Everything You Wanted to Know About Colm Toibin but Were Afraid to Ask

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I’m perilously close to having my Irish genes revoked. Not only did I have the wrong pronunciation of the man’s name streaming in my head, I’ve also been accenting the wrong vowels in his name in writing:

COLM TóiBíN

‘Atsa way you spell it! Accents are on the “o” and second “i,” not both “i”s. I am ashamed, abashed, chastened and humbled, all at once. It’s a wonder I’m able to walk upright.

If anyone should be highly sensitive to how a last name is spelled, it should be me. I am the only person in the world with my exact name, one of not many at all with my married surname. It’s one hell of a puzzler to most people, more challenging than my maiden Collins. Suggest a possible mispronunciation of Guidarini and I’ve heard it, despite the fact it is perfectly phonetical. To be fair, I should have allowed Mr. Tóibín to give its pronunciation a shot, considering how I butchered his own.

What’s the correct pronunciation of his name? Well, the one I heard last night was (making this crystal clear, using American English phonetics):

Column Toe-BEAN

Not Colm Toy-bin. Colm Toy-been but:

Column Toe- BEAN

To be fair, I don’t speak Irish. I know how to say “Cheers” and “Kiss my Ass,” which is enough vocabulary to get me welcomed into, then thrown out of, a pub. When I arrive in Dublin next month it’s probably best I shut my gob, though I would be fine talking about COLM TóIBíN. So that’s one thing. If his name crops up in conversation, Colm’s my uncle.

 

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“Colm Tóibín and The Irish Renaissance.” That’s the presentation I had the honor of attending last evening at Elmhurst College and, I have to tell you, enlightening and entertaining it was. I’ve not properly studied Irish literature, aside from book group discussions of works like The Picture of Dorian Gray, which centered not on Wilde’s Irishness but the themes of beauty and vanity and morality and all that’s associated with that particular novel. Likewise, I’ve “attended” some of Frank Delaney’s Ulysses podcasts, which, if I’d have seen that through, would likely have taught me much more about the history and culture of Ireland. I’ve read other Irish-associated books, novels mostly and bits of nonfiction here and there, but I am in no way formally schooled in Irish anything. Except, of course, “Cheers” and “Kiss my ass:” the drinking of Guinness a side specialty.

But it’s the 1890s/early 1900s era that’s at the heart of the Irish Literary Renaissance: the resurgence in Irish language and culture brought about largely by Lady Augusta Gregory, who, along with W.B. Yeats, scoured old country Ireland gathering – and translating into modern day Irish dialect English – all the lovely stories handed down for generations via oral tradition. Long story short (pun unintended), they were instrumental in bringing the tales to the stage, creating a new/old Irish literary heritage. In the process, they managed to establish the first state-funded theatre, The Abbey, still operating in Dublin.

 

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While you’d think all that sounds inarguably laudable, nothing in life is ever that simple. James Joyce was Professor Tóibín’s example of the modern Irish writer who’d rather not identify with the old Ireland that was. Rather, I don’t think it will shock anyone to say the man was of a mind to do his own thing. Joyce was forward-thinking, anxious to distance himself from the earthy, unsophisticated, bog dwelling, stereotypical Irish of generations past. Which is why he chose to flee his native country for Europe. And, while many who’ve knocked their heads against Ulysses may say “good riddance,” his wasn’t the only dissenting voice, nor the only to take this resurgence in a way different from its intention. For there was the little matter of a growing storm brewing between the Irish and the English, a complicated mixture of new-found Irish pride and whatever you would describe the British factor to be, because I don’t really want to wander far into political territory. It would soon get very, very ugly, forcing a lot of Irish – including my own ancestors – to leave Ireland for the States and other destinations, out of concern they’d be executed for having been on the wrong side at the wrong time.

SEE: The Troubles

Poor Lady Gregory could have had no idea the impact her good intentions would have on the course of Irish history. Inevitably, there would have been another cathartic event precipitating Irish/British conflict but there’s no doubt she and her cohorts brought it about much earlier. All because she wanted to save a culture: a perfect example of real life irony if ever there was one.

With that, I’ve nutshelled it for you, if you will, and you are welcome. I hope you’ll consider reading up on it, if you have an interest in Irish culture and literary history. There is so much more to it than this; I barely scratched the surface.

I intend to learn more about M’lady Gregory, certainly. She was also a writer, by the way, a writer who unfortunately slipped and fell under Joyce’s skilled critical knife, the worst fate any lesser-known, contemporary writer could have had. Much as I may dislike what he did, I do understand the impulse. Taking the high road hurts sometimes; Joyce just chose to avoid that hurt. Goliath pulverized David with his mighty fist. Well, I hope he was proud of himself.

 

Joyce’s review started with the idea of childish wonder becoming middle-aged speculation and finally the wisdom of old age. However, he claimed to find only senility place of wisdom in the old age of Gregory’s book, and he dismissed the herbal folk remedies, and the rambling, repetitive stories of the locals. Joyce claimed that while Yeats had presented similar folk material in The Celtic Twilight, Yeats at least had presented it with a certain amount of scepticism. Lady Gregory, however, presented this particular class of mind “in the fullness of its senility.”

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Fortunately, Lady Gregory was not silenced and we all know Joyce went on to achieve a certain amount of fame.

All in all, another lovely encounter with a lovely writer. Ah, I am spoiled. I could have listened to him talk for hours: such a brilliant, occasionally devilish and twinkly-eyed Irishman. I’d have brought him home, only law frowns upon it. In lieu of that, there is YouTube.

“YouTube: Your alternative to kidnapping adorable people”

Has a ring to it.

For more about the thrice Booker-nominated, literary superstar-of-many-genres Colm Tóibín, visit his website. And if you should ever have the honor of meeting him, remember:

Column Toe-BEAN

 Blessings on his beautiful soul.

 

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An aside: while researching reviews of The Testament of Mary I came across an article in a hardline evangelical “Christian” newspaper, addressing Meryl Streep’s reading of the Audio CD. It tore Mr. Tóibín to shreds: “He’s a disgusting homosexual!”; “He’s a blasphemer who is going to hell!” Even “Meryl Streep is going to hell!” “She’s old and ugly and has an ugly voice!” Frothy-mouthed with venom, they were.

Normally I’d bypass commenting on an evangelical site from sheer disdain but this time I didn’t. I stood up to the bullies, reminding them their God loves Meryl Streep and Colm Tóibín every bit as much as he does them (more, if he has a bias against in-bred ignorants)(as do I, mea culpa). Their Christ, likewise, most clearly admonished his people: “Love One Another.” I haven’t read the Bible but I’m fairly certain Christ did not say “Love one another, except people you hate.”

I didn’t stick around to read the rebuttals, if you’re wondering. Arguing with ignorants is fruitless, a complete waste of time. If they’d wanted me they could certainly have found me easily enough. Benefit them, on the rarity of my name, and I don’t use a pseudonym save my blog’s name. Again, easily found. If they are correct, and God is a twat, I’d much rather spend eternity in the same hell as Meryl Streep and Colm Tóibín anyway thanks. Save your breath, my dears. You’ll need it for your next blast of hot air.

Oh, and:

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