Knowing the value of home ahead of Lismore Immrama Festival of Travel Writing

Colm Tóibín will address the themes of emigration and exile at the upcoming Immrama festival of travel writing, says Marjorie Brennan.

It takes quite the leap of imagination to envisage one of Ireland’s greatest writers pulling pints behind a hotel bar.

But Colm Tóibín’s stint working in a seaside resort was more fruitful than most summer jobs. When the 17-year-old wasn’t on duty in the Grand Hotel in Tramore, he was reading Ernest Hemingway on the beach.

“They only needed you at night so I was free during the day, and you can read anywhere,” he says.

It appears the world of literature was never in any danger of losing Tóibín to the service industry.

“I wasn’t a very good barman. It was a time when the hotel would have an extension; people would order extraordinary quantities of drink and not even finish it, I remember cleaning it up afterwards.”

Hemingway’s work sparked Tóibín’s fascination with Spain, which would later lead him to Barcelona, where he has lived on and off since the 1970s. Any self-respecting Hispanophile will have read Tóibín’s insightful and highly regarded chronicle of the Spanish city, Homage to Barcelona.

However, Tóibín, who is speaking at the Immrama festival of travel writing in Lismore next week, still considers Wexford his home, despite having spent most of his life away from his native town of Enniscorthy.

“I suppose when you get to my age, home is where your CDs are, but really home for me is Wexford,” he says.

The themes of the Immrama festival are emigration and exile, topics which Tóibín is well-qualified to address given how they underpin much of his work, including the phenomenally successful Brooklyn, whose heroine Eilís heads to America from 1950s Ireland. Tóibín says he was taken aback by how much the book resonated with American readers.

“I thought Brooklyn was an Irish book. It was only when I first did a reading from it in America that it became an American book. There is a sort of myth of origin in America where everyone thinks that they descend from someone who came like that, on their own with a suitcase. That is in everyone’s consciousness. It matters to them — who that person was and what it was like for that person.”

The many American fans of Brooklyn can expect something completely different in Tóibín’s latest book, House of Names, which revisits the Oresteia, the trilogy of Greek tragedies by Aeschylus. It is a bloody portrayal of the intimate violence of familial strife and warfare, centred on Clytemnestra and her children Electra and Orestes.

“You can imagine someone has just finished reading Brooklyn and then you have all this murder, blood and Greek people; they think ‘What’s happening, I wanted a book about a nice Irish girl going to Brooklyn’,” says Tóibín.

“But the readers are very nice. I was reading from House of Names last night and nobody came up to me and asked me when I was going to write another Irish book.”

When I mention that one reviewer compared it to a young adult novel, in its treatment of the younger character Orestes and how he deals with the murder of his father and sister, Tóibín sounds completely mystified.

“I suppose with Orestes, it is a coming of age story but everybody loves categories now, like chick-lit and young adult... they like to tell you ‘what you’re really writing is this or that’. God, it’s hard enough to write without that. A young adult novel where he murders his mother? What planet are they on? Do they murder their mothers in young adult novels?”

House of Names is a hugely entertaining read, bringing the often impenetrable terrain of the Greek tragedy to life in an accessible and insightful way.

“It’s quite similar to The Master in that respect, which was written for someone who has never read Henry James,” he says “You can read this without thinking, ‘oh, I don’t know the Greek origin’.”

Tóibín was recently involved in another tale of strife and discord, albeit on a far less dramatic scale, when he spoke out about a controversial Arts Council proposal to make changes to the administration of the cnuas grant, which is given by Aosdána to artist members earning less than a certain amount every year.

“Obviously a failure of imagination took place and it was my job to see if I could rectify that and just say ‘I think you’ve got to come back to the table and think again about the way artists work’.”

I point out that his comments got a lot of attention on social media, and wonder does he engage with it in any way. He asks me what social media is and when I say platforms like Facebook and Twitter, he replies: “I have a Twitter feed thing where if I’m doing anything, I see that, yes, and I use email. I don’t tweet myself because I just couldn’t work it out. I think I’m on Facebook.”

As someone who once pounded the journalism beat as editor of Magill magazine, what does he make of the rise of ‘fake’ news and its impact?

“I think the idea that you could during an election campaign spread news and people would believe it and that it wouldn’t be true, is astonishing. People get their news from the strangest places. Especially with Facebook, where there is no checking of facts and you can put something up there as if it is true."

"Someone is making billions and you think you could use some of that money to have people check your news. For me, the whole idea, especially at the weekend, of just buying a whole lot of newspapers and going through them, you can’t compare it. And also the whole way the headline works, the photographs, the layout of the page; how important all of that is.”

Tóibín was fortunate enough to have John McGahern as one of his mentors; does he see himself in that role for any younger writers now?

“No,” he says vehemently. “It’s great. People like Lisa McInerney, Kevin Barry, Colin Barrett, and Belinda McKeon — you could keep naming them — are in a world of their own and the last thing they need is me. What is amazing is the number of people who are emerging all the time. Somebody is hyped and you might think it isn’t very good, but there is a whole generation of Irish writers where the hype makes sense.”

Of the older generation of Irish writers, Tóibín has great admiration for Dervla Murphy, the legendary writer whose home is in the Immrama host town of Lismore.

“She is such a marvellous person, her autobiography was wonderful. The books she wrote on Israel and Gaza were extraordinary; there is such humanity and decency. She operates from a set of values, which is so important. She has lived an exemplary life and that is what Lismore means to me.”

As we finish up, I wish him an enjoyable trip to Lismore, saying he obviously knows how beautiful a county Waterford is from his time in Tramore.

“It wouldn’t be as beautiful as Wexford,” he laughs. Home really is where his heart is.

The Immrama Festival of Travel Writing takes place from June 14-18 in Lismore, Co Waterford.


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