Irish Voices: A Reading and Conversation with Colm Toibin
On February 28 the Center for the Study of Europe hosted Irish writer Colm Toibin as part of a semester-long “Irish Voices” series in celebration of Ireland’s EU presidency. The “Irish Voices” series, which will include a visit by Ireland’s Ambassador to the United States and readings by poets Ciarán Carson and Paul Muldoon, is taking place as part of a larger “European Voices” series, funded by a grant to the Center for the Study of Europe from the European Commission Delegation in Washington DC. Colm Toibin’s visit was co-sponsored by the Center for the Humanities, the Department of Creative Writing, the literary journal AGNI, and the new Institute for the Study of Irish Culture at Boston University. Meg Tyler, Associate Professor of Humanities and Director of the new Institute, and Michael Lonergan, Consul General of Ireland in Boston, offered welcoming remarks, after which Joe Rezek, Assistant Professor of English, introduced his friend Colm Toibin and moderator Christopher Ricks.
Toibin read from his 2012 novel The Testament of Mary, a fictionalized account of the life of Jesus told from the perspective of an aging Mary, still grieving and angry over the inexplicable path taken by her son, still haunted by his death, and unable, like the disciples holding her prisoner, to find meaning in it. Between passages, Toibin talked about some of the influences on the work, from the temples of Diana in Ephesus to Tintoretto’s Crucifixion in Venice, as well as some of the challenges in adapting the work for the stage. As for the book’s reception in Ireland, he said he was aware of hitting Ireland while she was down, but curious at the same time at how an artist could intervene in such a situation.
Christopher Ricks expressed admiration for Toibin’s prose as well as his ability to evoke a world readers can appreciate without believing in and then asked whether Toibin feared for his work in “the vicinity of the predatory genius of Fiona Shaw,” prompting a discussion of “self-suppression,” a subject not unfamiliar to the Catholic Toibin, who evoked Eliot’s Gwendolyn Harleth by way of example.
In response to a query about “English” or “Roman” oppression, as evinced by Joyce, Toibin said that growing up he felt neither English nor Roman tyranny. On the contrary, England always represented to him liberty, and it is to the church (namely, Pugin’s cathedral in Enniscorthy) that he owes his connection to beauty. If there was a general sense of oppression in Ireland, it wasn’t, Toibin said, caused by the Church, much less England, but by the Irish people, and perhaps the Irish political parties.
For the full conversation, watch the video on BUniverse.