Colm Tóibín

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Colm Tóibín
Colm toibin 2006.jpg
Tóibín at the 2006 Texas Book Festival
Chancellor of the University of Liverpool
Assumed office
2 February 2017
Personal details
Born (1955-05-30) 30 May 1955 (age 67)
Enniscorthy, County Wexford, Ireland
EducationB.A., (Hon) D.Litt.
Alma materUniversity College Dublin (UCD)
OccupationWriter, journalist
Writing career
PeriodLate 20th century – Early 21st century
GenreEssay, Novel, Short Story, Play, Poem
SubjectIrish society, living abroad, the process of creativity, the preservation of a personal identity
Notable worksThe Heather Blazing
The Story of the Night
The Blackwater Lightship
The Master
The Magician

Colm Tóibín FRSL (Irish: [ˈkɔl̪ˠəmˠ t̪ˠoːˈbʲiːnʲ], approximately KUL-əm toh-BEEN; born 30 May 1955) is an Irish novelist, short story writer, essayist, playwright, journalist, critic, and poet.[1][2]

Tóibín is currently the Irene and Sidney B. Silverman Professor of the Humanities at Columbia University in Manhattan and succeeded Martin Amis as professor of creative writing at the University of Manchester.[3] He was appointed Chancellor of the University of Liverpool in 2017.[4]

Tóibín was called "a champion of minorities" by Arts Council director Mary Cloake as Tóibín collected the 2011 Irish PEN Award.[5] That same year John Naughton, of The Observer, included Tóibín in his list of Britain's three hundred "public figures leading our cultural discourse" — despite Tóibín being Irish.[note 1]

Early years and lifestyle[edit]

Tóibín was born in 1955 in Enniscorthy, County Wexford, in the southeast of Ireland. Tóibín's parents were Bríd and Michael Tóibín.[6] He is the second youngest of five children. His grandfather, Patrick Tobin, was a member of the IRA, as was his grand-uncle Michael Tobin. Patrick Tobin took part in the 1916 Rebellion in Enniscorthy and was subsequently interned in Frongoch in Wales. Tóibín's father was a teacher who was involved in the Fianna Fáil party in Enniscorthy; he died when Colm was 12 years old.

Tóibín grew up in a home where there was, he said, "a great deal of silence".[7] Unable to read until the age of nine, he also developed a stammer.[8] He received his secondary education at St Peter's College, Wexford, where he was a boarder between 1970 and 1972. He later spoke of finding some of the priests attractive.[9]

In July 1972, aged 17, he had a summer job as a barman in the Grand Hotel in Tramore, County Waterford, working from six in the evening to two in the morning. He spent his days on the beach, reading The Essential Hemingway, the copy of which he still professes to have, its "pages stained with seawater". The book developed in him a fascination with Spain, led to a wish to visit that country, and gave him "an idea of prose as something glamorous, smart and shaped, and the idea of character in fiction as something oddly mysterious, worthy of sympathy and admiration, but also elusive. And more than anything, the sheer pleasure of the sentences and their rhythms, and the amount of emotion living in what was not said, what was between the words and the sentences."[10]

He went to University College Dublin, graduating in 1975. Immediately after graduation, he left for Barcelona. Tóibín's first novel, 1990's The South, was partly inspired by his time in Barcelona, as was, more directly, his non-fiction Homage to Barcelona (1990). Having returned to Ireland in 1978, he began to study for a master's degree. However, he did not submit his thesis and left for a career in journalism.

