Colm Tóibín Essay - Critical Essays

Tóibín, Colm


Colm Tóibín 1955-

(Also spelled as Colm Toibin) Irish journalist, travel essayist, novelist, short story writer, and nonfiction writer.

The following entry presents an overview of Tóibín's career through 2001.

Tóibín is an award-winning Irish journalist who has won acclaim for his series of travel essays and novels. He has been noted for his skillful evocation and thoughtful examinations of different cultures in his travel writing. His travelogues also display a firm concern for social and political histories, whether he's examining the traditions of Spain or South America or the customs of his own home country of Ireland. His sparse, journalistic writing style—developed in his long-running weekly column in the Dublin Sunday Independent—influenced the simple prose of his later novels. Tóibín's novels are set in many of the locales that he explored in his travel writing, and the attention to cultural details in his fiction has been commended.

Biographical Information

Tóibín was born in the village of Enniscorthy, Wexford, in 1955. He was the second youngest of five children. During his youth, he attended the Christian Brothers School and later transferred to St. Peter's College, Wexford. He enrolled in University College, Dublin, in 1972, where he received a B.A. in History and English. After graduating in 1975, Tóibín moved to Barcelona, Spain, where he taught at the Dublin School of English. Tóibín became involved in Spanish politics during his stay and attended many demonstrations supporting Spanish democracy. His experiences living in Spain would later be used as source material for several of his works, including The South (1990) and Homage to Barcelona (1990). He returned to Ireland in 1978 and began work on an M.A. in Modern English and American Literature. During this period, Tóibín began writing for several publications, including In Dublin, Hibernia, and The Sunday Tribune. In 1982 he became an editor at Magill, one of Ireland's top current affairs magazines. Tóibín left Ireland again in 1985, travelling to South America, the Sudan, and Egypt. He wrote a number of travel essays recounting his experiences abroad, which were published weekly in the Dublin Sunday Independent. Upon returning to Ireland, Tóibín worked as a journalist and contributor to a number of publications, such as the London Review of Books. He published his first novel The South in 1990. The novel won the Irish Times/Aer Lingus International Fiction Prize and was nominated for the Whitbread Prize. He also won the Encore Prize for Best Second Novel, the E. M. Forster Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and was shortlisted for the Guardian Fiction Prize for The Heather Blazing (1992). The Blackwater Lightship (1999) was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and the IMPAC Dublin Award. In 2000 Tóibín became a Fellow at the Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library. He has taught and held workshops at several universities, including the American University at Washington, D.C., and the New School in Manhattan, New York.

Major Works

Tóibín is widely regarded for his journalism, essay collections, and travelogue writing. In Walking along the Border (1987), Tóibín travelled along the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, recording the day-to-day lives, fears, and prejudices on both sides of the divide. Homage to Barcelona explores the rich cultural history of the city of Barcelona and examines the city's turbulent political past, as evidenced by its role in the Spanish Civil War. The Sign of the Cross (1994) recounts Tóibín's travels through Poland, Bavaria, Italy, the Balkans, the United Kingdom, and Ireland during different Roman Catholic Holy Weeks. Tóibín discusses his own Catholic upbringing and the unique ways that European countries practice and celebrate their Catholicism. The Irish Famine (2001)—co-written with Diarmaid Ferriter—offers a critical assessment of how the Irish Potato Famine of 1845 has been virtually ignored by many historians, despite the fact that the famine caused the migration of over two million people. Love in a Dark Time (2002) assesses the lives of several influential homosexual artists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries—including Oscar Wilde and Francis Bacon—who were forced to keep their sexuality a secret for fear of discrimination or reprisals. In Lady Gregory's Toothbrush (2002), Tóibín offers a biographical reexamination of the life of Lady Augusta Gregory, the wife of Sir William Gregory, an Irish magistrate, who went on to found the Abbey Theatre, campaign against colonial rule, and become a friend and sponsor to poet W. B. Yeats. In 1990 Tóibín published The Trial of the Generals: Selected Journalism, 1980-1990, a collection of his previously published journalism pieces.

