Writer Colm Tóibín is the recipient of this year’s UCD Foundation Day Medal. He tells Bridget Hourican about his time at Belfield and why Arts should be the backbone of every university
“For my first two years at UCD I shared a house with five other people on Woodbine Avenue, directly behind Montrose, and I tended not to come back from campus until late at night. I was on the campus every night, five nights a week, until 10pm. I went to everything – lectures, plays – and also I found that if you stayed in the library until you were put out of it, then in the last two hours, it thinned out and you knew the library as a real quiet space.”
Colm Tóibín – who is being awarded UCD’s prestigious Foundation Day Medal at a ceremony in New York in February 2017 – is reminiscing about his time as a Belfield undergraduate in the early 1970s. We’re speaking by Skype, since he’s in LA. On camera, he looks relaxed and t – he has just come in from a game of tennis and it’s morning there and the light behind him already has a bright white heat. He insists drolly in that distinctive voice – old-school RTÉ with a New England drawl on the vowels – that he is “not as cheerful as everyone else out here” but he can’t contain the cheerfulness of an author who has just delivered his latest novel – his ninth – to his publishers, and is seeing his screenplay – his first – go into post-production.
He is only the second writer – after Maeve Binchy in 2006 – to receive the Foundation Day Medal, awarded to an outstanding UCD graduate annually. He is a very high-pro le awardee – the recent Oscar-winning lm adaptation of his novel, Brooklyn, brought him an international audience beyond that already snared by his IMPAC and Costa wins – and he’s delighted with the honour, since he has nothing but great memories of UCD.
He arrived, aged 17, to study history and English in 1972, among the first cohorts of students in Belfield, after the move from Earlsfort Terrace. The campus then was just getting started – no Sports Centre, no O’Reilly Hall, no Student Centre, no walking trails, no second lake, only a smattering of faculty buildings. Did he not find it very bare and wind-swept?
“I never had a problem – from day one, I worked out where things were, and I loved it.” The quality of the lecturers and the students was, he says, exceptional: “In the English Department, Denis Donoghue was the professor – his work was appearing regularly in all the major international journals, as was Seamus Deane’s and Jim Mays’s, who was 24 editor of The Collected Works of Coleridge. These were figures on the world stage.”
They inspired the students: “We were serious about writing – I remember people like Aidan Mathews and Gerard Fanning and Ronan Sheehan, who had already published stories in New Irish Writing, which was a big deal at the time. I was sad because I was writing poems, but I couldn’t get it right, I didn’t know about prose yet, I was sort of floundering, but I was reading in a very serious way.”
In second year, he became auditor of the English Lit Soc. “We’d invite a writer to come once a week to give a talk or a reading. I remember when Hugh MacDiarmid came from Scotland. He was the big Scottish poet at the time, and it was very exciting. Garech Browne, from Claddagh Records, collected me in a Daimler, and he was with someone called Lady Somebody, and we met Hugh MacDiarmid o the train and brought him back to Belfield. And everybody came, not just students – Séamus Heaney came, Sean O’Casey’s widow came…”
As Arts students, he says, they felt at the centre of things. “At that time in UCD there was a feeling that it was the Arts degree that mattered most, and the Arts faculty that mattered most. When the number 10 bus came up into the Belfield Campus, it hit the Arts faculty first. In the History Department under Ronan Fanning, we were studying the early years of the Irish State. So many history and politics students went on to prominence in public life – people like Adrian Hardiman and John McMenamin in the Supreme Court, and Michael McDowell at the Bar and Seanad and Anne Barrington, who is now the Irish ambassador in Japan.”
The importance of the Arts faculty is a point that he returns to more than once during our conversation. He is currently Irene and Sidney B Silverman Professor of the Humanities at Columbia University in New York, where he teaches literature courses. Previously he has taught literature and creative writing at the universities of Princeton, Stanford, and Manchester, among others, and he is adamant that “If a university isn’t making its Arts degree into the great degree, it also falls down in other areas.
“I noticed in Princeton and Columbia that there is a huge amount of energy put into the humanities, from the level of President down. In both, I got the sense of how vital the English department was to the university. If you don’t pay attention to the humanities, something gets lost in the university’s sense of itself and that affects everyone and all faculties. Excellence needs to be felt in every area.”
It’s an issue that he feels goes beyond universities – a country can also lose its sense of itself through neglect of arts and culture. He regrets in Ireland the current siphoning of arts into the portfolio for Regional and Rural A airs, and speaks eloquently of the need for “a full minister for the Arts” giving total focus to great projects round the country.
He points out that as Minister for the Arts, Michael D Higgins, “changed not only the arts but his own position in the country. When it comes to building a national pro le, the Arts can be as significant a portfolio for a minister as Foreign A airs or Finance. It’s obvious what the Government could do for the Arts, but, equally, we could do as much for the Government in their relationship to the country.”
This is vintage Tóibín – witty, engaged, provocative – a corroboration himself of what he says about the centrality of an arts degree. He agrees that his willingness to engage in political commentary and analysis is unusual among creative writers, and puts it down to “my background in journalism and having a history degree”. His commentary is always brilliantly judged – he says little on most issues, but is decisive when it counts. Last year, he spoke in support of marriage equality, and this year has called for a more imaginative and humane response to the migrant crisis. Three days after Brexit, he published an article in The Irish Times on the need for EU institutions to be more open – this, like most of his interventions, was picked up by the international press.
