Colm Toibin interview (Sunday Business Post)

I published this interview with Colm Toibin in April in The Sunday Business Post. Here’s hoping that by this time tomorrow, Toibin gets his wish — the right to marry his partner in Ireland.

Colm Tóibín on same sex marriage: ‘The idea that I’m being excluded is hurtful to me’
03:55, 19 April 2015 by Nadine O’Regan

Colm Tóibín feels wounded, personally attacked and damaged.
The reason for his feelings is simple. Over the past few months, as the debate over the impending gay marriage referendum has gathered momentum, Tóibín has watched with increasing agitation as commentators have argued against granting him the right to marry his partner in his home country.
“When there’s somebody telling me that I can’t share my love with my partner publicly, I call that discrimination,” the renowned Irish novelist told The Sunday Business Post. “It’s very hurtful.”
In a phone call from New York, where he is teaching at Columbia University, the thrice Booker-nominated author of bestselling novels including Brooklyn, The Blackwater Lightship and Nora Webster, spoke eloquently and with palpable emotion about how Ireland’s response to gay marriage – and by extension to him as a gay man – has affected him.
“This isn’t like other debates,” Tóibín said. “In a debate about the economy or foreign policy, everybody could have a different view and you could argue your point. The problem is, if you’re gay, it’s fundamental to you.
“If someone thinks that I should not have the right to love, it’s very difficult to handle and it’s very difficult to be rational in response.
“I see people such as David Quinn and Breda O’Brien as a fundamental part of our democracy. They’re people who make arguments and if they didn’t Ireland would be the poorer. Having people represent another side of an argument is important.
“But in this case it’s very difficult because it’s so fundamental. I don’t think that in the large cases of discrimination that we know about – for example Catholics in Northern Ireland – that if someone told them that their right to love, and their right for it to be recognised in public, would be added to the other indignities they would be suffering under – well, it’s an extreme thing to do.”
Same-sex civil unions have been recognised in Ireland since 2011, but Tóibín does not believe they should be considered an appropriate compromise or substitution for the institution of marriage.
“In Ireland, ritual is important to us, especially because families are so close. Weddings matter in Ireland and being excluded from them is really sad. If you’re at your brother’s wedding and you realise, ‘I can’t have one of those’, it makes you feel that [people consider that] you’re not really in love with your boyfriend. You can have civil partnership but we [straight people] can have the whole thing.”
Tóibín was particularly distressed recently by an article written by political writer Bruce Arnold, in which Arnold argued against the prospect of gay marriage in Ireland, describing how important his marriage had been to him in his life.
“I’ve known Bruce Arnold a long time and I knew his wife and I have enormous respect for him as a journalist,” Tóibín said. “When I read the piece I was personally hurt by it. I was happy I wouldn’t see him on the street. I would have tried to get by very quickly.
“In the piece he was thinking about his own life, and the way in which his marriage had mattered to him. If I were to argue to him, I would argue about my life. I’ve done my best in Ireland as a writer. People read my books and I have made a contribution to Irish society as a journalist and a writer.
“The idea that I’m being excluded from something that Bruce treasures so much is very hurtful to me. I couldn’t understand why he wouldn’t say that, since he had all this happiness and it came his way and mattered so much, that surely he would want to give other people that rather than exclude them from it.”
Born and raised in Enniscorthy, Tóibín, who is 59, has struggled in the past with his identity as a gay man, rarely speaking publicly on the subject. In 2009, he defended his decision to this reporter not to answer questions about his sexuality.