Tóibín has also earned a reputation for his fiction, beginning with the publication of The South. The novel recounts the story of Katherine, an Irish wife and mother who abandons her family to move to Barcelona, Spain, where she becomes a painter. In Spain she marries an artist and political activist with whom she has a daughter. Tóibín combines elements of both Spanish and Irish history as Katherine narrates her story and the stories of the people she meets in Barcelona. She eventually returns to Ireland as a successful artist and tries to rekindle a relationship with her son. The Heather Blazing tells the story of an Irish judge, Eamon Redmond, who is spending the summer with his family in a house on the coast at Ballyconnigor. The narrative switches back and forth between Redmond's youth and his present life as he reflects on his relationship with his family and his role in Ireland's conservative legal system. The Story of the Night (1996) focuses on Richard Garay, a half-English, half-Argentinean homosexual living in Argentina. The novel examines both the personal story of Garay's homosexuality and the public story of Argentina's political history as Garay becomes involved with an American couple as they seek to advance America's business interests in Argentina. In The Blackwater Lightship, a homosexual man named Declan Devereux is dying from the AIDS virus. Declan's sister, mother, grandmother, and two friends join him at his grandmother's crumbling old house to wait out his last days. Tóibín also contributed to Finbar's Hotel (1997), a short story collection that published stories from seven different Irish novelists—Dermot Bolger, Joseph O'Connor, Anne Enright, Roddy Doyle, Jennifer Johnston, Hugo Hamilton, and Tóibín—but refused to acknowledge which author had written which story. Each story in the collection is set around an aging hotel in Dublin on the eve of its demolition.

Critical Reception

Critics have praised Tóibín for his sharply written prose in both his fiction and nonfiction works. His novels have been noted for their deft characterizations, particularly of women, as evidenced by the strong female protagonist in The South. Reviewers have also commended Tóibín's control of narrative structures. Jeff Danziger has complimented Tóibín's use of flashbacks in The Heather Blazing, stating that, “Tóibín shows remarkable dexterity in balancing the events of his characters' lives with the stories of their past.” A number of critics have argued that Tóibín's controlled writing style is a result of his years working as a journalist. Peter Sanford has praised Tóibín's straightforward language in The Sign of the Cross, saying, “[Tóibín's] prose is never anything less than a joy: informal, relaxed, uncluttered by detail but redolent with meaning.” However, some reviewers have found Tóibín's writing too minimalistic and simplistic for his subject material, especially in his novels. Commentators have criticized The Blackwater Lightship for its bland prose and the way it juxtaposed a disagreement between a mother and daughter against the backdrop of a man dying of AIDS. Some reviewers have also argued that Tóibín's political views often overshadow the more personal themes in his works, citing Homage to Barcelona and The Story of the Night as examples. Despite these criticisms, Victoria Radin has asserted that, “Colm Tóibín is a writer's writer: fastidious, unshowy and capable of thrillingly accurate perceptions. His view of life is stoically tragic—an unfashionable stance in this age of grievances—and his range is wide.”

Principal Works

Seeing Is Believing: Moving Statues in Ireland [editor] (essays) 1985

Walking along the Border (travel essays) 1987; also published as Bad Blood: A Walk along the Irish Border

Dubliners [with photographs by Tony O'Shea] (travel essays) 1990

Homage to Barcelona (travel essays) 1990

The South (novel) 1990

The Trial of the Generals: Selected Journalism, 1980-1990 (journalism) 1990

The Heather Blazing (novel) 1992

The Sign of the Cross: Travels in Catholic Europe (travel essays) 1994

The Kilfenora Teaboy: A Study of Paul Durcan [editor] (nonfiction) 1996

The Story of the Night (novel) 1996

Finbar's Hotel [with others] (short stories) 1997

The Blackwater Lightship (novel) 1999

The Penguin Book of Irish Fiction [editor] (short stories and novels) 1999

The Irish Famine: A Documentary [with Diarmaid Ferriter] (essays) 2001

Lady Gregory's Toothbrush (nonfiction) 2002

Love in a Dark Time: Gay Lives from Wilde to Almodóvar (nonfiction) (2002)


Boyd Tonkin (review date 31 August 1990)

SOURCE: Tonkin, Boyd. “Asylum for Modern Times.” New Statesman & Society 119, no. 3099 (31 August 1990): 37.