The early 1980s were an especially bright period in Irish journalism, and the heyday of the monthly news magazine Magill. Tóibín became the magazine's editor in 1982, and remained in the position until 1985. He left due to a dispute with Vincent Browne, Magill's managing director. In 1997, when The New Yorker asked Tóibín to write about Seamus Heaney becoming President of Ireland, Tóibín noted that Heaney's popularity could survive the "kiss of death" of an endorsement by Conor Cruise O'Brien. The New Yorker telephoned Conor Cruise O'Brien to confirm that this was so, but Cruise O'Brien disagreed and the statement could not be corroborated.[11]

Tóibín is openly gay.[12] Since around 2012, he has been in a relationship with a man who lives in Los Angeles whose name Tóibín prefers not to disclose.[13] Tóibín does not watch television, and has admitted to confusing the politicians Ed Miliband and Ed Balls.[14]

Tóibín lives in Southside Dublin City's Upper Pembroke Street, where on occasions his friends, such the playwright Tom Murphy and Gate Theatre director Michael Colgan, assembled for social interaction and entertainment.[15][16]

In 2019, Tóibín spoke about having survived testicular cancer which spread to multiple organs including a lung, liver and lymph node.[17][18]


Tóibín's 1990 novel The South was followed by The Heather Blazing (1992), The Story of the Night (1996) and The Blackwater Lightship (1999). His fifth novel, The Master (2004), is a fictional account of portions in the life of author Henry James. Tóibín is the author of other non-fiction books: Bad Blood: A Walk Along the Irish Border (1994), (reprinted from the 1987 original edition) and The Sign of the Cross: Travels in Catholic Europe (1994).

Tóibín has written two short story collections. His first, Mothers and Sons, which as the name suggests explores the relationship between mothers and their sons, was published in 2006, and was reviewed favourably (including by Pico Iyer in The New York Times). His second, broader collection, The Empty Family, was published in 2010[19] and was shortlisted for the 2011 Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award.[20]

Tóibín's play, Beauty in a Broken Place, was staged in Dublin in August 2004. He has continued to work as a journalist, both in Ireland and abroad, writing for the London Review of Books among other publications. He has also achieved a reputation as a literary critic: he has edited a book on Paul Durcan, The Kilfenora Teaboy (1997), and The Penguin Book of Irish Fiction (1999); and has written The Modern Library: The 200 Best Novels in English since 1950 (1999), with Carmen Callil. He has also written a collection of essays, Love in a Dark Time: Gay Lives from Wilde to Almodóvar (2002), and a study on Lady Gregory, Lady Gregory's Toothbrush (2002).

Tóibín sent a photograph of Borges to Don DeLillo, who described it as "the face of Borges against a dark background—Borges fierce, blind, his nostrils gaping, his skin stretched taut, his mouth amazingly vivid; his mouth looks painted; he's like a shaman painted for visions, and the whole face has a kind of steely rapture". DeLillo often seeks inspiration from it.[21]

In 2011, The Times Literary Supplement published his poem "Cush Gap, 2007".[1] 2012 brought the publication of The Testament of Mary. In 2014, he released his first full-length novel since Brooklyn (2009), a portrait of a recently widowed mother of four in Wexford struggling through a period of grief, entitled Nora Webster.[2]

In 2015, ahead of the Marriage Equality referendum, Tóibín delivered a talk titled "The Embrace of Love: Being Gay in Ireland Now" in Trinity Hall, featuring Roger Casement's diaries, the work of Oscar Wilde, John Broderick and Kate O'Brien, and Senator David Norris's 1980s High Court battles.[22] In the same year, he released On Elizabeth Bishop, a critical study which made The Guardian's Best Books of 2015 list twice.[23]

The December 2021 issue of The New York Review of Books includes his poem "Father & Son",[24] which may be autobiographical (as the description of the son's developing stammer in the second stanza—particularly on hard consonants—is similar to Tóibín's description of his own stammer[25]).

His personal notes and work books are deposited at the National Library of Ireland.[26]

Tóibín is a member of Aosdána and has been visiting professor at Stanford University, The University of Texas at Austin and Princeton University. He has also lectured at several other universities, including Middlebury College, Boston College, New York University, Loyola University Maryland, and The College of the Holy Cross. In 2017 he lectured in Athens, Georgia as the University of Georgia Chair for Global Understanding.[27] He was a professor of creative writing at the University of Manchester, succeeding Martin Amis in that post,[3] and currently teaches at Columbia University.

