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Eibhear Walshe on Colm Tóibín: A Different Story

Writing.ie | Magazine | Interviews | Literary Fiction
A Different Story Toibin

By Dr Eibhear Walshe

The week that Colm Tóibín is shortlisted for the 2013 Booker Prize, Eibhear Walshe discusses his new book: A Different Story – The Writings of Colm Tóibín, newly released by Irish Academic Press.

I have always admired the writings of  Colm Tóibín and when I finished my book I  decided to take my title from a phrase he used  in connection with two central preoccupations within his writing – Irish history and gay identity: ‘Well, Gay liberation is very like Northern Ireland. Once the troubles are over, the novelists have a different story to tell – one which isn’t intrinsically as dramatic’.

In this study I suggest that Tóibín’s fictions have a different story to tell within the landscape of current Irish writing and have had a crucial influence in reshaping the contemporary novel and short story and on wider cultural discourse about Irish identity. Tóibín published his first book in 1985, during a stormy decade of conflict between conservative and liberal political groups in Ireland and his writings reflect on the radically different versions of Irishness that emerged in that period, particularly when defining sexual and moral questions. In the three decades since then, Irish politics, writing and culture have all experienced profound change and reinvention, and always, as I demonstrate in my book, Tóibín has been a central, questioning voice within popular Irish cultural and intellectual discourse.

His use of many literary forms –  the novel, short story, newspaper essay, the travel book, the historical study, reviews, broadcasts, plays –  all attest to his crucial influence on Irish public discourse and thus his novels and stories fictionalise key elements of Irish identity. My particular interest is in his use of the novel form and I read his fictions in the context of contemporary literary forms and narrative choices. Tóibín is one of the most widely-read and critically respected of all present-day Irish contemporary novelists, and his fictions have earned him an international reputation. A critic of Irish republican history and also of revisionism, a chronicler of a contemporary gay imagination and an advocate of Ireland’s role in Europe, within his fictions and his critical writings Tóibín reflects the ways in which Ireland has been refashioned in the late twentieth–century and twenty-first centuries. As a result, Tóibín’s texts explore the uncertain, even ambivalent, responses of his imagined characters to the collapse of dominant modes of belief and identity in Ireland and so the tone and ambience of his fictions are predominantly reflective, hesitant and melancholic.

My focus in this study is not directly biographical but, as he makes clear in interviews, key elements from his own life find their way into his fictions again and again. His novels and stories reflect the profound influences of his Catholic education and of family interest in Irish nationalism, Irish history and allegiance to the Fianna Fáil party. The early and sudden death of his father and the consequences of this for his relationship with his mother are all crucial in his representations of Irish families. A fixed and familiar sense of place anchors all his writings and he revisits the town of Enniscorthy, his beloved County Wexford coastline around Cush, New York and the West Coast of America, Barcelona and the Pyrenees time and again.

In all these critical and creative writings, there are a number of key preoccupations and the most pressing of these is Tóibín’s questioning of traditional narratives of Irish history, shaped by his own upbringing and his family tradition of allegiance to Fianna Fáil. As a writer, Tóibín is interested in ambivalence and in questioning central facets of cultural and literary belief to create a different story.  At the same time, linked to this questioning of traditional views of Irish republican history, Tóibín has queried accepted notions of sexual identities and gender roles within Irish culture and the Irish family unit. Part of my argument is that the deconstruction of the Irish family has been a key part of his project, as well as his remaking of the imagined role of the mother, most radically in his rewriting of the figure of Mary, the Mother of God. As a best-selling, highly visible novelist, Tóibín’s writings on the hitherto submerged literary representation of Irish gay identity moved this genre within mainstream culture. Tóibín’s fictions, in particular The Blackwater Lightship and his short story collections,  The Empty Family and  Mothers and Sons, give Irish gay identity a new visibility, and Tóibín is keenly aware of the political ramifications of his choices of subject. On 16 June 2008, when launching the Irish Queer Archive in the National Library of Ireland in Dublin, Tóibín reminded his audience that ‘There is for gay people all over the world a dotted line to the past which becomes faint and can disappear.’ This dotted line to the past re-appears, as I will argue.

FREE IMAGE-NO REPRO FEE. Eibhear Walshe, UCC. Photo by Tomas Tyner, UCC.Another aspect of Tóibín’s work is his continued interest in the structures and the legacies of the Catholic Church, a subject on which, as a journalist and political commentator, Tóibín provided a sharp and compelling voice of questioning, particularly in discussing revelations of child sexual abuse and the undermining of the traditional authority of the Catholic Church in Ireland. At the same time, Tóibín has continued to show interest in the cultural status of the church and has refused to participate in any witch hunts, allowing for even-handedness in his portrayal of Irish Catholics in his fictions.

My book includes a discussion of The Testament of Mary, Toibin’s most recent novel and his third Mann Booker nomination , with The Blackwater Lightship and The Master both previously short-listed. The book tells the story of the Mother of God in her own words in a voice, described by the Man Booker committee, as both tender and filled with rage. The novel, which has also been adapted for stage and performed in Dublin with Druid actor Marie Mullen  and on Broadway with Fiona Shaw,  has been a great success for him and is one of the favourites to win.

In structuring this study of Colm Tóibín’s fictions, I have arranged each chapter chronologically as well as thematically and I have paralleled my analysis of his fictions and plays with discussion of his travel writings and his essay collections My argument is that in each of these texts, Tóibín’s creative and critical writings are always usefully in dialogue. This means that his creative voice is one of the most influential in contemporary Irish literary and popular cultural discourse, narrating a changing Ireland and reflecting on the new demands of the Irish problem into the twenty-first century.

(c) Dr Eibhear Walshe

Dr Eibhear Walshe is a senior lecturer in the Department of Modern English at University College Cork.  His biography Kate O’Brien A Writing Life was published by Irish Academic Press in 2006 and he edited  Elizabeth Bowen:Visions and Revisions for  Irish Academic Press in 2008 He was a section editor for The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing: Volume 4 (Cork University Press, 2002); a contributor to the New Dictionary of Biography (Oxford University Press, 2004) and guest edited The Irish Review in 2000. His other publications include the edited collections, Ordinary People Dancing: Essays on Kate O’Brien (Cork University Press 1993), Sex, Nation and Dissent,  ( Cork University Press:1997) Elizabeth Bowen Remembered (Four Courts Press: 1999) and The Plays of Teresa Deevy ( Mellen Press: 2003.)  He co-edited, with Brian Cliff Representing the Troubles (Four Courts: 2004) and Molly Keane: Centenary Essays.  (Four Courts: 2006) with Gwenda Young. His memoir, Cissie’s Abattoir was published by Collins Press in 2009 and he edited Elizabeth Bowen’s Selected Irish Writings for Cork University Press in 2011 and Oscar’s Shadow: Wilde , Homosexuality and Ireland was published in 2012. His study of the fictions of Colm Toibin is published by Irish Academic Press and is available online or in all good bookshops.

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