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‘What is your nation if I may ask?’

Colm Tóibín: Jews in Ireland, 30 September 1999

Jews in 20th-century Ireland: Refugees, Anti-Semitism and the Holocaust 
by Dermot Keogh.
Cork, 336 pp., £45, March 1998, 9781859181492
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... In 1965, when Eamon de Valera was President of Ireland, the Irish Jewish community decided to honour him. They chose a site near Nazareth and planted a forest of ten thousand trees named after him. They also commissioned a book of Celtic symbols. They made effusive speeches in his praise in both Ireland and Israel. Jacob Herzog, the political director in the Prime Minister’s office, whose father had been Chief Rabbi in Ireland, wrote that Eamon de Valera’s leadership, integrity, deep humanity and sense of purpose have for many decades now left their imprint on the international community ...

How to be a wife

Colm Tóibín: The Discretion of Jackie Kennedy, 6 June 2002

Janet & Jackie: The Story of a Mother and Her Daughter, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis 
by Jan Pottker.
St Martin’s, 381 pp., $24.95, October 2001, 0 312 26607 3
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Mrs Kennedy: The Missing History of the Kennedy Years 
by Barbara Leaming.
Weidenfeld, 389 pp., £20, October 2001, 0 297 64333 9
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... On 29 January 1884 Henry James noted a story which he had heard from Gertrude Tennant. It struck him ‘as a dramatic and pretty subject’. Young Lord Stafford, it seemed, was in love with Lady Grosvenor, whom he had known before her marriage, but had now no expectation of being able to marry as her husband was alive and robust. ‘Yielding to family pressure,’ as James put it, ‘he offered his hand to a young, charming, innocent girl, the daughter of Lord Rosslyn ...

At St Peter’s

Colm Tóibín: The Dangers of a Priestly Education, 1 December 2005

The Ferns Report 
by Francis Murphy, Helen Buckley and Laraine Joyce.
Government Publications, 271 pp., €6, October 2005, 0 7557 7299 7
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... Everybody was afraid of Dr Sherwood. My mother was afraid of him at meetings of Pax Romana, the lay Catholic discussion group in Enniscorthy, our town, because he had a way of glaring at women members when they spoke. He didn’t, it seemed, like women speaking. At St Peter’s College, the seminary and boarding-school where I went at the age of 15 in 1970, he was dean of the seminary, but he had once been dean of discipline of the boarding-school, and had a fearsome reputation as a merciless wielder of the strap ...

So much for shame

Colm Tóibín, 10 June 1993

Haughey: His Life and Unlucky Deeds 
by Bruce Arnold.
HarperCollins, 299 pp., £17.50, May 1993, 0 00 255212 4
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... My father was a supporter of the Fianna Fail Party. ‘You could salute Fine Gael people,’ he once told my sister – Fine Gael was the main opposition party – ‘but if you ever actually voted Fine Gael, your right hand would wither off.’ Throughout my childhood I believed that you could recognise a Fine Gael person merely by looking at him or her ...

New Ways of Killing Your Father

Colm Tóibín, 18 November 1993

Paddy and Mr Punch: Connections in Irish and English History 
by R.F. Foster.
Allen Lane, 305 pp., £22.50, October 1993, 0 7139 9095 3
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... In 1969, two years after my father died, my mother, my sisters and I went to Wexford for the launch of a new history of the 1798 Rising, The Year of Liberty by Thomas Pakenham. The Rising was important for us: from our housing estate we could see Vinegar Hill where ‘our side’, the rebels, had made their last stand. From early childhood I knew certain things (I hesitate to say ‘facts’) about the Rising: how the English had muskets whereas we just had pikes, how the English poured boiling tar on the scalps of the Irish and then, when the tar had dried, peeled it off ...

Falling in love with Lucian

Colm Tóibín: Lucian Freud’s Outer Being, 10 October 2019

The Lives of Lucian Freud: Youth, 1922-68 
by William Feaver.
Bloomsbury, 680 pp., £35, September 2019, 978 1 4088 5093 0
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... Lucian Freud’s​ mother, Lucie, brought her three sons from Berlin to London in September 1933 when Lucian was almost 11. She was soon followed by her husband, Ernst, an architect and the youngest son of Sigmund Freud. Over the next five or six years, more members of the family, including Sigmund himself, came to England, where their papers were organised by Marie Bonaparte, who put in a good word with the Duke of Kent ...

Ravishing

Colm Tóibín: Sex Lives of the Castrati, 8 October 2015

The Castrato: Reflections on Natures and Kinds 
by Martha Feldman.
California, 454 pp., £40, March 2015, 978 0 520 27949 0
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Portrait of a Castrato: Politics, Patronage and Music in the Life of Atto Melani 
by Roger Freitas.
Cambridge, 452 pp., £22.99, May 2014, 978 1 107 69610 5
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... Balzac’s​  Sarrasine tells the story of a young woman’s wonder at the strange appearance of an old man at a party in Paris. Balzac has tremendous fun describing the man. First his clothes: he is wearing ‘a white waistcoat embroidered with gold’ and ‘a shirt-frill of English lace, yellow with age, the magnificence of which a queen might have envied ...