[In the following review, Tonkin praises Tóibín's portrayal of Barcelona in Homage to Barcelona.]

“Where ya going?” someone sings at an air stewardess in one of those tuneless dirges that fill Stephen Sondheim musicals. “Barcelona,” she drawls. And so, during the 1980s, did everyone. What Paris had once been and Prague may soon become, the Catalan capital was, and is: the “one living point of the earth” where, for fashion-conscious travellers, “modern times have found an asylum.”

So wrote Le Corbusier, praising the...

(The entire section is 655 words.)

Eamonn Wall (review date fall 1991)

SOURCE: Wall, Eamonn. Review of The South, by Colm Tóibín. Review of Contemporary Fiction 11, no. 3 (fall 1991): 288-89.

[In the following review, Wall offers a positive assessment of The South, noting that the novel “succeeds brilliantly.”]

When her husband, against her objections, insists on taking a local Catholic family to court for allowing their cattle to graze illegally on their land, Katherine Proctor leaves him and her son and travels to Barcelona where she becomes a painter: she is thirty-two. In Spain, in Colm Tóibín's brilliant first novel [The South,] she becomes part of a bohemian set, takes art classes, meets Miguel and has a...

(The entire section is 433 words.)

Julia O'Faolain (review date 4 September 1992)

SOURCE: O'Faolain, Julia. “Keeping the Peace.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4666 (4 September 1992): 19.

[In the following review, O'Faolain discusses what The Heather Blazing reveals about Ireland and the Irish social conscience.]

The title [The Heather Blazing] comes from an old song. “A rebel hand set the heather blazing” has a lilt from the days when Irish reality was in alien hands and language could more easily subvert than confront it. Today, narratives coming from the Republic are cooler, and their prose is as likely to be notable for precision as for panache.

In his impressive first novel, The South, Colm...

(The entire section is 732 words.)

Jeff Danziger (review date 17 March 1993)

SOURCE: Danziger, Jeff. “Caught between Past and Present in an Irish Landscape.” Christian Science Monitor 85, no. 76 (17 March 1993): 13.

[In the following review, Danziger praises Tóibín's humor and skillful characterization in The Heather Blazing.]

Colm Tóibín's first novel, The South won the Irish Times/Aer Lingus Irish Literature Award—no small feat in a country with a strong literary heritage. His new novel, The Heather Blazing, gracefully depicts the beauty and loneliness of the Irish experience.

Eamon Redmond, an Irish judge, is trying to make sense of his life. His family was in the fight for Irish independence....

(The entire section is 653 words.)

Mark Harman (review date 13 June 1993)

SOURCE: Harman, Mark. “The Irish Struggle Within.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (13 June 1993): 2, 8.

[In the following positive review, Harman evaluates the strengths of The Heather Blazing, complimenting its clear prose and intense plot.]

We Irish are often said to be obsessed with the tangled history of our small island. Over the past few decades historians have been busy revising the simplistic version of Irish history that pitted ever virtuous Irish natives against evil foreign conquerors. That traditional scenario is still accepted in some Irish-American circles. The more differentiated or revisionist view of Irish history informs this splendid new...

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Peter Stanford (review date 11 November 1994)

SOURCE: Stanford, Peter. “Madonna Fan Steals Show.” New Statesman & Society 123, no. 4210 (11 November 1994): 36-7.

[In the following excerpt, Stanford commends Tóibín's ability to present a personal, though critically detached view of the Catholic Church in The Sign of the Cross.]

For an unashamedly personal view of the Catholic Church, Colm Toibin's The Sign of the Cross cannot be bettered. Many authors have recorded a pilgrimage across Catholic Europe in search of the soul of the church, that elusive something behind papal pomp and dwindling mass-going statistics. But Colm Toibin is in another class altogether.

His prose is never...

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Malise Ruthven (review date 18 November 1994)

SOURCE: Ruthven, Malise. “The Virgin Speaks Only the Purest Croatian.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4781 (18 November 1994): 27.

[In the following review, Ruthven criticizes Tóibín's prose style in The Sign of the Cross, commenting that his language is sometimes too simplistic for his subject matter.]

