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Writer Colm Tóibín: ‘I was attacked by four members of the Special Branch. They thought I was a terrorist’

The Laureate for Irish Fiction on finishing his opera, sobriety and surviving lockdown with poetry and love


Colm Tóibín

Colm Tóibín

Colm Tóibín

Born in Enniscorthy, Co Wexford, Colm Tóibín has written novels, plays and short stories, and this year, he published his debut collection of poetry, Vinegar Hill. He is professor of the humanities at Columbia University in Manhattan and lives in LA.

What’s your earliest memory?

I went to school aged four and I remember that I didn’t like it and wanted to go home.

When and where were you happiest?

There is a place in LA called Redondo Beach. The Pacific waves are very high and can knock you over. I am happiest standing at the end of the shore, too afraid to venture any further.

What is your biggest fear?

Getting stuck halfway through a book.

What’s your least, and your most, attractive trait?

I get bored easily — that covers most and least attractive quality.

What trait do you deplore most in others?

I deplore people who keep fresh and juicy information to themselves.

What’s the first thing you’d do if you were Taoiseach?

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I would gather the former Taoisigh — Bertie, Enda, Leo, Micheál — and ask them what they would most like to do if they got the chance again.

What’s your biggest insecurity?

Not being good enough.

Who would you most like to go for a pint with?

I have not had a drink for four years.

Which fictional character do you most identify with?

The Man in the Macintosh in Ulysses.

What is your most treasured possession?

My cheap biro.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

Finish everything you start. I gave that advice to myself.

Do you believe in a god?


What’s the last TV show you binge-watched?

The Andy Warhol Diaries

What advice would you give your 18-year-old self?

Why go bald?

If you could have a super power, what would it be?

Sing, tell jokes and play better tennis.

How would you like to be remembered?

What has posterity ever done for me?

What got you through lockdown?

Poetry and love.

What writer from the past or figure from history would you most have liked to have met, and what would you discuss?

James Baldwin. To talk about sex and death.

What was your reaction when you heard you were being invited to become the new Laureate for Irish Fiction?

I felt honoured.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?

“Never marry a Cornish woman!” Hugh MacDiarmid advised me. (The wife of Scottish poet MacDiarmid wanted him to stop drinking. She was from Cornwall.) I never have.

How is your opera coming along?

I wrote the libretto for an opera of my novel The Master with the Italian composer Alberto Caruso. It involved years of work. Now, it is finished, and will be performed at the Wexford Opera Festival in October.

Who would play you in a film of your life?

Jack Nicholson maybe, or Sean Penn. But, more recently, I have come to favour Josh O’Connor. I would enjoy looking down from heaven at them all. And, even if I had to view them from the perspective of hell, the thought of them would cheer me up for all eternity and mitigate somewhat the pain of the fire.

What’s the worst job you’ve ever done?

I worked in the motor taxation office of Wexford County Council in the time before computers. Each car had a file of its own. My job was to go through the files to make sure they were in order.

What’s been your closest brush with the law?

In May 1975, on the canal between Baggot Street and Leeson Street, I was attacked by four members of the Special Branch. One minute, I was walking along minding my own business, the next, I was on the ground with these four burly fellows on top of me. They thought I was a terrorist. What I thought of them cannot be repeated. But I have a poem about them in my new book.

‘Standing on the Shoulders of Giants: Colm Tóibín and Padraig Regan’ takes place as part of International Literature Festival Dublin presented in partnership with The Bealtaine Festival, on May 25. Booking via ilfdublin.com

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