Colm Tóibín: “I changed my mind about Irish nationalism over summer 1973”

The author reflects on his favourite quote, why he's turned to poetry and the future of the Catholic Church in Ireland
March 3, 2022

What is the first news event you can recall?

The death of Pope John XXIII in June 1963. And the visit of President Kennedy to Wexford in the same month, which I actually witnessed.

If you could spend a day in one city or place at one moment in history, what would that be?

The very first performance of Antigone.

What is your favourite quotation? 

“Thou shalt not kill.”

After decades of novel writing, why turn to poetry? 

After I had spent so much time writing and re-writing The Master, some short poems came. That was in 2004. For the next 15 years or so, I wrote one or two poems a year, until I had maybe 25 that I liked. And then when the pandemic came, I had days on end with no social engagements and no distractions. So I wrote poems and worked on them every day. It seemed natural at the time.

Which of your ancestors are you most proud of?

My mother educated herself and grew to know a good deal about poetry. She also loved painting and classical music. She inherited none of these interests. They all came from herself.

Will we see a united Ireland in the next 10 years? 

No, we won’t. There is no shift in Unionist opinion in the north. And Catholics are aware how fragile the peace would be if a united Ireland became a serious threat. Many Catholics in Northern Ireland would vote against a united Ireland out of fear of the violence that might come in its wake. And also because their pensions and other social welfare benefits are British, as is their healthcare system, which is far superior to that in the Republic.  

What is the future of the Catholic church in Ireland?

The institutional church still owns and runs most of the schools. This is a nightmare for non-Catholic parents who simply don’t have a choice. In Northern Ireland, it is a scandal that the British taxpayer funds an education system that is fully sectarian. In the Republic, the education system is only slightly less scandalous. But the Catholic church as an influential institution in Ireland is finished and it won’t come back. We needed a pope who would reform the church, root and branch. Instead, we got Benedict and now we have Francis.

Are publishers less brave in what they feel they can publish these days?

I think we are seeing more diverse voices being published, and not only that—being published with flair and energy.

What have you changed your mind about?

I changed my mind about Irish nationalism over summer 1973. I began to see it as backward-looking and dangerous. 

What would people be surprised to know about you?

That I am as lazy as sin.

What is the last piece of music, play, novel or film that brought you to tears?

Hamlet, every time. The scene between Brünnhilde and Siegmund in Die Walküre, the death of Ralph Touchett in The Portrait of a Lady.

What do you most regret? 

Not learning more languages when I was young.

“Vinegar Hill,” a new collection of poems by Colm Tóibín, is published by Carcanet