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Tóibín, Colm (b. 1955)  
 
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Acclaimed Irish novelist and journalist Colm Tóibín is the author of a number of nonfiction books and five novels. His writings are infused with keen political insights and shrewd analyses. While same-sex desire is not overtly addressed in his early work, his most recent novels are astutely observed, unsentimental explorations of gay men trying to fit into an unwelcoming, and often openly hostile, world.

The second youngest of five children, Tóibín was born in 1955 in Enniscorthy, County Wexford, in the southeast of Ireland. He studied at the Christian Brothers School in Enniscorthy and then at St. Peter's College, Wexford.

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In 1972 he went to University College, Dublin to study History and English, graduating three years later. The day after he took his final exams, Tóibín left for Barcelona, Spain where he stayed for three years, teaching English and closely following the political developments in Spain after the death of dictator Francisco Franco in November 1975. He marched in demonstrations supporting Catalan autonomy and Spanish democracy.

Tóibín returned to Dublin in 1978 and began work on an M.A. in Modern English and American Literature, which he never completed. During that time he also wrote for several periodicals, including In Dublin, Hibernia, and the Sunday Tribune (Dublin). In 1981 he became Features Editor of In Dublin and, a year later, the Editor of Magill, then Ireland's main current affairs magazine. He left Magill in 1985 to travel, first throughout South America and later in the Sudan and Egypt. A collection of Tóibín's journalism from this period was collected in Trial of the Generals: Selected Journalism, 1980-1990 (1990).

Walking Along the Border, with photographs by Tony O'Shea, was published in 1987, and later reissued as Bad Blood: A Walk Along the Irish Border in 1994. The book is an account of Tóibín's travels between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic and the people he encountered whose lives had been irrevocably altered by the political instability and hardships of the area. He collaborated with O'Shea again in Dubliners (1990). In 1988 Tóibín returned to Spain and wrote Homage to Catalonia (1990; revised and updated, 2002).

Other nonfiction works by Tóibín include The Sign of the Cross: Travels in Catholic Europe (1994); The Irish Famine: A Documentary (1999), coauthored with the historian Diarmaid Ferriter; and Lady Gregory's Toothbrush (2002), a biographical essay on the Irish nationalist and playwright.

Tóibín's first novel, The South (1990), was finished in 1986 but not published until four years later, having been turned down repeatedly by publishers before being accepted by Serpent's Tail. Set in Spain and rural Ireland in the 1950s, the story focuses on an Irish woman who leaves her husband and begins a relationship with a Spanish painter. The novel was shortlisted for the 1990 Whitbread First Novel Award and won the 1991 Irish Times/Aer Lingus Irish Literature Prize for First Novel.

Tóibín's next novel, The Heather Blazing (1992), concerns a judge in the Irish High Court haunted by his past and the history of modern Ireland. The book won the 1992 Encore Prize for the best second novel of the year.

Four years later Tóibín published The Story of the Night (1996), his first novel explicitly to explore same-sex desire. Set in Argentina during the 1980s and narrated by Richard Garay, a young gay man living in Buenos Aires with his embittered British-born mother, the novel explores the anguish and isolation inherent among "outsiders" in an oppressive society.

Alienated and distrustful of others, Richard is secretive about his sexuality and willfully blind to his country's brutal political history. "We saw nothing," he states, "not because there was nothing, but because we had trained ourselves not to see." Struggling against his loneliness, Richard finds furtive pleasure in chance street encounters and anonymous sex at the public baths.

Later, in the aftermath of Argentina's defeat in the Falklands War, Richard prospers professionally as a translator and political consultant. He also meets Pablo, son of a wealthy Argentine entrepreneur, with whom he begins a tentative relationship. When his new lover's American friends come to visit, Richard glimpses the potential of gay life in a less restrictive society.

Like many narratives set in the 1980s, The Story of the Night ends with the imminent ravages of AIDS. Yet, Tóibín's novel, told in a spare, precise prose style, emerges as a meditation on the redemptive powers of love and the ability to find strength in one's own marginality.

The Story of the Night won the Publishing Triangle's Ferro-Grumley Award for Best Gay Male Fiction of 1997 and is included in The Publishing Triangle's list of the 100 Best Lesbian and Gay Novels.

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Colm Tóibín at the Texas Book Festival in Austin, Texas in 2006.
© 2006 Larry D. Moore.

  
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