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Tóibín settles in for N.Y. fellowship

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Joseph Hurley

The 1990s were great years for Colm Tóibín. The 45-year-old novelist, essayist and journalist from County Wexford produced four volumes of fiction, a collection of journalistic pieces, and at least two travel books. The fourth novel, "The Blackwater Lightship," shortlisted in England for the coveted Booker Prize, has now been published here.

Tóibín, in New York recently as part of a tour promoting his new book and to set up shop for a fellowship at the New York Public Library, has a realistic, somewhat whimsical attitude toward Ireland and its writers. "The Blackwater Lightship," published in England and Ireland almost a year ago, met with great success, which continues to carry over to the recently published paperback edition.

"The paperback was No. 1," he said. "Everybody loved me for a brief period. They used to hate you and censor you and put you out of the country. Now they sort of embrace you and want you. It’s slightly uncomfortable. There’s a lovely line from ‘A Midsummer Nights’ Dream’ that I like, that goes, ‘Why don’t you hate me like I know you do?’ "

One of the most compelling endeavors Tóibín has ever undertaken was done toward the end of the 1980s. When he was in his early 30s, he walked the border separating Northern Ireland and the Republic, talking with anyone who would give him a bit of time. The result, "Bad Blood: A Walk Along the Irish Border," published in 1987, stands as one of the most revealing and most personal journals ever written on the subject of the Irish conflict.

"When I was very young, still in my twenties, I was the editor of Magill," he said, referring to Ireland’s leading current affairs journal. "I was a heavy-duty current affairs journalist, and when I left there, in 1985, they gave me a sum of money, so I wandered about for a year or so."

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That wandering was the genesis of Tóibín’s book on the border.

"I went to Africa and I went to South America," he said. "When I came back, in 1986, I decided to explore the geographical division between the North and the South. In the early summer, I began to walk along the border. I didn’t really know the North at all, like a lot of people from the South, even though I was a journalist. I was just a pair of eyes, watching, and a pair of ears, listening. I started in Derry, and working my way down and across."

It was the summer after the Anglo-Irish Agreement and, in Tóibín’s view, things were very tense.

"For whatever reason, people were much more afraid of me than I was of them," he said. "A lot of the time, I was a stranger wandering through this quite empty landscape, and I’d often see people looking at me through their windows, wondering, ‘Who is he and why is he coming toward our house?’ "

Tóibín would talk to the local priests, and the local politicians and the local schoolmaster.

"I would go to festivals, including Protestant ones," he said. "I would go wherever crowds would gather. The problem was that a lot of times crowds simply didn’t gather. There was a lot of drinking, and people have accused me of drinking my way along the border, but the truth is, sometimes there wasn’t any other way of doing it, because the pubs were always there, and so were the people. If there’d been a particular story that happened in a town, I’d go there and ask people about it, what they remembered and how it had come about."

While in New York, Tóibín became a fellow of a project of the New York Public Library, now entering its second year in operation.

Officially called the Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library, the program gathers about 15 novelists, poets and historians annually, and keeps them busy for the equivalent to an academic year. Tóibín’s involvement will end next May.

" They have a brilliant repository of Anglo-Irish material," Tóibín said of the NYPL. "They have Lady Gregory’s papers, and John Quinn’s papers, and a lot of unpublished Gregory letters and diaries. So my job, as I see it, is essentially to turn up every day, not to spill coffee on the books and not to put crumbs in between important manuscripts, and to read and write for a year, and, at the end, or at some point, to give a public lecture on what I was doing, which would be on Lady Gregory and her circle. And I figure I’m doing a public interview in the library, as well."

The fellows have lunch together every day, and then repair to their offices, which are equipped with computers and other refinements.

"The lunches are mainly sandwiches and things," Tóibín said, "but the offices are seriously beautiful." He thinks the year will be good for him. "I haven’t had a job for 15 years," he said, "so the idea of getting on the tube every morning with my briefcase, and trying to be on time and stuff like that is actually wonderful. It puts me back into the real world, in addition to which they have a schedule of activities we’re supposed to take part in. It’s all just marvelous."

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