In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Colm Tóibín

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Thematic and Stylistic Studies
  • Interviews and Conversations
  • Archival Material

British and Irish Literature Colm Tóibín
Liam Harte
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 June 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0167


Colm Tóibín was born in Enniscorthy, County Wexford in 1955, the fourth of five children. His childhood was disrupted by the illness of his father Micheál, a teacher, when he was eight. His father’s death four years later in the summer of 1967 occurred just before Tóibín began his secondary school education, after which he entered University College Dublin in 1972 to study English and history. On graduation in 1975 he moved to Barcelona, where he taught English for three years, learned Catalan, and witnessed Spain’s transition to democracy in the aftermath of General Francisco Franco’s death. Following his return to Dublin in 1978, Tóibín embarked on a career in journalism, which culminated in his editorship of Magill magazine between 1982 and 1985. He spent much of the late 1980s abroad, traveling in South America, Africa, and eastern Europe, and returning to Catalonia in 1988 to write Homage to Barcelona (1990), one of three travelogues he published between 1987 and 1994. His novelistic career began in 1990 with The South, set in Ireland and Catalonia, which won the 1991 Irish Times/Aer Lingus First Fiction Award and was shortlisted for the Whitbread First Novel Award. With his next three novels— The Heather Blazing (cited under Novels), The Story of the Night (cited under Novels), and The Blackwater Lightship (cited under Novels)—Tóibín established himself as a highly distinctive voice in contemporary fiction, lauded for the spareness and lucidity of his prose, the delicacy of his psychological realism, and the acuity of his insights into states of exile, silence, loneliness, and grief. The presence of complexly drawn gay protagonists in the last two of these novels also marked Tóibín out as a bold prospector of homosexual identities and intimacies, whose public disclosure of his own gay sexuality in 1993 coincided with the decriminalization of homosexuality in the Republic of Ireland. Within Irish critical circles, the early reception of his work was complicated by Tóibín’s association with historical revisionism and his espousal of a pluralist, post-nationalist society. His fifth novel, The Master (cited under Novels), garnered extensive praise and won the 2006 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. His 2009 novel, Brooklyn (cited under Novels), won the Costa Novel Award and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. His novella, The Testament of Mary (cited under Novels), was also shortlisted for the Man Booker in 2013. In addition to his nine novels, Tóibín has authored two volumes of short stories, three plays, a short memoir, and an impressive body of nonfiction that encompasses historical, biographical, and literary-critical studies. He taught at Princeton University from 2009 to 2011 and was Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Manchester in 2011. He is currently Irene and Sidney B. Silverman Professor of the Humanities at Columbia University and Chancellor of the University of Liverpool. Recent honors include the 2017 Richard C. Holbrooke Distinguished Achievement Award and the Bob Hughes Lifetime Achievement Award, presented at the Irish Book Awards in November 2019.

General Overviews

One of the curious features of academic opinion on Tóibín is that while many articles and essays offer useful introductions or condensed overviews of his life and work, extended, in-depth studies are few in number. To date, two monographs and one essay collection devoted to his work have been published. Costello-Sullivan 2012 contains the most detailed analysis of Tóibín’s fiction published between 1990 and 2009 and, as such, is essential reading for all students of his work. Walshe 2013 augments this critical coverage in examining Tóibín’s development as a writer from 1987 to 2012, with particular reference to his evolution as a novelist. Delaney 2008 is valuable for its coverage of the political subtexts of Tóibín’s novels set in Ireland and the wider import of his fictive meditations on the relationship between Irish history, memory, imagination, and mythology. The shorter profiles offered by McCourt 2005, D’Erasmo 2011, and O’Connell 2019 helpfully highlight certain unifying preoccupations of Tóibín’s thought and oeuvre, many of which are explored in greater detail in some of the works cited under Thematic and Stylistic Studies.

  • Costello-Sullivan, Kathleen. Mother/Country: Politics of the Personal in the Fiction of Colm Tóibín. Bern, Switzerland: Peter Lang, 2012.

    DOI: 10.3726/978-3-0353-0265-3

    Thorough, insightful examination of the ways in which the private and the public realms blend and interact throughout Tóibín’s work. Devotes individual chapters to each of his first six novels and considers their treatment of issues such as love, family, sexuality, grief, and emigration. Highlights Tóibín’s recurring interest in “the damaging consequences of histories of silence and thwarted communication” (p. 160) in the novels and short stories.

  • Delaney, Paul, ed. Reading Colm Tóibín. Dublin, Ireland: Liffey Press, 2008.

    Stimulating and important essay collection that arose out of a 2007 symposium on Tóibín, the editor’s introduction to which includes the hypothesis that “much of his writing reads as a sort of displaced autobiography, as it draws on deep reserves and probes issues which carry personal significance” (p. 10). Includes thematic and text-focused chapters and an interview with Tóibín. Where relevant, individual chapters of this volume are discussed in other sections of this essay.

  • D’Erasmo, Stacey. “About Colm Tóibín.” Ploughshares 37.1 (2011): 165–168.

    Short, admiring profile that offers a brief overview of Tóibín’s publishing career and draws attention to some salient influences and themes. Quotes Tóibín as naming Henry James and Ernest Hemingway as important literary influences. Other formative factors cited by the novelist include the death of his father when he was twelve and “going to Spain; my homosexuality” (p. 166). D’Erasmo identifies “Hearts and minds in struggle with themselves” (p. 167) as one of Tóibín’s frequent themes.

  • McCourt, John. “Colm Tóibín.” In The UCD Aesthetic: Celebrating 150 Years of UCD Writers. Edited by Anthony Roche, 229–238. Dublin, Ireland: New Island Books, 2005.

    Informative essay that highlights Tóibín’s resistance to singular categorization as a writer and his fresh perspectives on familiar themes in Irish literature, including “exile, displacement and dislocation, loss and isolation, the idea of the family and home which is often challenged by domestic disharmony, loss and death” (p. 230).

  • O’Connell, Shaun. “The Permeable Boundaries of Colm Tóibín: An Appreciation.” New Hibernia Review/Iris Éireannach Nua 23.3 (2019): 69–79.

    DOI: 10.1353/nhr.2019.0028

    Insightful overview of Tóibín’s literary development, which asserts that his career “has been one crossing after another—transits real, symbolic, and imaginary” (p. 69). Notes the influence of Ernest Hemingway and Henry James on his prose style, while also stressing that “Tóibín took control of his own prose, told his own stories, and revealed his own secrets by writing in his own literary voice about the personal and social implications of homosexuality” (p. 75).

  • Walshe, Eibhear. A Different Story: The Writings of Colm Tóibín. Sallins, Co. Kildare: Irish Academic Press, 2013.

    Lucid discussion of the fiction and nonfiction, which foregrounds the ways in which Tóibín’s creative and critical writings are engaged in an ongoing productive dialogue with each other. Contends that Tóibín’s fiction maps out “a new story where ambivalence and ambiguity are deployed to question the ‘Irish problem’” (p. 184).

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