“It’s bad enough being bald,” he said. “It’s bad enough being Irish. The labels don’t matter. When you’re working, you’re working to get things out.”
In 1993, Tóibín refused a commission to write about his sexuality for the London Review of Books, fobbing them off at the time by saying that he had “nothing polemical and personal, or even long and serious, to say on the subject”.
But the truth was, back then, he found it hard to get the words out. “Everyone knew I was gay,” he said, when asked about coming out as a gay man. “This would go back to me being 18 or 19, but I didn’t write about it. I didn’t feel comfortable writing about it.”
The subject seeped through into his fiction nonetheless. One of his early novels The Blackwater Lightship (1999) dealt directly with sexuality, telling the story of Helen, her mother Lily and grandmother Dora, who have come together to tend to Helen’s brother Declan, who is dying of Aids in an Ireland of the 1990s.
In The Story of the Night (1997), meanwhile, Tóibín’s gay lead character Richard understands that he will feel his relationship is meaningless unless it is recognised by other people.
Tóibín believes it is important for voters around the country to frame the marriage referendum in personal terms, asking themselves how they would feel if it was their son or daughter who was gay or lesbian and wished to get married.
“If you ask people hard abstract questions, using words like ‘institution of marriage’, that’s one thing,” he said. “But if you say your nephew is gay and he’s 16, the first people would feel is a sense of worry – ‘Will he be all right?’
“It becomes pressing and important that this person you know would have a reasonable expectation of a happy life. The less abstract it is, the more sympathetic people are.”
Tóibín accepts there are voters who will refuse to vote yes in the marriage referendum on religious grounds, but pointed out that Irish people live in a secular state. “I have no argument with Catholic teaching or with Muslims or Jewish people,” he said.
“This is not an argument of religion. It’s an argument to do with our state. Our state is a secular state. Mary McAleese is a practising Catholic, but from the moment she became president of Ireland she welcomed gay people and lesbians into her world. She said, ‘Why are we discriminating against people who are totally innocent?’”
Last week, in an important development for the Yes campaign, the former president publicly urged voters towards a Yes vote, asking them to quell any of their fears about the future of children. “People have been saying it’s about children,” McAleese said. “We believe it to be about Ireland’s gay children and their future and the kind of future we want for Ireland.”
Asked to respond to voters’ concerns over issues such as gay adoption, Tóibín said the rights of the child were of paramount importance in society. “The rights of the child have been established in law,” he said. “If anyone is going to adopt a child there has to be enormous attention paid to who these people are. It’s not as though there’s suddenly going to be a free-for-all and that children who are otherwise happy and cared for are going to be put into a situation where their rights aren’t put first.”
Tóibín still dislikes speaking about his sexuality. He agreed to do this interview – and to speak at Trinity College on May 14 ahead of the referendum – because he wants people to understand what it feels like to be in his position. “It’s important,” he said simply.
Life for Tóibín is moving at a busy clip – his novel Brooklyn has been made into a hotly tipped film starring Saoirse Ronan, set to be released later this year, and he has just published a new critical study: Colm Tóibín on Elizabeth Bishop – but he will make sure he is home in Ireland to vote on May 22.
He laughed bashfully when I asked him about his partner, who lives in the States. Will Tóibín marry if he is given the opportunity in Ireland?
“That’s a lovely idea, isn’t it?” Tóibín said. “That’d be lovely. These things are very personal and I think I’d better not make any proposals via The Sunday Business Post. But I’m not ruling anything out. I’d love to say to my partner that we could go back to Ireland and get married in my country.
“I’d love to have that right.”

