, guile and sexual beauty available in remote places. The white heroes, on the other hand, are neurotic...

Borges was taught to read Spanish by his mother and English by his grandmother. Later, an English tutor was employed. Once Borges could read he was free, even though he was sickly and solitary. ‘If I were asked to name the chief event in my life,’ he wrote, ‘I should say my father’s library.’ He did not go to school until he was 11. He must have been a strange sight, small, bookish, precocious, full of stories about heroic ancestors. He was bullied by other boys from the beginning until he was withdrawn from the school. ‘One of his recurrent nightmares as an adult,’ Williamson writes, ‘was of being tormented by dwarfs and little boys.’ Three years later he was sent to secondary school, but not for long. In 1913 his father decided to take the family to Europe and educate the children in Geneva where he could be treated by a famous doctor for an eye disease from which he suffered .

Everybody was afraid of Dr Sherwood. My mother was afraid of him at meetings of Pax Romana, the lay Catholic discussion group in Enniscorthy, our town, because he had a way of glaring at women members when they spoke. He didn’t, it seemed, like women speaking. At St Peter’s College, the seminary and boarding-school where I went at the age of 15 in 1970, he was dean of the seminary, but he had once been dean of discipline of the boarding-school, and had a fearsome reputation as a merciless wielder of the strap. I studied him carefully when I first saw him; he was gaunt and unsmiling. Soon, even though he had no business on the lay side, I saw him at work. Four or five of us were hanging around the squash courts after lights out. When he saw us, he stood quietly at first and watched us; then he picked on the most innocent and vulnerable boy. He called him over and began to interrogate him while pinching one cheek hard and then the other cheek and then pulling his ears with enormous slow ferocity and then moving to his slow-growing sideburns until he had almost lifted our poor friend off the ground. Dr Sherwood was evil. I made up a song about him with a vile chorus.

He was world-weary from the beginning. Nowhere was safe. Before he was 25 he declared New York to be a ‘giant snake pit’, Los Angeles to be ‘quel hole’. Naples was ‘crooked’, London ‘a dreary place’. Even Paris, ‘a divine city’, could be ‘colder than a nun’s cunt’. Once he had passed the quarter century he hit on...

Certain doomed spirits from the 16th century continue to haunt us and beguile us. On 21 May 1940 Nancy Mitford wrote to Evelyn Waugh on the subject:

I used to masturbate whenever I thought about Lady Jane Grey so of course I thought about her constantly and even executed a fine watercolour of her on the scaffold, which my mother still has, framed, and in which Lady Jane and her...

She watched​ the sky darken, threatening rain. ‘There’s no light at all these days,’ she said. ‘It’s been the darkest winter. I hate the rain or the cold, but I don’t mind it at all when there’s no light.’

Father Greenwood sighed and glanced at the window. ‘Most people hate the winter,’ he said.

She could think of nothing more to...

The women who invented beauty came from far away. They lied about their ages and their origins and the source of their magic; their secrets were known only to certain chemists and secretaries and the maids and butlers who lived in fear of them, who survived long enough to tell and tell again the shocking truth, for example, that Elizabeth Arden, one of the world’s richest women, lined...

A Djinn speaks: What about George Yeats?

Colm Tóibín, 20 February 2003

In 1979, in a preface to a new edition of Yeats: The Man and the Masks, Richard Ellmann wrote about 46 Palmerston Road in Rathmines in Dublin, where George Yeats lived between her husband’s death in 1939 and her own death almost thirty years later. Mrs Yeats lived, Ellmann wrote, among the dead poet’s papers. ‘There in the bookcases was his working library, often heavily...

On 29 January 1884 Henry James noted a story which he had heard from Gertrude Tennant. It struck him ‘as a dramatic and pretty subject’. Young Lord Stafford, it seemed, was in love with Lady Grosvenor, whom he had known before her marriage, but had now no expectation of being able to marry as her husband was alive and robust. ‘Yielding to family pressure,’ as James put...

The Last Witness: The career of James Baldwin

Colm Tóibín, 20 September 2001

On 1 February 2001 eight writers came to pay homage to James Baldwin in the Lincoln Center in New York. The event was booked out and there were people standing outside desperately looking for tickets. The audience was strange; in general in New York an audience is either young or old (in the Lincoln Center, mainly old), black or white (in the Lincoln Center, almost exclusively white), gay or...

