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Pól Ó Lorcáin
Paul Larkin

Chroniclers are privileged to enter where they list, to come and go through keyholes, to ride upon the wind, to overcome in their soarings up and down, all obstacles of distance, time and place.
Charles Dickens - Barnaby Rudge, Chapter The Ninth

Colm Tóibín ’s Imperial Gloss on the Irish Famine

Colm Tóibín ’s Imperial Gloss on the Irish Famine


Before I go on to criticise Colm Tóibín , I should stress that I believe his writing can sometimes reach the heights of great literature. His book on Henry James (The Master, Picador, 2004) is indeed masterful and brings alive that great American storyteller like no other thing I have read on the author. In fact, it is so good that, whilst at a wedding in Rome recently, I sought out the Hotel d'Inghilterra, where Henry James stayed whilst playing his part in the Anglo American literary scene in that magnificent city; a scene that Tóibín describes evocatively and with great insight. Along with its literary ambience, the old world chic and ornate decoration in the hotel makes a visit a must for anyone who is in Rome.

There is one particularly striking passage in the Roman section of The Master in which a handsome, but raw boned and somewhat self effacing sculptor of Nordic origins – Hendrik Andersen - becomes an acquaintance of James’s and they spend a short but intense period of time together discussing the nature of art and engaging in literary pastimes like visiting Keat’s grave. The underlying sexual tension in this unconsummated but affecting encounter between the awestruck, but inwardly confident, Andersen and this repressed homosexual writer who is full of gravitas, but also appreciates the young man’s adoration, is exquisitely handled. Perhaps it takes a fine and openly gay writer like Tóibín to tease these things out.

The Master - Toibin's brilliant book on Henry James

All of the above notwithstanding, there are two problems with Colm Tóibín – one is that he is almost untouchable in Ireland because his influence in literary circles is so great that few Irish writers would dare to criticise him. Have any of you, dear readers, ever read a negative article on Colm Tóibín? Of course his supporters amongst the Dublin 4 chatterati (where Dublin 4 is not a geographical place but a pro-colonial mindset) may argue that Tóibín is rather like Mary Poppins – “practically perfect in every way”, but this brings me on to Tobin’s second problem, which relates to his background in provincial society and his apparent need to be seen as a cultured sophisticate – at least in English literary circles.

Tóibín was born in Enniscorthy County Wexford and, just like the town itself, the author has strong Irish rebel roots. However, as we shall see in a moment, Tóibín has turned his back on all that. Indeed, the fact that the jacket cover biog. for The Master simply tells us that Tóibín was “born in Ireland” as opposed to rural Wexford may tell us more than we realise about Tóibín ’s possible “bog Irish” complex.

What has prompted me to write this short critique is a lazy and self satisfied article by Tóibín in last week’s Guardian newspaper -

The above article is about the equally gifted Irish playwright Brian Friel and is entitled “Trapped In Silence”. I feel that the piece actually reveals more about how much Tóibín is himself trapped in a slough of self denial and silence about his country’s “psyche” and its struggle for independence of movement, language, thought and action. That is, there is something about being Irish, which Tóibín would rather not face. To be fair, he is not alone in this psychosis but in the course of this short Guardian article Colm Tóibín makes the following astonishing statement:

“The secret history of Ireland over the 150 years is exile and emigration. No matter what changed, each generation lost people they loved. Emigrants went to England or America or Australia in large numbers after independence as much after the Famine; often they went when they were young and returned seldom or not at all.”

The above sentence written by one of our foremost writers is simply unacceptable and inexplicable, because it implies some sort of equivalence between the Famine which, in overall terms, almost halved the country’s population and the stream of emigration that took place post independence for 26 of our 32 counties. The Irish Famine was a unique and unparalleled all-Ireland catastrophe and to compare it with subsequent forms of exile that mostly had to do with employment prospects and joining families already settled abroad (because of the Famine) is utter nonsense. It is one of our best writers retreating into silence before the horror of it all.

Seán Ó Faoláin's work on Hugh O'Neill - a great read, but real history?