Tóibín has said his writing comes out of silence. He does not favour story and does not view himself as storyteller. He has said, "Ending a novel is almost like putting a child to sleep – it can't be done abruptly."[2]

When working on a first draft he covers only the right-hand side of the page; later he carries out some rewriting on the left-hand side of the page. He keeps a word processor in another room on which to transfer writing at a later time.[28]


Tóibín's work explores a number of main themes: the depiction of Irish society, living in exile, the legacy of Catholicism, the process of creativity, and the preservation of a personal identity, masculinity, fatherhood and homosexual identity, and on personal identity when confronted by loss. The "Wexford" novels, The Heather Blazing and The Blackwater Lightship, use Enniscorthy, the town of Tóibín's birth, as narrative material, together with the history of Ireland and the death of his father. An autobiographical account and reflection on this episode can be found in the non-fiction book, The Sign of the Cross. In 2009, he published Brooklyn, a tale of a woman emigrating to Brooklyn from Enniscorthy; characters from that novel also appear in Nora Webster, in which the young character of Donal seems to have been part-based on Colm's own childhood.

Two other novels, The Story of the Night and The Master, revolve around characters who have to deal with a homosexual identity and take place outside Ireland for the most part, with a character having to cope with living abroad. His first novel, The South, seems to have ingredients of both lines of work. It can be read together with The Heather Blazing as a diptych of Protestant and Catholic heritages in County Wexford, or it can be grouped with the "living abroad" novels. A third topic that links The South and The Heather Blazing is that of creation, of painting in the first case and of the careful wording of a judge's verdict in the second. This third thematic line culminated in The Master, a study on identity, preceded by a non-fiction book on the same subject, Love in a Dark Time. The book of short stories "Mothers and Sons" deals with family themes, both in Ireland and Catalonia, and homosexuality.

Tóibín has written gay sex into several novels, and Brooklyn contains a heterosexual sex scene in which the heroine loses her virginity.[29] In his 2012 essay collection New Ways to Kill Your Mother: Writers and Their Families he studies the biographies of James Baldwin, J. M. Synge, and W. B. Yeats, among others.[30]

Awards and honours[edit]



  • The South, Serpent's Tail, 1990, ISBN 9780670838707
  • The Heather Blazing, Picador, 1992, ISBN 978-0-330-32124-2
  • The Story of the Night, Picador, 1996, ISBN 978-0-330-34017-5
  • The Blackwater Lightship, McClelland and Stewart, 1999, ISBN 978-0-7710-8561-1
  • The Master, Picador, 2004, ISBN 978-0-330-48565-4
  • Brooklyn, Dublin: Tuskar Rock Press, 2009, ISBN 978-3-446-23566-3
  • The Testament of Mary, Viking, 2012, ISBN 978-1451688382
  • Nora Webster, Scribner, 2014, ISBN 978-1439138335
  • House of Names, Scribner, 2017, ISBN 978-1501140211
  • The Magician, Viking, 2021, ISBN 9780241004616

Short fiction[edit]

Title Year First published Reprinted/collected Notes
Sleep 2015 Tóibín, Colm (23 March 2015). "Sleep". The New Yorker. Vol. 91, no. 5. pp. 78–83.
Summer of '38 2013 Tóibín, Colm (4 March 2013). "Summer of '38". The New Yorker. Vol. 89, no. 3. pp. 58–65.


Book reviews[edit]

Year Review article Work(s) reviewed
2018 Tóibín, Colm (22 February 2018). "The heart of Conrad". The New York Review of Books. 65 (3): 8–11. Jasanoff, Maya. The dawn watch : Joseph Conrad in a global world. Penguin.