Love in a Dark Time: Oscar Wilde

Colm Tóibín, 19 April 2001

The first two months of 1895 were busy for Oscar Wilde. In late January he was in Algiers with Alfred Douglas. He wrote to Robert Ross: ‘There is a great deal of beauty here. The Kabyle boys are quite lovely. At first we had some difficulty procuring a proper civilised guide. But now it is all right and Bosie and I have taken to haschish: it is quite exquisite: three puffs of smoke and...

In March 1992 I received a printed invitation from Francis Stuart to a party in Dublin commemorating a party he had given in Berlin on St Patrick’s Day 1941. I wondered, when I read it, why Francis had sent this. Over the years he had invited me to several events, but he had never had invitations printed. I wondered if it was clear to him, as it was to me, that the invitation was a...

Gaelic Gloom: Brian Moore

Colm Tóibín, 10 August 2000

In the second chapter of Brian Moore’s first novel The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, Miss Hearne gets to know her fellow boarders, especially the landlady’s brother, the returned Yank, Mr Madden. They discuss the difference between men and women in Ireland and America. ‘Guys beating their brains out to keep their wives in mink,’ Mr Madden complains. ‘It’s the women’s fault. No good … Me, I wouldn’t have nothing to do with them.’ Miss Hearne, deeply alert to nuances of education and class, thinks to herself that he can’t be very well educated if he can speak like that. And then she replies: ‘O, that’s not like Ireland, Mr Madden. Why, the men are gods here, I honestly do believe.’ As Mr Madden continues, Miss Hearne becomes aware of his maleness: ‘He was so big, so male as he said it that she felt the blushes start up again. His big hand thumped the table.’‘

From The Blog
29 October 2009

When I was growing up in County Wexford the highest ambition you could have was to play hurling for your county. I remember being taken as a nine year old to watch my older brother play for Wexford in Croke Park in Dublin, which is the national stadium for Gaelic games. Even as I sat there watching my brother’s prowess, I knew that I would never match up to him, that I was a wimp and would always be one. Hurlers and players of Gaelic football were heroes; they were role models and figures of enormous moral authority and seriousness. They put their whole lives into sport without earning a penny. It was done for love, for duty, for patriotism; it was done for your club and county. They were towers of masculine strength. The hurlers especially were lithe and fit. To be a player of Gaelic games was to place you beyond sex; and this meant that they were straight, or were supposed to be.

In 1965, when Eamon de Valera was President of Ireland, the Irish Jewish community decided to honour him. They chose a site near Nazareth and planted a forest of ten thousand trees named after him. They also commissioned a book of Celtic symbols. They made effusive speeches in his praise in both Ireland and Israel. Jacob Herzog, the political director in the Prime Minister’s office, whose father had been Chief Rabbi in Ireland, wrote that

In his essay ‘The Argentine Writer and Tradition’, Borges wrote that the Argentine writer, and the South American writer, by virtue of being distant and close at the same time, had more ‘rights’ to Western culture than anyone in any Western nation. He went on to explore the extraordinary contribution of the Jewish artist to Western culture and of the Irish writer to English literature. For them, he argued, it was ‘enough, the fact of being Irish and different, to be innovators within English culture’. Similarly, Jewish artists ‘work within the culture and at the same time do not feel tied to it through any special devotion’. His essay was written around 1932, a long time before any clear view emerged of the gay writer’s place in literary tradition, and before the idea emerged that Irish, Jewish or gay (or, later, South American) writing was itself the centre rather than the periphery renewing the centre.‘

Erasures: The Great Irish Famine

Colm Tóibín, 30 July 1998

The house at Coole has gone now; razed to the ground. ‘They came like swallows and like swallows went,’ Yeats said in ‘Coole Park, 1929’, imagining a time‘

A Whale of a Time

Colm Tóibín, 2 October 1997

Jessie Conrad remembered his visit:

He’ll have brought it on Himself

Colm Tóibín, 22 May 1997

Sometime in the early sixties, when I was eight or nine, the actor Micheál MacLiammóir came to Enniscorthy, a small town in the south-east of Ireland where we lived, to perform his one-man show The Importance of Being Oscar. My uncle, who was a staunch member of Fianna Fáil, the ruling party, and a fervent member of the ruling church – he was later decorated by the Pope – bought us all tickets, and we attended, as did many others in the town, in a family group. MacLiammóir was, we were told, a great actor, a great Gaelic speaker and a great Irishman. I remember his voice and his presence on the stage; I remember him reclining like a large sleek cat on a chaise-longue, world-weary and knowing and infinitely melancholy, and then standing up and looking at us all, caressing us with his narrowed eyes and speaking as though he was telling us fresh gossip, insinuations he would be asking us to keep secret at least until we had left the theatre. It was strong stuff for a small boy.