We Shade to Grey: my Sunday Business Post column, 8th February 2015

Truly, it is the love that dares not speak its name. People might not have been discussing it in their more hipster gatherings or at elegant dinner parties (in fact if the subject comes up, they’ll loudly decry their interest), but all around the country women have been slipping away to block-book tickets to see Fifty Shades of Grey, the film adaptation of EL James’s S&M global erotic romance smash, starring Irish actor Jamie Dornan and Dakota Johnson, which emerges, with deliberately cutesy timing, on Valentine’s weekend.
Speaking to one cinema owner before Christmas, he expressed doubt about how well Fifty Shades of Grey would do in Ireland, unsure if the book’s success would translate into bums on seats. But recent advance bookings have proved that the interest is there: the trailer has become the most viewed in movie history, and women are snapping up tickets at a rate of knots.
But that’s the deal with Fifty Shades of Grey. Everybody loudly condemns it, and then they download it onto their Kindles, sneak away with it on holidays or purloin their friends’ copies of the book. I used to own Fifty Shades of Grey, but it’s long gone, disappeared through a chain of people who “wouldn’t read that rubbish”, but nonetheless asked if they could borrow it. One of the reasons for the novel’s initial ascent into mainstream popularity – leaving aside EL James’s mind-boggling feat of welding S&M to the type of sugary dialogue you’d find in a Sweet Valley High novel – was the fact that it could be bought on a Kindle, so no one could see you reading it. When it became mainstream fodder, Fifty Shades became acceptable to buy in shops, on the grounds that everyone else was buying it. But it still came pre-loaded with a sense of mortification, which continues to linger around the film.
Would you want to be spotted going to Fifty Shades of Grey? Let’s face it, it’s not like telling people you’re off to watch Birdman. I’m going to a reviewers’ screening soon, so I can justify the entire thing on the grounds that it’s for work. While I’m happy to go to the cinema on my own ordinarily, there’s no way I’d venture to Fifty Shades solo. I’m not sure I’d see it with a date either: you’d want to be pretty comfortable with your beloved to sit through those Red Room of Pain bondage scenes. (Advance word has it that a full fifth of the film’s running time is given over to sex scenes.)
But I am curious about it. So I can understand the reports that there have been 80 per cent block advance bookings for the film by women – they want to see the film, but they’re embarrassed, and there’s strength in numbers. “Will we go for a laugh?” they’ll say to each other, and “the laugh” will be justification enough.
Still, even as a guilty pleasure, the movie has to justify their time, and advance details to date don’t look inspiring. It has an odd choice of director: Sam Taylor-Johnson, best known for her work as a visual artist. The previous lead actor backed out of the project, leaving Jamie Dornan to step up. Some scenes have had to be reshot on the grounds that they weren’t “sexy enough”. In the trailers I’ve seen, Johnson looks to be massively overacting, coming over like Kristen Stewart in Twilight times 100 (a terrifying proposition).
Much of the problem stems from a confusion around the book’s success: no one suspected it would become such a hit – and people still aren’t sure exactly why it has been. In recent interviews, Dornan has sounded uncertain about the project, and he’s right to be. There’s a lot riding on this film, his career included.
Could it become the biggest turkey in history? Will it be a smash hit? Either way, expect illegal downloading of the movie to be rife – after all, if you’re going to watch a film in the privacy of your own home, with no one else to see you, Fifty Shades is a perfect choice.

Our so-called lives (my Artistic Licence column, SBP, Feb 1, 2015)

A few weeks ago, yet another new trend started on Facebook. Like last August’s ice-bucket challenge, but without the charity incentive, friends started daring each other to share their first profile pictures on Facebook, the ones they had posted up as far back as 2005, or whenever they first joined Facebook. Much amusement ensued as Facebook users posted up pictures of themselves from a decade or so back – younger versions sporting dodgy haircuts or accompanied by even dodgier ex-boyfriends. Everyone laughed (or LOLed, if you prefer). It was cute.

But looking at all the younger, fresher faces, I couldn’t help but notice that there seemed to be a key difference between the old faces and the new, that had nothing to do with the age gaps involved. Back then, when Facebook first became a thing in Ireland, it felt like we weren’t all so concerned about how we appeared to each other on the site. We weren’t as self-conscious. We weren’t keeping up with the Joneses. We weren’t toting selfie sticks. We weren’t building social media empires. We were just ourselves, in internet format: lumps, bumps, bad fashion and all.

These days, Facebook is an entirely different beast. Around Christmas time, I was having a chat in the pub with a friend I hadn’t seen in ages. “How are you getting on?” he enquired. “Or do I even need to ask – every time I see a picture of you on Facebook or Twitter, you’re doing so great.” I was a little taken aback. Actually, 2014 had been a tough year. But would I have admitted that on Facebook? Would I hell.

Almost without realising it, I had become complicit in a kind of Facebook fraud, selectively editing my life for social media. In fact, when I thought back on it, it struck me that if my year had been better, my Facebook profile would have been less, well, incredibly happy looking. I wouldn’t have felt the need to bother.

Like an awful lot of people these days, my Facebook profile is something of a front. Sure, all the pictures on it are real. But it’s a selective truth, about as representative of my day-to-day life as a glitzy, big-budget MTV video is representative of a musician’s life. I don’t put up pictures of the bad days, the down moments. And here’s the thing – neither does almost anyone else.