  1. ^ This loose list quickly became somewhat discredited on account of numerous flagrant inaccuracies and anomalous inclusions (it even included Alan Rusbridger, the then editor-in-chief of The Observer's sister title), and a correction was printed the following Sunday, noting that several of those included "would not claim to be British" (most notably Seamus Heaney and Tóibín), correcting misspelled, and even incorrect, names - e.g. "Andrew (not Anthony)", "David (not Derek)" -, while one inclusion was discovered in the course of that week to have been dead since 1995.[47]

Further reading[edit]

  • Allen Randolph, Jody. "Colm Tóibín, December 2009." Close to the Next Moment. Manchester: Carcanet, 2010.
  • Boland, Eavan. "Colm Tóibín." Irish Writers on Writing. San Antonio: Trinity University Press, 2007.
  • Delaney, Paul. Reading Colm Tóibín. Dublin: Liffey Press, 2008, ISBN 978-1-905785-41-4
  • Educational Media Solutions, 'Reading Ireland, Contemporary Irish Writers in the Context of Place', 2012, Films Media Group
  • Costello-Sullivan, Kathleen. Mother/Country: Politics of the Personal in the Fiction of Colm Tóibín. Reimagining Ireland series. Ed. Eamon Maher. Bern: Peter Lang, 2012.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "Toibin tries his hand at poetry . . ". Irish Independent. 18 June 2011. Irish Independent. Retrieved on 18 June 2011.
  2. ^ a b c Barnett, Laura (19 February 2013). "Colm Tóibín, novelist – portrait of the artist". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 19 February 2013.
  3. ^ a b c Walsh, Caroline (4 February 2011). "Colm Tóibín wins Irish Pen award". The Irish Times. Irish Times Trust. Retrieved 4 February 2011.
  4. ^ Kean, Danuta (2 February 2017). "Colm Tóibín appointed chancellor of Liverpool University". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 2 February 2017.
  5. ^ Boland, Rosita (12 February 2011). "Tóibín on song as he picks up Irish Pen award". The Irish Times. Irish Times Trust. Retrieved 12 February 2011.
  6. ^ Salter, Jessica (27 February 2012). "The World of Colm Tóibín". The Daily Telegraph. London. The Telegraph, 27 February 2012.
  7. ^ Tóibín, Colm (17 February 2012). "Colm Tóibín: writers and their families". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 17 February 2012.
  8. ^ "Colm Toibin: By the Book". The New York Times. New York. 1 October 2015. Retrieved 1 October 2015.
  9. ^ "Austen was a woeful speller . . ". Irish Independent. 30 October 2010. Irish Independent. 30 October 2010. 'Although not abused by priests in the Wexford school he attended, he positively fancied some of them. "Aged 15 or 16," he tells interviewer Susanna Rustin, "I found some of the priests sexually attractive, they had a way about them . . . a sexual allure which is a difficult thing to talk about because it's usually meant to be the opposite way round"'.
  10. ^ "The best holiday reads: Colm Tóibín". The Guardian. London. 17 June 2011. Retrieved 17 June 2011.
  11. ^ Foster, R. F. (February 2009). "The Cruiser". Standpoint.
  12. ^ Kaplan, James (6 June 2004). "A Subtle Play of Relations Reveals Henry James in Full". The Observer. Guardian Media Group. Retrieved 16 November 2015.
  13. ^ Brockes, Emma (30 March 2018). "Colm Tóibín: 'There's a certain amount of glee at the sheer foolishness of Brexit'". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 6 May 2021.
  14. ^ "Colm Tóibín on the allure of the breakfast fry-up". RTÉ. 25 May 2015. Retrieved 10 June 2019.
  15. ^ Nicola Anderson (13 June 2005). "Playwright didn't curry favour in row at party". Retrieved 11 October 2021.
  16. ^ "Beware when the enemy's at the Gate". 12 June 2005.
  17. ^ "Colm Toibin discusses his battle with testicular cancer". South East Radio. 12 April 2019. Retrieved 12 April 2019. Mr Toibin has had ongoing treatment for the cancer which also showed up in his lung and liver.