A House Full of No One

Colm Tóibín, 6 February 1997

The words ‘HIV Positive’ and ‘Aids’ do not appear in the poems in Mark Doty’s My Alexandria (1995); instead, they hover in the spaces between the other words, and they govern the tone of almost every poem. Now, with the appearance of Heaven’s Coast: A Memoir, we know that Doty’s boyfriend Wally Roberts was dying slowly from Aids when these poems were being written. Doty also kept a diary during that time, some of which he quotes in the memoir. Heaven’s Coast deals with each change in Wally’s illness; the book is a charting of the mixture of the mundane and the miraculous, if I can use that word, in the manner of Wally’s dying. Thus the poems don’t need to tell the story, they don’t depend on the medical details or the days when things happened. They seek instead, desperately, to find images and rhythms which will make sense of this illness, a scheme which can accommodate this illness, however fitfully and sadly. They seek to describe the world in all its wonder, as though it were the world which were being slowly eaten away by this disease, as though it were nature itself that would soon disappear and would not come back. In the first poem in My Alexandria, ‘Demolition’, Doty invokes the ghost of Robert Lowell: many of the poems take their bearings from Lowell’s clotted diction, from what Doty calls his ‘ruthless energy’, from Lowell’s interest in burning the poem onto the page, heaping on adjectives to fuel the fire, invoking the Old Testament; writing, if he possibly could, his own Old Testament.

Why should you be the only ones that sin?

Colm Tóibín, 5 September 1996

All his life he kept his distance. At readings and concerts he would notice a young man, gaze at him, make his presence felt and understood, and later, in the semi-privacy of his diaries, record the moment. On Sunday morning, 31 October 1920, for example, when he was still working on The Magic Mountain, he went with Katia, his wife, to an open rehearsal of the Missa Solemnis, a work which would figure in Doctor Faustus more than twenty years later. ‘My chief impression,’ he wrote, ‘was of a remarkably handsome young man, Slavic in appearance and wearing a sort of Russian costume, with whom I established a kind of contact at a distance, since he noted my interest in him immediately and was obviously pleased by it.’

Playboys of the GPO

Colm Tóibín, 18 April 1996

‘The most important thing we have done is that we have made a modern art, taking our traditional art as a basis, adorning it with new material, solving contemporary problems with a national spirit,’ the Catalan architect Josep Puig i Cadafalch wrote in 1903. By the turn of the century, the national spirit had taken over most cultural activities in Catalonia, so that art, architecture and the Catalan language had become more powerful weapons in politics than resentment about Madrid’s handling of foreign or economic policy. The architects who worked on the new apartment blocks and public buildings in Barcelona between 1880 and 1910 began to play with a dual mandate, not merely innovative but Catalan as well, in an effort to create a national spirit in their buildings. They used the most modern methods available: in 1888 Domènech i Montaner used unadorned brick and industrial iron for his café-restaurant in the Parc de la Ciutadella; 16 years later he used a steel frame for his concert hall, El Palau de la Música Catalana, making it the first curtain-wall building in Spain and one of the first in the world. Both buildings sought to establish the progressive nature of the Catalan enterprise, but both are also laden with medieval motifs, reminders of former greatness, of the time before 1492 and the beginning of Castilian imperialism. Like most turn-of-the-century buildings in Barcelona they used Gothic and Romanesque references, spiky shapes, cave-like entrances, floral motifs in wrought iron, coloured glass or ceramic tiles, ornate sculpture, conveying both craft and opulence. They were intensely political buildings, and both Domènech i Montaner and Puig i Cadafalch became leading politicians – Domènech i Montaner was one of the founders of the Lliga de Catalunya in 1887. Both were elected to the Cortes in Madrid to represent the Catalan cause.’’