If I want to see my friends getting engaged, crossing the line in marathons, getting their degrees, dancing at festivals, I’ll go onto Facebook. But if I’m going to find out about the pain behind their eyes – the truth about how their husband had an affair, or how their mum has been diagnosed with cancer – I’m going to hear it in a pub or a coffee shop, in intimate moments, not on social media. (The few people willing to post messages about life traumas remain exceptions to the rule.)

Facebook itself is a kind of fraud. It promises you friendship with others. But it’s a friendship that prompts you to share a kind of happiness that verges on boasting. It gives you a false impression of people. You might feel close to them through seeing their pictures, but you don’t know them. Not only that, but not only do you not see their problems, you might go completely the other way, and think they’re having the most marvellous time – and that’s bad for you. Study after study has shown that, although Facebook’s popularity is rampant, the network often depresses people. It makes them feel jealous – why did their friends have a party without them? Who’s that girl hanging onto their boyfriend? It makes them feel lonely and unpopular.

But Facebook is here to stay, at least in the short to medium term. That being the case, maybe it’s time for us all to put up some giant disclaimers about the nature of the site. When you use it, call it Fantasy Facebook in your mind – not just in regard to the stuff you’re putting up, but the stuff everyone else is sharing too. Facebook is just the life other people want you to believe they have.

Artistic licence: Are we selfie-absorbed? 16 November 2014 by Nadine O’Regan

The other day, I was having a little trawl around the internet – one of those supposed five-minute jaunts where you blink and it’s been an hour – when I happened upon the Instagram account of an acquaintance of mine, a nice guy who works in publishing. I’ll follow him, I thought.

But then I had a look at some of his pictures and came upon one of his recent shots – a self-taken close-up of his naked torso. To be frank, although he’s a good-looking guy, it was more than I bargained for on a Monday (although I’ll admit to examining the picture closely, the better to confirm my disapproval) and not what I’d expected from him – he’s not a model after all. But if it seemed vain or bizarre of him to put it up there, it had certainly racked up a lot of likes, the currency for popularity on the social media site.

He’s far from the only person at this lark. In the brief time I’ve been active on Instagram, I’ve come across countless selfies – the word for a self-taken picture – of users in the changing rooms of shops, pub toilets and swanky hotel bathrooms, anywhere there’s a large mirror basically. Some post fairly racy pictures, some confine themselves to face selfies.

Confession time: although I’m definitely not into randomly ripping off items of clothing for the dubious benefit of a few hundred Instagram followers, I post face selfies, too – and they’re actually fun: a visual diary of a hairstyle, a holiday, a festival or simply a gloriously vain experiment in finding an Instagram filter that hides all wrinkles and highlights your best side. So, I’m not exactly in a position to play moral guardian about the whole thing. I couldn’t care less what anyone wants to post, egocentric or otherwise.

But you have to admit it’s a strange phenomenon, this trick whereby many of your circle are pointing phones at mirrors in public, and touching up their make-up to take a picture of themselves. The question is whether the new trend for narcissism is an innocuous enough past-time. Presumably, unless you trip over yourself while taking the selfie, it’s unlikely to do you much harm, right? And what’s so wrong with having a nice (if overly flattering) picture of yourself? If celebrities are allowed their photoshopping, then surely we mere mortals can permit ourselves the indulgence of an iPhone camera and a decent filter? That hideous American trend for selfies at funerals aside, a selfie doesn’t seem like the worst of hobbies we could indulge in.

Equally, an Instagram account is also an opportunity. Whether you’re a professional mid-career or a teenager just figuring your life out, Instagram offers a brand-building platform for its users. Forty million pictures are uploaded to Instagram daily, and – as studies have shown – the more provocative the picture, and the smarter the hashtags accompanying it, the more likely it is that the person will get more followers and build their brand. It’s a kind of self-generating fame that will be pointless for some, but may translate into a career for others: budding photographers, models, stylists, television presenters and journalists may all grow fanbases from their obsessions with Instagram and Twitter.