At Vinegar Hill outside Enniscorthy, the Wexford rebels of 1798 made their last stand against the English—and lost. Colm Tóibín could see Vinegar Hill from his childhood home. Like every other Irish child, he had been told how “the English poured boiling tar on the scalps of the Irish and when the tar dried they peeled it off, whereas our side, the...

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Edward T. Wheeler (review date 3 November 1995)

SOURCE: Wheeler, Edward T. “An Unhappy Traveler.” Commonweal 122, no. 19 (3 November 1995): 20-1.

[In the following review, Wheeler offers a generally negative assessment of The Sign of the Cross, noting that Tóibín seems to grow weary of his subject.]

The Sign of the Cross is part story of a pilgrimage, part travel book which offers to take us in the company of its author on “Travels through Catholic Europe.” We go with Colm Tóibín, the forty-year-old Irish novelist, critic, and journalist, to many places: to Lourdes to bathe in the waters, to Seville to see the Palm Sunday procession, to Vilnius to try to understand the Lithuanian church,...

(The entire section is 1103 words.)

Paul Elie (review date 11 December 1995)

SOURCE: Elie, Paul. “Smells and Bells.” New Republic, no. 4221 (11 December 1995): 39-41.

[In the following review, Elie argues that Tóibín fails to bridge his personal religious experience with his critical observations in The Sign of the Cross, resulting in “an account of strangers scarcely met, a pilgrimage barely begun.”]

The lapsed Catholic is “as boring a figure as the stage Irishman, and sometimes the same figure,” Anthony Burgess declared in his memoirs.

What makes him a bore is his lachrymosity, especially in drink, about being a bad son who has struck his mother and dare not go home. There is also the...

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Michael Kerrigan (review date 13 September 1996)

SOURCE: Kerrigan, Michael. “In the World of Men.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4876 (13 September 1996): 25.

[In the following review, Kerrigan asserts that Tóibín fails to fully connect the personal and public stories in The Story of the Night.]

The most striking moment in Colm Tóibín's new novel [The Story of the Night] occurs only a few pages in, when the narrator-protagonist, Richard Garay, recollects a homosexual encounter in the Bũenos Aires of the Generals. Hearing the loud yet unaccountable sound of “car engines revving over and over,” he asks his partner of the hour what the noise is. “He brought me to the window to show me the police...

(The entire section is 979 words.)

Victoria Radin (review date 20 September 1996)

SOURCE: Radin, Victoria. “The Secret Agent.” New Statesman 125, no. 4301 (20 September 1996): 48.

[In the following review, Radin compliments the prose in The Story of the Night, but criticizes Tóibín for patronizing his readers while discussing the subject of AIDS.]

Colm Toíbín is a writer's writer: fastidious, unshowy and capable of thrillingly accurate perceptions. His view of life is stoically tragic—an unfashionable stance in this age of grievances—and his range is wide. He can have as protagonist a young Irish woman who reinvents herself in the early years of Franco's Spain; Toíbín stays by her side, entirely plausibly, until her final years...

(The entire section is 794 words.)

James Simmons (review date 21 September 1996)

SOURCE: Simmons, James. “Sex and Oil in Argentina.” Spectator 277, no. 8775 (21 September 1996): 52.

[In the following review, Simmons praises Tóibín's writing style in The Story of the Night, but expresses disappointment regarding the “public side” of the novel's plot.]

If Colm Tóibín were a singer you would say he had perfect pitch. [The Story of the Night] leads you through its somewhat meandering plot clearly and tactfully and interestingly, with no hint of obscurity, no bombast, no showing off … and yet it is original and disturbing, with a satisfying ring of imaginative truth. I know that this Irishman was once a journalist and has...

(The entire section is 980 words.)

Robert Ellis Hosmer, Jr. (review date winter 1997-1998)

SOURCE: Hosmer, Jr., Robert Ellis. “Dreams in the Dark: Fiction Chronicle.” Cross Currents 47, no. 4 (winter 1997-1998): 531-41.

[In the following excerpt, Hosmer argues that The Story of the Night is not as strong as Tóibín's first two novels.]