Tóibín then compounds this historical myopia when, quite rightly, stressing the political element espoused in Brian Friel’s plays but omitting to mention probably the most political of them all – “Making History”, which deals with the period of the Nine Years War (or “Tyrone’s Rebellion”1594 – 1603) and was led by Aodh Mór O’Neill - Great Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone. If Tóibín had bothered (dared?) to look a bit closer at the question of Brian Friel’s politics he would have very quickly seen that serious doubts have now been raised about both how Hugh O’Neill is portrayed in this play and the fact that Friel relied so heavily on Sean Ó Faoláin’s heavily coloured biography of O’Neil.

In the conclusion to this blog, readers will see that Tóibín is a great champion of revisionism in Irish historiography, but he seems to be unaware that the subject of his Guardian article, Brian Friel, has himself been the subject of just such a major review and revision by historians. As Dr Maureen E. Mulvihill has put it with regard to modern day negative propaganda about O’Neill and the Flight of the Earls in 1607:

“(The Earl of) Tyrone has been gleefully portrayed by his detractors as a violent wife-beating thug and an alcoholic to boot who spent his days in Italy after the Flight wallowing in drunken self-pity."

But Mulvihill’s excellent review of John McCavitt’s book on the Flight of the Earls points out that:

“Rather than the tragic-comic picture of O’Neill painted so absurdly by Brian Friel in his play Making History, Tyrone appears as one who never intended the 'Flight' to be a one-way trip.”

See -

It is a cause of surprise that Tóibín is unaware of (or chooses to ignore) this dramatic reassessment of one of Friel’s most seminal plays and that this reassessment has been in train ever since Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich began his pioneering work in the 1980s on the history of the Irish diaspora in continental Europe. But then the nuanced, not to say sophisticated, idea that there might be positive, indeed liberationist, aspects to the Irish Catholic Church and its churchmen runs against everything that the Dublin 4 set likes to believe.

Aodh Mór Ó Neill - No more heroes any more?

It has to be admitted that O’Neill was a complex figure. For example, he assisted the English in putting down a revolt in Munster but Tomás Ó Fiaich’s work on Hugh O’Neill and the Irish diaspora in Europe helps to explain the Realpolitik that was at play at the time. More crucially, Ó Fiaich was aware of the ground breaking work carried out by the late Micheline Kerney Walsh who went back to Spanish and French sources (ignored by O’Faoláin and Friel), which showed that the Earl of Tryone was not a “Bush Kern” (a peasant warrior or “Kern” hiding in the thicket) as Elizabeth the First had described him but rather a shrewd politician and military tactician who, once in exile, constantly agitated for funds to lead an army in Ireland. Of course the English were well aware of this but they are masters of “Black Art” propaganda as many modern day Irish people have experienced.

Imeacht na nIarlaí - Paul Larkin's film for TG4

The narrative of my own film about Hugh O’Neill and the Flight of the Earls (or what we called “departure” – imeacht na nIarlaí another “revision) was informed by the many papers and history conferences dealing with the period in which august historians like Margaret MacCurtain and Hiram Morgan expressed the view that Brian Friel relied too heavily on Seán O’Faoláins book on O’Neill and that O’Faoláin, though doing well in presenting O’Neill as a flesh and blood character, showed a distinct lack of thoroughness where historical sources were concerned. Or as Hiram Morgan has put it:

"O’Faoláin was widely read in Irish history but he had little theoretical knowledge of historiography or critical grasp of historiographical problems."

Morgan’s excellent monograph on O’ Faolain can be read here:

In other words the “deeply political” Brian Friel based his own set of biases about Hugh O’Neill on a previous set of biases on the part of an author who set out to debunk nationalist myths but in so doing created his own myths – just one example is the legend that Hugh O’Neill was actually reared in England. In reality, the young O’Neill was a ward of Sir Henry Hovenden who lived not in England but in the English Pale in Ireland. But quite apart from these historical mistakes, Hiram Morgan (though he may not see it like this) puts his finger on a crucial aspect of authorship that pertained not only with O’Faoláin and Brian Friel but became even more pronounced amongst Irish authors as the 20th Century wore on – and that is the idea of Irish people being essentially flawed:

“This brings me to the other idea which O’Faoláin continually harps on - the Irish mind. This Irish mind is inward-looking, unreflective, intellectually impoverished, proud, vainglorious, wasteful, passionate, destructive. This is a racial concept - the characteristics are considered innate. Not only that, it was also a racist construct which came in classical, renaissance, reformation and enlightenment versions. O’Faoláin had picked up the most recent version - the Victorian one and its idea of the Celtic failure to develop either individualism or statehood. And the traditional Irish society doomed in the face of waves of modernisation - humanism, rationalism, modernism etc.”