Still, you can’t help but feel a slight prickling of discomfort about the whole thing – a sense that selfie culture may also be selfish culture; that we all might, like Narcissus, wind up dying next to the pool having realised that our reflections can never return our love. Perhaps our spiralling interest in ourselves is already translating into a lack of interest in other people.

A friend of mine was talking about social media recently. “No one reads Twitter anymore,” he pointed out. “They all just post stuff, but they don’t read other people’s tweets.” Imagine that, a world where we endlessly talk and never listen? If everyone is on the stage, after all, who’s left to be in the audience?

Why read at all when you can simply vote?  Article on the Irish Book Awards, published 30 November 2014

The gorgeous dresses, the gleaming smiles, the gushing thank-yous: to all intents and purposes, the Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book Awards, which took place on Wednesday in Dublin, looked like a fine and starry night out, a flashy black-tie evening to celebrate the brightest and best of Irish literary talent.

The event was televised, with celebrity guest presenters and plenty of the appropriate pomp. A roll-call of fine authors took to the stage to accept their respective awards. John Boyne, Mary Costello and Graham Norton were on hand to be garlanded for their literary works, and a fleet of nominees and book-industry kingmakers sat at white linen-clothed tables to hear their happy speeches.

It all seems indisputably A Good Thing. You can’t complain about such a night, surely, in which Irish people celebrate Irish talent? And yet, behind the beaming faces and wine-quaffing, profiterole-chomping camaraderie, there exists a lingering and persistent unease about the Irish Book Awards. It all boils down to a simple question: has anyone actually read the nominated books?

Continue reading

Artistic Licence: Iftas’ final curtain? 18 January 2015 by Nadine O’Regan, The Sunday Business Post

John Michael McDonagh must be permitting himself a wry smile this week. The director of Calvary and The Guard found himself in trouble last year when he slated the patchy quality of Irish films in a heavily publicised interview. The Irish media landscape huffed and puffed. How dare he criticise Irish films? Didn’t he receive funding from the Irish Film Board? Didn’t the man win an Ifta? How could he bite the hand that feeds?

But now another blow has been dealt to Irish film. In the past few days, it has emerged that the Irish Film Board has withdrawn its funding for the Irish Film and Television Academy Awards (Iftas), the annual televised knees-up for the Irish film and small screen industry, where awards are handed out to the relatively tiny number of films that our country produces each year. The ceremony costs around €500,000 to produce, some of which comes from corporate sponsorship. The Irish Film Board’s chief executive, James Hickey, said that the organisation had not “committed to any particular set of arrangements with anybody” regarding the 2015 Ifta ceremony.

“As far as the Irish Film Board are concerned, award ceremonies are very important at promoting films,” Hickey said. “But award ceremonies have to promote things well. If award ceremonies don’t promote film well, it’s not good for the industry from our point of view.”

Anyone who’s been attuned to the state of film promotion in Ireland knows exactly what Hickey was talking about. When the Iftas were televised on RTE last year, they were widely and deservedly described as a shambles, with the mortified state broadcaster forced to scrap a repeat of the show after the backlash. Blighted by technical glitches and non-stop chatter from the audience, many of the actors delivering awards on stage looked visibly embarrassed, leaving co-host Laura Whitmore anxious to put the whole farrago firmly in the rear view mirror. “So what we’ve learned from tonight,” she tweeted afterwards, “Irish people like to drink and chat.”

The problem wasn’t just the poor broadcast, either: it was the difficult-to-reconcile content. No matter how much we scramble to widen the net through which we deem films or actors ‘Irish’ (sometimes it seems like we’ll claim anyone who’s set foot in the country), we don’t have enough quality Irish films to hand out awards to. Here are some of the movies that were nominated in 2014: Earthbound, The Last Days on Mars, The Missing Scarf. Seen them? Thought not. In international terms, we’re not a big deal, even if we kill ourselves trying to pretend otherwise. Michael Fassbender, Colin Farrell and Saoirse Ronan are exhausted from having to ferry themselves over here just to get our star quotient up.