Urning

Colm Tóibín: The revolutionary Edward Carpenter, 29 January 2009

Edward Carpenter: A Life of Liberty and Love 
by Sheila Rowbotham.
Verso, 565 pp., £24.99, October 2008, 978 1 84467 295 0
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... On or about December 1910,’ Virginia Woolf noted, ‘human character changed.’ It was hard in or about March 1977 in Barcelona not to feel that human character had changed again, or had changed back, or might change more. Franco was less than 18 months dead, and many of the sights and images in the city were puzzling. One day, as I stood watching a newly formed Communist group march by, I saw in the middle of the marchers a barman whom I had grown to love for his winning smile and general meekness ...

The Wickedest Woman in Paris

Colm Tóibín, 6 September 2007

Red Carpets and Other Banana Skins 
by Rupert Everett.
Abacus, 406 pp., £7.99, July 2007, 978 0 349 12058 4
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... In listing Rupert Everett’s offences against decency, decorum and respect for his betters, it is hard to know where to start. For example, he is filled with pride over the telephone hoaxes which he – out of work and idle more often than not – in the company of a woman called Min Hogg, perpetrated against people who were, one presumes, rich and famous for very good reasons ...

The Stubbornness of Lorenzo Lotto

Colm Tóibín: Lorenzo Lotto, 8 April 2010

... Lorenzo Lotto was born in Venice around 1483. He belonged to the same world, therefore, as Titian and Giorgione. Despite the fact that he was a native of the city, however, which they were not, he never became a fully fledged Venetian as they did. By 1503 his name is recorded in legal documents in Treviso as a painter; he also worked in the towns of Recanati and Jesi ...

Avoid the Orient

Colm Tóibín: The Ghastly Paul Bowles, 4 January 2007

Paul Bowles: A Life 
by Virginia Spencer Carr.
Peter Owen, 431 pp., £19.95, July 2005, 0 7206 1254 3
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... Long before the sin of Orientalism was discovered, Paul Bowles had frequently been guilty of it, in word, in thought and in deed. In his first stories, for example, the natives are shining examples of naked otherness, created partly to refresh our view concerning the mixture of simplicity, guile and sexual beauty available in remote places. The white heroes, on the other hand, are neurotic and complex ...

I was Mary Queen of Scots

Colm Tóibín: Biographical empathy, 21 October 2004

My Heart Is My Own: The Life of Mary Queen of Scots 
by John Guy.
Harper Perennial, 574 pp., £8.99, August 2004, 1 84115 753 8
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Elizabeth and Mary: Cousins, Rivals, Queens 
by Jane Dunn.
Harper Perennial, 592 pp., £8.99, March 2004, 9780006531920
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... Certain doomed spirits from the 16th century continue to haunt us and beguile us. On 21 May 1940 Nancy Mitford wrote to Evelyn Waugh on the subject: I used to masturbate whenever I thought about Lady Jane Grey so of course I thought about her constantly and even executed a fine watercolour of her on the scaffold, which my mother still has, framed, and in which Lady Jane and her ladies-in-waiting all wear watches hanging from enamel bows, as my mother did at the time … I still get quite excited when I think of Lady Jane (less and less often as the years roll on ...

A Priest in the Family

Colm Tóibín: A Story, 6 May 2004

... She watched​ the sky darken, threatening rain. ‘There’s no light at all these days,’ she said. ‘It’s been the darkest winter. I hate the rain or the cold, but I don’t mind it at all when there’s no light.’ Father Greenwood sighed and glanced at the window. ‘Most people hate the winter,’ he said. She could think of nothing more to say and hoped that he might go now ...

In His Pink Negligée

Colm Tóibín: The Ruthless Truman Capote, 21 April 2005

The Complete Stories 
by Truman Capote.
Random House, 400 pp., $24.95, September 2004, 0 679 64310 9
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Too Brief a Treat: The Letters of Truman Capote 
edited by Gerald Clarke.
Random House, 487 pp., $27.95, September 2004, 0 375 50133 9
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... He was world-weary from the beginning. Nowhere was safe. Before he was 25 he declared New York to be a ‘giant snake pit’, Los Angeles to be ‘quel hole’. Naples was ‘crooked’, London ‘a dreary place’. Even Paris, ‘a divine city’, could be ‘colder than a nun’s cunt’. Once he had passed the quarter century he hit on Rome: ‘a beautiful city, really – though inhabited by a quarrelsome and cynical race ...

Mann v. Mann

Colm Tóibín: The Brother Problem, 3 November 2011

House of Exile: War, Love and Literature, from Berlin to Los Angeles 
by Evelyn Juers.
Allen Lane, 400 pp., £25, May 2011, 978 1 84614 461 5
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... The imposing house on Stockton Street in Princeton where Thomas Mann lived between 1938 and 1941 is these days owned by the Catholic Church. The main room is large enough for a congregation to assemble, and now contains pews and an altar. At either end of this room there are two beautiful smaller rooms with walls of glass, one made for summer light and the other designed for the winter ...

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