Now if we follow this thread of allegedly atavistic and brutal Irish propensities we can actually see a clear link stretching from the cynical and world weary eye of Seán Ó Faoláin, through the dysfunctional characters who inhabit many of Friel’s plays to the opposition Tóibín poses between Irish Roman Catholic families and social orthodoxy on the one hand, and individuals seeking to break free of the Irish “straightjacket”.

In much of Tóibin’s work, Irish society and its families are blood twisted, obsessed with the past, dysfunctional, lack plurality and are bereft of sophistication – the individual, the Protestant women, the gay man, the artist, must break free from this so as to achieve liberation. But I would argue that the crisis for modern Irish writers is not only that they recognise, for example, that Irish Catholics in the North were oppressed and had a just cause but also that the struggle for justice and independence was never as priest ridden and feral as they continually argued. In short, we have our own innate sophistications - for example in knowing the difference between a fascist bishop and a revolutionary priest.

Take Tobin’s book on the Catalan struggle for independence and linguistic freedom - Homage to Barcelona. In this book, Toibin makes no secret of his sympathies for the left wing revolutionaries who fought Franco’s Catholic fascists and he writes proudly of the veterans of the International Brigade who attend a commemoration in Barcelona – “with fire in their eyes”. Yet you will find no description in this book, written by a “bush child” from Wexford, of the Irish Republicans (some of them devout Catholics or even Protestants and some of them atheists who hated the Church) who fought so bravely for the idea of a citizens republic and who also fought at home for the same ideal. Once again Tóibín goes silent.

Toibin and Foster still fighting a battle they have already lost

In concluding this essay, I must admit that I feel a measure of sympathy for Colm Tóibín. In his well known 1993 essay “New Ways of Killing Your Father”, that stands as an ovation to that doyen of revisionism Roy Foster, he expresses the wish that he could have marched with his own people of Wexford in Easter commemorations but says:

“I wandered around Seville that Easter wishing things were simpler, wishing that I was not in two minds about everything.”

There we have it. It is not the Irish people that are in two minds but our Intelligentsia who have continued to fight a battle they have already lost. What horror for the literary champions of our national and familial dysfunctions it must have been to see the head of England’s armed forces shake the hand of the former commander of Ireland’s guerilla army. And what irony that our intellectual class has been shown up for the neurotic post colonials they are by England’s ruling class – the very class to which they look for models of sophistication and ultimate approval. For, at the very least, the British have now acknowledged that the basic motivations that underpin the Irish republican cause were justified and honourable. The feral Fenians were right all along it seems!

But there is something worse – our “anti nationalist” intelligentsia has always seen itself as being radical (witness Tóibín’s passion for Catalan revolutionaries) but in their hearts they have always known that in Ireland they sided with the Imperial power. They were, as historian Brendan O’Leary put it, people who imagine themselves to be radical, but “swim with the present tide of imperial historiography”

Trapped in Silence – yes, I believe so.

My fervent wish would be that our foremost writers like Tóibín and John Banville, who claim to be revisionists, now subject themselves to the very practice they have finger waggingly proposed for all other artists and writers. For true and authentic revisionism knows no boundaries - not even in Dublin 4.

@Paul Larkin
Carraic, Gaoth Dobhair
Mí Lúnasa 2012

1 comment:

Píosa suimiúil
by: Lillis (contact) - 07 Feb '13 - 10:52


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Title: Colm Tóibín ’s Imperial Gloss on the Irish Famine
Date posted: 17 Aug '12 - 16:55
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