It’s telling that the Irish Film Board’s decision comes in the wake of RTE’s call not to broadcast the ceremony this year, a turn of events that has been branded as “disgraceful” by Ifta chief executive Áine Moriarty. Although Moriarty has announced that she is – at the time of writing – in discussions with the Irish Film Board about a brand new alternative Iftas format with a new broadcasting partner, it’s clear the entire existence of the awards has been thrown into doubt. And so it should be. Half a million euro is a lot of money. It shouldn’t be taken for granted that a patchy, badly-produced awards ceremony is the right way in which to drain the coffers.

What’s most impressive about last week’s events is the refreshing shot of honesty that’s been provided. As any self-help expert would tell you, the first step in fixing any problem is admitting that you have a problem in the first place. On that note, maybe it’s time for Moriarty to do what the blunt-speaking John Michael McDonagh would doubtless advise: admit that a giant mess has been made in her camp and that it’s time not to frantically go on the defensive, but to understand that better is not just expected, but required.

Artistic Licence: Tiring and uninspiring, 25 January 2015, by Nadine O’Regan, The Sunday Business Post

I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I can cope with it anymore. What am I talking about? The increasingly omnipresent inspirational quote.

Don’t get me wrong. I like and admire the pithy words of Oscar Wilde (“Be yourself; everyone else is already taken”). I approve of the thoughts of Mahatma Gandhi (“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others”). I think Stephen King has a lot of pointers to offer on the art of writing (“Amateurs wait for inspiration; the rest of us get up and go to work”). In fact, I’m even keen on what some celebrities have to say – anyone who’s been through the Hollywood grinder must have something to tell us about life, right? But I confess, I’ve reached a tipping point. Is it possible to be exhausted by inspiration? Is it okay to admit that sometimes you don’t want to improve your life, body or soul?

Lately it seems like everywhere I go, somebody is trying to offer me an inspirational quote. Social networking site Instagram is a feast of them, with people offering up pictures emblazoned with pithy lines, designed to engender hope and thoughts of self-improvement. “Just wing it!” advises stylist Angela Scanlon via her Instagram page. “Everything you want is on the other side of fear”.

On Tinder, inspirational quotes are a constant: singletons are frantic, it seems, to sum up their personalities with a line uttered by someone else. Even on Facebook, friends and family are getting in on the act. On the site recently, I was confronted by an article called “24 pieces of life advice from Werner Herzog” (the piece includes the pithy line from the director, “there is nothing wrong with spending a night in jail if it gets you the shot you need”).

From cutely emblazoned coffee cups to a bewilderingly diverse array of greeting cards, inspirational quotes are the new constant, a feature of everyday life.

In small doses, inspirational quotes are a great thing. Who wouldn’t like to be better? But reading and taking to heart too many inspirational quotes does a rather uninspiring thing – it turns you into an inspirational-quote-spouting turnip, less of a person than the scarecrow from the Wizard of Oz.

Consider the case of Conor McGregor, the UFC fighter who has ingested so many inspirational quotes that he’s now like Maya Angelou with better abs. Cut McGregor and the man bleeds the things, many of them dreamed up by himself. “I am cocky in prediction. I am confident in preparation, but I am always humble of victory or defeat,” McGregor has said, adding – in truly humble fashion – that he expects other fighters to use his words as inspiration. (One suspects they might prefer the guy who talked about stinging like a bee.)

IQOS (inspirational quote overdose syndrome) is no fun. It makes you into a composite; a rattlingly anxious collection of quick-fix aspirations bundled into the shape of a person. At base level, the need for these quotations suggests the insecurities being carried around by so many. If you’re always trying to fix yourself, the implicit assumption is that you cannot be happy with who you are. In his novel The Corrections, American author Jonathan Franzen wrote compellingly about this tension in modern society, and his perception that in our rush to improve and self-correct, we might be failing ourselves in a larger sense. (If all of us were perfectly hip, his character Gary notes, “who would perform the thankless work of being comparatively uncool?”).

So here’s a thought: maybe now we’ve hit the end of January, we could ban inspirational quotes for a while and we could simply start from where we are. We could be ourselves, not our idea of what others think we should be. We could . . . oh hang on, do all these sound like inspirational quotes? Well, like Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds”. You’ll just have to excuse me this once.