On (Not) Saying What You Mean

Colm Tóibín, 30 November 1995

I came to live in Dublin when I was 17, in October 1972. It was very exciting. The annual fee for an arts student at University College Dublin was £100. Someone from home told me that he wandered into Theatre Lone morning as Denis Donoghue was lecturing and noticed me staring at Donoghue with my mouth wide open, as though I was hearing an amazing piece of gossip for the first time. Donoghue was lecturing about the short poem in the 16th century. I did not know up to then that there were short poems in the 16th century. I knew there were son-nets and plays by Shakespeare and The Faerie Queen, but even saying the phrase now – ‘short poem in the 16th century’ – makes me wish I were writing about the work of Fulke Greville or Sir Walter Ralegh or Sir Thomas Wyatt.’

‘Fame is difficult for a writer to deal with,’ Thom Gunn writes in his essay on Allen Ginsberg’s poetry. ‘It dries you up, or it makes you think you are infallible, or your writing becomes puffed out with self-esteem. (Victor Hugo thought himself superior to both Jesus and Shakespeare.) It is a complication that the imagination can well do without.’

The South

Colm Tóibín, 4 August 1994

Even in the morning in that year the two-hour hotels were in bloom. The city was full of desire. It was hot. I stayed for a while in a narrow street near the Flamingo Park and went out some days to swim at Copacabana. It was that time between the death of Elizabeth Bishop and the appearance of the first biography and this volume of letters, when the ordinary reader on this side of the Atlantic knew very little about her. I did not know that for 15 years she stayed in an apartment overlooking the beach. ‘It is such a wonderful apartment,’she wrote to Robert Lowell in 1958,

How many nipples had Graham Greene?

Colm Tóibín, 9 June 1994

He received one hundred and eighty letters a month, he told one of his correspondents. Some of them were fan letters; others came from journalists who kept him informed about the places in the world which he cared about; academics wrote with lists of questions; publishers wrote looking for quotes for books they were about to publish. Authors wrote. In 1973 Greene wrote to Josef Skvorecky: ‘Your letters reach the length of a book by this time … I feel sad that you are wasting such good material on me, but if you ever come to write about these events I can always send you the letters back.’…


Colm Tóibín, 26 May 1994

One of the early chapters in Harold Brodkey’s first novel The Runaway Soul is entitled ‘The River’. The narrator, after his father’s death, returns to a landscape which he had known in early childhood. Some of the prose is plain and clear: ‘At the mouth of the stream, where it emptied into the inlet, under willows, lay a very large, ungainly river dinghy. It was greenish and heavy, made of thick and heavy pieces of wood, scarred and scratched, peeling and warped, moored to a ring in the trunk of a willow.’ But Brodkey sets out in this book to find another language, broken and fast-flowing, to slow down experience as it is rendered in fiction, to make it more exact and true, to establish, if he can, the way in which several things happen in the mind at once, the way in which sensations come not single spies but in battalions.

Diary: In the Pyrenees

Colm Tóibín, 6 January 1994

Towards the end of November 1975 I was doing my shopping in the Boquería market off the Ramblas in Barcelona when I bumped into Bernard Loughlin, with whom I worked in an institution called the Dublin School of English. To mourn the passing of Generalissimo Franco on 20 November we had all been given ten days off. I had spent them in the city, wandering around in search of riots, old bars and potential sleeping partners. Bernard, on the other hand, had been in the Pyrenees: I listened to him carefully because his tone was full of wonder. He had been in a village full of enormous stone houses with slate roofs, most of them abandoned. They all faced south, each one a different height and shape, and the view was of a fertile valley, with rolling fields and poplar trees in the foreground, and masses of snowcapped peaks in the distance. It was spectacular, he said, awesome. It must once have been rich; but now nobody went there – it took five or six hours to get there from Barcelona. It was more than five thousand feet above sea-level – and you could rent a house there for next to nothing.

New Ways of Killing Your Father

Colm Tóibín, 18 November 1993

In 1969, two years after my father died, my mother, my sisters and I went to Wexford for the launch of a new history of the 1798 Rising, The Year of Liberty by Thomas Pakenham. The Rising was important for us: from our housing estate we could see Vinegar Hill where ‘our side’, the rebels, had made their last stand. From early childhood I knew certain things (I hesitate to say ‘facts’) about the Rising: how the English had muskets whereas we just had pikes, how the English poured boiling tar on the scalps of the Irish and then, when the tar had dried, peeled it off. The names of the towns and villages around us were in all the songs about 1798 – the places where battles had been fought, or atrocities committed. But there was one place that I did not know had a connection with 1798 until I was in my twenties. It was Scullabogue. Even now, as I write the name, it has a strange resonance. In 1798 it was where ‘our side’ took a large number of Protestant men, women and children, put them in a barn and burned them to death.’