  18. ^ "Famed Irish writer Colm Toibin tells of secret cancer battle". IrishCentral. 15 April 2019. Retrieved 15 April 2019. A week later the phone rang and I was told that I had a cancer of the testicles that had spread to a lymph node and to one lung.
  19. ^ "The Empty Family Stories". Retrieved 21 March 2011.
  20. ^ Cullen, Conor. "Tóibín in line for major prize" Archived 4 October 2011 at the Wayback Machine. Enniscorthy Guardian. 12 July 2011.
  21. ^ Begley, Adam. "Don DeLillo, The Art of Fiction No. 135". The Paris Review.
  22. ^ Blake Knox, Kirsty (15 May 2015). "'Gay people have a right to ritualise and copper-fasten their love' - Tóibín". Irish Independent.
  23. ^ Tóibín, Colm (22 March 2015). On Elizabeth Bishop Colm Tóibín. Princeton University Press. ISBN 9780691154114. Retrieved 28 December 2015.
  24. ^ Tóibín, Colm (2 December 2021). "Father & Son". The New York Review of Books. New York. Retrieved 11 November 2021.
  25. ^ "Colm Toibin: By the Book". The New York Times. New York. 1 October 2015. Retrieved 11 November 2021.
  26. ^ Telford, Lyndsey (21 December 2011). "Seamus Heaney declutters home and donates personal notes to National Library". Irish Independent. Independent News & Media. Archived from the original on 2 August 2012. Retrieved 21 December 2011.
  27. ^ Butschek,H. (2017). Author of 'Brooklyn' coming for 3 days of events in Athens. Onlone Athens.
  28. ^ Tóibín, Colm (13 July 2007). "Writers' rooms: Colm Tóibín". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 22 September 2021.
  29. ^ Rustin, Susanna (16 October 2010). "Let's not talk about sex – why passion is waning in British books". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 16 October 2010.
  30. ^ Hadley, Tessa (22 February 2012). "New Ways to Kill Your Mother by Colm Tóibín – review". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 27 March 2012.
  31. ^ a b c "Colm is an author of formidable talent". Wexford People. 29 June 2011.
  32. ^ "Royal Society of Literature All Fellows". Royal Society of Literature. Archived from the original on 5 March 2010. Retrieved 10 August 2010.
  33. ^ Brown, Mark (28 July 2009). "Heavyweights clash on Booker longlist". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 28 July 2009.
  34. ^ "Tóibín wins Costa Novel Award". RTÉ Arts. RTÉ. 4 January 2010. Retrieved 4 January 2010.
  35. ^ "William Trevor makes an Impac". The Irish Times. Irish Times Trust. 12 April 2011. Retrieved 12 April 2011.
  36. ^ Cullen, Conor (12 July 2011). "Tóibín in line for major prize". Enniscorthy Guardian. Archived from the original on 4 October 2011. Retrieved 12 July 2011.
  37. ^ Walsh, Caroline (9 July 2011). "Two Irish authors make awards shortlist". The Irish Times. Irish Times Trust. Retrieved 9 July 2011.
  38. ^ Flood, Alison (9 July 2011). "Strong showing for Irish writers on Frank O'Connor shortlist". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 9 July 2011.
  39. ^ "The Man Booker Prize 2013". 7 August 2013. Archived from the original on 30 November 2014. Retrieved 2 December 2014.
  40. ^ Doyle, Martin (23 July 2015). "Colm Tóibín wins Hawthornden Prize for 'Nora Webster'". Retrieved 23 July 2015.
  41. ^ "APNewsBreak: Irish novelist wins Ohio literary peace award". The Washington Post. 13 July 2017. Archived from the original on 13 July 2017.
  42. ^ "Irish novelist Colm Tóibín wins Rathbones Folio prize for The Magician". the Guardian. 22 March 2022. Retrieved 23 March 2022.
  43. ^ Short stories unless otherwise noted.
  44. ^[permanent dead link]
  45. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 9 January 2015. Retrieved 3 December 2014.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  46. ^ "A Guest at the Feast. A Memoir | Colm Tóibín Official Website".
  47. ^ Naughton, John (8 May 2011). "Britain's top 300 intellectuals". The Observer.
  • Ryan, Ray. Ireland and Scotland: Literature and Culture, State and Nation, 1966–2000. Oxford University Press, 2002.

External links[edit]