Like [John Banville's] The Untouchable, The Story of the Night, Colm Toibin's third novel, takes as its narrator-protagonist a male homosexual. Toibin creates the character of Richard Garay, son of an Argentinian father and English mother, living through tumultuous times of war with Britain over the Malvinas (a.k.a. the Falklands) and repression wrought by military dictatorship. Whereas the politics...

(The entire section is 649 words.)

Ruth Scurr (review date 17 September 1999)

SOURCE: Scurr, Ruth. “In the Kitchen at Dusk.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5033 (17 September 1999): 21.

[In the following review, Scurr praises Tóibín's control of the narrative in The Blackwater Lightship.]

Five years before the publication of his first novel, The South (1990), Colm Tóibín interviewed the writer John McGahern for the magazine In Dublin. Passion tempered by precision, the hallmark of Tóibín's journalism and later his fiction, was manifest on this occasion in a remarkable report of a conversation about books.

He [McGahern] agrees that there is no tradition of the novel in Ireland, and no...

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Martyn Bedford (review date 11 October 1999)

SOURCE: Bedford, Martyn. “Going Gently.” New Statesman 128, no. 4458 (11 October 1999): 57-8.

[In the following review, Bedford asserts that although the prose in The Blackwater Lightship can seem too sterile, the novel is overall “a fine, thoughtful, compassionate” work.]

A list of nations where a man might be glad to be gay would stretch a long way down the page before Ireland earned its place. And to be gay and dying of an Aids-related illness in rural Wexford would not be most young men's preferred route of egress from the world. But such is the lot of Declan, the fulcrum of Colm Tóibín's Booker-shortlisted novel [The Blackwater Lightship]....

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Terry Eagleton (review date 14 October 1999)

SOURCE: Eagleton, Terry. “Mothering.” London Review of Books 21, no. 20 (14 October 1999): 8.

[In the following review, Eagleton offers a positive assessment of The Blackwater Lightship.]

‘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—still haven't told my parents that they are heterosexual.’ It is a neat Wildean inversion, one of the few good jokes in this harrowing, deeply unfunny novel, and a flash of wit with wider implications. For this is a novel about Aids which is not a ‘gay’ novel, or indeed much about sexuality at all. It is about...

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Denis Donoghue (review date 19 November 1999)

SOURCE: Donoghue, Denis. “Fretting in the Other's Shadow.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5042 (19 November 1999): 21.

[In the following review, Donoghue examines Tóibín's choices for inclusion in The Penguin Book of Irish Fiction.]

In the twelfth chapter of James Joyce's Ulysses the Citizen says to Leopold Bloom: “What is your nation if I may ask?” Bloom answers: “Ireland. I was born here. Ireland.” Colm Tóibín evidently agrees with Bloom about the qualification for nationality. If you were born in Ireland, you are Irish, and you stay in that condition, even if you leave the country and have no intention of going back. Goldsmith and Sterne are...

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Kevin Myers (review date 23 June 2001)

SOURCE: Myers, Kevin. “… And Famine and Hatred.” Spectator 286, no. 9020 (23 June 2001): 43-4.

[In the following review, Myers offers a positive assessment of The Irish Famine, praising the work's scholarship and wisdom.]

[The Irish Famine] is a book I opened in trepidation, not because of what I know of the authors, but because the Famine in Ireland is rather like those provocations which turned mild-mannered Bill Bixby into the Incredible Hulk, destroying cities with his teeth. The sweetest and most reasonable people can become profoundly unsweet and unreasonable when the subject of the Famine is broached, and it is not hard to see why.


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Further Reading


Adams, Tim. “Everything Stops for Tea.” Observer (19 September 1999): 13.

Adams criticizes Tóibín's use of minute details in The Blackwater Lightship.

Filbin, Thomas. “Eurofiction, Interest Rates, and the Balance of Trade Problem.” Hudson Review 46, no. 3 (autumn 1993): 587-92.

Filbin argues that Tóibín's The Heather Blazing is even better than his first novel.

Gardiner, John. “A Tragic Tradition?” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5167 (12 April 2002): 22-3.

Gardiner assesses the strengths and weaknesses of Love in a Dark Time....

(The entire section is 343 words.)