So much for shame

Colm Tóibín, 10 June 1993

My father was a supporter of the Fianna Fail Party. ‘You could salute Fine Gael people,’ he once told my sister – Fine Gael was the main opposition party – ‘but if you ever actually voted Fine Gael, your right hand would wither off.’ Throughout my childhood I believed that you could recognise a Fine Gael person merely by looking at him or her. They looked stern and serious, as befitted a group who had run the state in the decade after independence while our side wondered whether to hand in their guns or not.’

The Built-in Reader

Colm Tóibín, 8 April 1993

There is a moment in Samuel Beckett’s story ‘The Expelled’ in which the hero watches a funeral pass:

From The Blog
15 December 2009

From an early age, I have missed the point of things. I noticed this first when the entire class at school seemed to understand that Animal Farm was about something other than animals. I alone sat there believing otherwise. I simply couldn’t see who or what the book was about if not about farm animals. I had enjoyed it for that. Now, the teacher and every other boy seemed to think it was really about Stalin or Communism or something. I looked at it again, but I still couldn’t quite work it out. So, too, with a lot of poetry. I couldn’t see that things were like other things when they were not like them. Maybe they were slightly like them, or somewhat like them, but usually they were not like them at all.


11 September

4 October 2001

Mary Beard (LRB, 4 October) deplores our ‘refusal to listen to what the “terrorists" have to say’. She takes the view that ‘there are very few people on the planet who devise carnage for the sheer hell of it. They do what they do for a cause.’ This is only partly true. Over the past twenty-five years in Ireland I have made a point of asking anyone who was at school with...

Gaelic Gloom

10 August 2000

Colm Tóibín writes: In his acknowledgments Denis Sampson says: ‘I made a decision at the beginning that I would not ask for [Brian Moore’s] co-operation beyond the permissions that were necessary for accessing and reproducing materials in the archives and in published form. That decision reflects my recognition of his discomfort with a biographical approach to his life and...

At the start​ of Aeschylus’ Oresteia a watchman sees a flaming beacon. This is supposed to be the sign that Troy has fallen and that Agamemnon is coming home from the Trojan war. The...

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‘Nobody knows​ … nobody knows.’ Elizabeth Bishop said her grandmother’s remark was the chorus of her childhood. ‘I often wondered what my grandmother knew that...

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Eilis Lacey is a young Enniscorthy woman who has never dreamed of leaving Ireland. Friary Street and Castle Street, the square and the cathedral: the grey co-ordinates of her small County Wexford...

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‘It’s, on the whole, I think,’ Henry James wrote to Edmund Gosse, ‘a queer place to plant the standard of duty.’ The letter is dated 7 January 1893, 29 years before...

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The Sacred Cause of Idiom: Lady Gregory

Frank Kermode, 22 January 2004

The possession and use of a toothbrush was a mark of the difference between us and them, gentry and peasant, or so Lady Gregory suggested when she made the remark – jocular, perhaps, and...

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‘You know, in my family,’ remarks a gay Irish architect in Colm Tóibín’s The Blackwater Lightship, ‘my brothers and sisters – even the married ones...

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His Socks, His Silences

Adam Mars-Jones, 3 October 1996

Colm Tóibín’s frustrating new novel starts from a pleasingly skewed perspective: its narrator Richard Garay (less often, Ricardo) was brought up in Buenos Aires, child of an...

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Hugo Young, 24 November 1994

In Kiev in 1992, Colm Tóibín met the Bishop of Zhytomir, who was dressed in his full regalia. ‘He had that wonderful, well-fed, lived-in look that reminded me of several Irish...

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Thick Description

Nicholas Spice, 24 June 1993

To write simply is always to seem to write well. Bad writing is usually identified with over-writing: too many adjectives and adverbs, flowery figures of speech, verbosity. No one is ever accused...

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Motiveless Malignity

D.A.N. Jones, 11 October 1990

Ever since 1958, when his play The Birthday Party opened in London, Harold Pinter has been admired by the judicious for the witty realism of his dialogue and the engrossing mystery of his...

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