Famously, during the lead-up to the marriage equality referendum, he said he wanted the right to come back to Wexford to marry his partner. It was the kind of positive, proactive remark that helped win for the Yes side. Put that way – framed in the spirit of love and community and home-coming – who could refuse him? So, have they planned the wedding? He laughs: “I said I wanted the right to …” For years Tóibín wouldn’t discuss his private life or his sexuality. In 1993, he refused a commission from The London Review of Books to write about being gay, saying that he had “nothing polemical and personal, or even long and serious, to say on the subject”. In 2009, he told journalist Nadine O’Regan: “It’s bad enough being bald. It’s bad enough being Irish. The labels don’t matter. When you’re working, you’re working to get things out.” He relented – to a point – to help secure the Yes vote, but he has never treated fiction or interviews as the confession box; his private life remains private.
It also remains peripatetic. On graduating from UCD in 1975 he went straight to Barcelona, not because there was no work in Ireland – “actually there was a huge expansion going on in the civil service, especially for honours graduates to go in at senior level” – but in search of adventure, in homage to Hemingway, and because “a German guy I met said you can always get a job in Spain”.
After three liberating years he returned to Ireland because there were no career prospects in Barcelona beyond teaching English. He started a masters degree and sat the civil service exam, but it was in journalism that he first made his name and career; he was editor of the current a airs magazine, Magill in its heyday in the early 1980s. Dublin was home through the 1980s and 1990s but he kept on the move. On the fall of the Berlin Wall, he set out to explore the unknown east with a specific theme in mind: “I realised that one thing in common between east and west was Catholicism.” This resulted in his third non-fiction book, The Sign of the Cross, Travels in Catholic Europe.
Currently, his year is shaped by the academic term and teaching in Columbia University, where he gives an Irish literature course: “I choose the books – everything from The Táin through Jonathan Swift through Maria Edgeworth. Next year, we’ll do the 20th century and lots of poetry. I’m building up to doing a Ulysses seminar – we have a 14-week semester, so if we do a chapter a week …”
Outside semester, he returns often to Dublin and Wexford – “I’m back and forth all the time” – and also to Spain, Italy, and Poland. I knew about his connection to Spain, where he has a house in the Catalan Pyrenees, but Poland is a surprise. “I try to go every year,” he says enthusiastically, “it’s the writing thing, there’s an extraordinary relationship between poetry and the nation, an openness to reading … they have this really good short story festival.” He waves aside my concerns about the current rightwing, nationalistic Polish government: “There’s a great counter-culture; writers and readers always tend to be outside the government.”
So in any one year, he’ll be in New York, Los Angeles, Dublin, Wexford, Spain, Poland and Italy, not to mention festivals he’s appearing at in various other countries. “Writers,” he explains, “don’t retire”. His wanderings are reflected in his novels which are set in Barcelona, Wexford, Argentina, Sussex, Brooklyn. In his most recent novels, he moves not only geographically, but through time: Testament of Mary is set in Biblical times and his latest, House of Names, to be published next year, is set in ancient Greece: “It’s a version of the Oresteia [a trio of Greek tragedies by Aeschylus] – Clytemnestra, Electra and Orestes in the aftermath of the Trojan war.”
He doesn’t see much difference between writing contemporary novels and historical novels: “The main interest is trying to finish the bloody thing … but, yeah, there is a difference in writing dialogue: you’re limited with the historical novel – you can’t use an Americanism or anything the reader would associate with modernity.”
As well as spending the last few years reimagining ancient Greece, he has been working on a screenplay, his first, with the German director, Volker Schlöndor , who directed The Tin Drum: “He approached me for ideas, and then we worked on it together, meeting every few months.”
The process was, he says, completely different to writing a novel: “With a novel I’m very deliberate; I know exactly what I’m doing, and I don’t change the structure. With a screenplay, things that you’ve worked on for months get thrown away, and you’re constantly adding and deleting.” The lm, Remember Montauk, is set in contemporary New York and stars Stellan Skarsgard; it will be released next year. Colm has “a tiny, little role in it”, as he did in Brooklyn, where he was the “man in front of Saoirse Ronan in the Ellis Island queue”. These are not even Quentin Tarantino cameos; more like Hitchcock crossing elliptically in front of the camera.
At 61, he is certainly proof that writers don’t slow down or settle in one place, geographically or imaginatively, or indeed settle on one medium. His impressive output is achieved through discipline and austere working conditions – his first drafts are hand written (initially on the right side of the page, with re-writes on the left), sitting in a hard, uncomfortable chair. In his Wexford and Catalan hideouts, he doesn’t watch television or have internet. He must take in the news through osmosis so, because his political instincts remain razor- sharp. He closes our conversation with a final brilliant point on the Brexit referendum: “If I’d been advising the Remain side, I’d have said to bring over [Irish marriage referendum campaigners] Brian Sheehan and Gráinne Healy and Noel Whelan. Britain doesn’t have our experience in running referendum campaigns, because they haven’t had to. So they don’t understand how to win. The Remain side kept threatening and scare-mongering. It was exactly the wrong thing to do. Brian, Gráinne and Noel would have focused on inspiration and achievements – they’ve have talked about the reason why people get so many holidays and get paternity leave and on and on, all the good stuff about being in Europe.”
They would have swung it, I’m sure. Damn, why wasn’t he advising, why didn’t he get that message through? “Oh – small, passing matters,” he says, the writer again, dismissing this tide in the affairs of men. It is oddly comforting.
The Newman Project at UCD will make visible the centrality of the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences not only to the life of the University, but equally importantly, to the wider society and nation. The project is proposed at a time when the value of the humanities and human sciences has come to new prominence internationally. UCD is positioned to act as a national and international leader in articulating and demonstrating the vital role of the AHSS educationally, culturally, socially, politically and economically. To learn more about the AHSS project, please see www.ucdfoundation.ie.
Original article published in UCD Connections Alumni Magazine 2016.
For more on UCD English & Literary Society visit societies.ucd.ie/englishliterary.