Colm Tóibín was in Berkeley over the weekend as part of the Bay Area Book Festival. I missed the Saturday panel but was there for his conversation with his friend, U.C. chancellor Nicolas Dirks, on Sunday morning. The subject, loosely, was censorship and the state’s role in suppressing writers’ voices (Freedom to Write, Perchance to Dream). Tóibín has a big following in the Bay Area; many of us in the audience (learned through overhearing chance remarks or in conversations in the bathroom line) had heard him speak before. Even so, the woman giving the introduction, one of the founders of the festival, struggled over Tóibín’s name. Most Irish people say the word film as a two-syllable word, fil-um, so the name Colm becomes Col-um, but for anyone without an Irish accent the name would be one syllable, Colm. Tóibín is pronounced Toe-BEAN. At least as far as I know. It’s a puzzle why the introducer didn’t ask Tóibín how to pronounce his name (she tried Cahlumn, Cohlum, Toybin, Toybean and a couple of other variations in the course of her five-minute introduction) before getting up in front of a few hundred people, but I imagine the Irish are long-suffering about any non-Irish attempt to say anything Irish correctly.
Tóibín’s part of the conversation began with Lady Gregory and her role in establishing the Abbey Theatre in Ireland in 1904, as Irish nationalist fervor was escalating. For Tóibín, Lady Gregory seems an odd hero, just as she was an unlikely hero in the Irish nationalist movement. She, like her partner in the Abbey Theatre, W.B. Yeats, were Anglo-Irish, part of the Irish ascendency whose history in Ireland was one of land-ownership, not tenancy, Protestant not Catholic, ancestorily loyal to the crown.
Her friendship with Yeats began in 1894, two years after her husband (who was 35 years her elder and a staunch loyalist) died. Their friendship and working partnership lasted until her death in 1932, during which time Lady Gregory displayed contradictory attitudes about a nationalist Ireland, both embracing and shunning it. This ambivalent position was not at all atypical of many Anglo-Irish, who were often torn between what they perceived as the inherent unfairness of a system that so brutally exploited its indigenous population while retaining loyalty to their own families and their right to the land they had occupied for generations. Tóibín quoted Lady Gregory as saying, in response to why she was so passionate about the Abbey Theatre: ‘I just want to give dignity to Ireland.’
Tóibín also talked about his gayness, his teaching, Irish censorship of books and particularly film, which went on into the 1970s, and the Irish love of literature and books. He claimed (wrongly) that every town in Ireland has its bookshop, but it is true that every bookshop in Ireland has a prominent section at the front of the store that features books about Ireland or by Irish writers.
Afterwards a very long line formed for his booksigning. I’m not normally given to caring about having a signed edition of a book, but I was upset that I hadn’t thought to bring my copy of Lady Gregory’s Toothbrush, his small biography of the woman whose life and motivations Tóibín continues to explore so deftly.
Wandering through the book festival afterwards, I ran into an old friend of mine. She had just come from Lacuna, an open-air library filled with 50,000 free books. She had three of those books in her hand, odd only because it is her husband’s enterprise, Internet Archive, that furnishes the books. She therefore at any given moment has access to any book she could possibly desire. How charming that she demonstrated her love for her husband and his work in this particular way.
Lacuna is billed as the largest free bookstore in the country. Who can dispute that?