The shock of the new

Colm Toibin casts a cool eye on new ways of being Irish - cosmopolitan, consumerist, even gay.
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I first met Colm Toibin when he was singing a ferocious song in Catalan. It was "The Glens of Antrim"; we were all drunk. He was with a woman, a night-club owner from Trieste, and radiated foreignness. Today, with the river-light streaming from the Thames over the Aroma Cafe's melanine in the Festival Hall, neither of us is drunk - but he still looks Spanish.

I first met Colm Toibin when he was singing a ferocious song in Catalan. It was "The Glens of Antrim"; we were all drunk. He was with a woman, a night-club owner from Trieste, and radiated foreignness. Today, with the river-light streaming from the Thames over the Aroma Cafe's melanine in the Festival Hall, neither of us is drunk - but he still looks Spanish.

I have been re-reading his non- fiction books, such as Bad Blood, for which he walked the Irish frontier at the height of the Troubles. He stayed in villages where every house had lost somebody, talking to British soldiers, to dog-training Orangemen, to balaclava'd IRA members. The cover shows him walking through a dangerously empty countryside. Wherever he is - Spain, Antrim, London's concrete cultural heart - he is at home with that risky observation of other people which being foreign brings.

Colm Toibin comes from Enniscorthy, a small town outside Wexford. His father, a schoolteacher, wrote local history (the 1798 Rising took place in the town), founded the museum there, and died when Colm was 12. That loss, as well as a profound sense that history explains the present but should never be allowed to boss it around, informs his work. Reading became a way of making up for it. "Sartre, Camus, Hemingway - all three had an enormous effect on me. So did Bergman films. The impact of stumbling into Cries and Whispers as a young student was devastating. Bergman is in everything I do." He finished his degree at University College, Dublin ("Joyce's university," he says in that airy Irish way which reminds English writers how Joyce and Beckett are theirs) and got out.

"Henry James's father took his family to Europe: he didn't feel they'd get a sensuous education in America. If I'd only known there was such a thing, I'd have got out as a baby - away from clouds, Catholicism, caution." He taught English in Barcelona. "I learned two languages badly, Spanish and Catalan, read, got drunk every night I could. It was great - drugs, sex and rock'n'roll, only I was no good at drugs and didn't like rock'n'roll. After three years I came home, educated."

Franco died while he was in Spain. He watched the transition to democracy - "I was on every demonstration" - and returned to join a legendary generation of Irish journalists. "We wanted to be Joan Didion, Tom Wolfe. I learnt to be a novelist through journalism. Journalism got the poison out of me, over the issues that bother me - the IRA, intellectual nationalism, the Church, conservative, soft-spoken government. I didn't need to put the anger into novels."

His settings swing from Ireland to a Spanishy elsewhere. His first novel was Spain (The South), the second Wexford (The Heather Blazing), the third Argentina (The Story of the Night). His new novel The Black- water Lightship (Picador, £15) returns to Wexford, but always with that alien perspective. He writes in alien places, too. "I wrote The South in Lisbon. There was terrible noise from a rock festival. I'd paid for the room, so I asked for a card table, and wrote in the toilet."

And what is an Irish novel? "One of the greatest Irish writers was Henry James. He was appalled by Ireland but his grandfather came from Cavan. They were displaced Protestants - the most Irish Irish you could have." Hmm. Apart from James, Toibin is on his own. Though set in Argentina, The Story of the Night was the first male gay Irish novel; and The Blackwater Lightship the first set in Ireland. Toibin brushes that aside. "The foreground is love and loss. Contemporary Ireland, people being given freedom they did not have before - not only to be gay - that's the background."

Hang on. His dad analysed the impact of railways on 19th-century Irish provincial life; he trained his own exacting historical consciousness to New Journalistic standards. Isn't the society experiencing love and loss his target too? He's writing Irishness as deep as Roddy Doyle, but a different kind - the newly affluent middle- class of mobile phones and motorways. His work is photo-sensitive to - and can be very funny about - the social-cum-emotional significance of objects. Here he's dramatising love and loss through two lots of people - middle Ireland, the gay community - who have shape-changed radically in 30 years. Isn't he exploring the impact of change on them through love and loss, as much as love and loss through them?

"It's probably true. If there is a political foreground, it's the clash between traditional beliefs and an open economy. New electrical gadgets, new ways of being in a house - changes I saw as a child which have accelerated in the last 10 years. Belief in two knocks at the door when someone is dying - people at home believe that today - alongside mobile phones. In a very closed society, we've moved in 20 years from knocks on the door to home computers. Yes. I'm interested in the effect that has on people".

How come his Ireland is so different from Doyle's? "Everyone writing in Ireland re-invents the place. In my generation, Dermot Bolger and Roddy Doyle meant that homes never before considered part of the national culture became national culture overnight. In 1973, Ireland joined the EEC, John Banville's Birchwood came out, and Irish consciousness stopped wanting to be Catholic Nationalist... and wanted to be urbanely European." Alongside Doyle's adventurers, Toibin choreographs middle-class Irish privacies. As he wrote about the poet Paul Durcan, "What happens inside the family in Ireland remains so secretive, so painfully locked within each person, that any writer who deals with the dynamics of family life stands apart."

In conversation, Toibin is mischievous as a mongoose, but his prose is famous for its pared sentences. The humour is quick, understated, in the dialogue. He once wrote poems and has just done a radio programme about contemporary poetry. "From poetry, especially Elizabeth Bishop, I found the more you leave out the more powerful it is."

He knows literary London inside out but still finds Englishness hilariously mysterious. (Or says he does.) He's off to a party. "Should I stay as I am?" he asks. "Or put on a white shirt? Maybe the white shirt?" He is, after all, the Henry James of Enniscorthy, though more economical with adjectives. Instead of America-meets-Europe, you get the meeting of 19th- and 20th-century Ireland.

Both novelists address human communication and its failure. In Toibin's new novel, a lighthouse stands guard over mutual self-discoveries in minds cloistered together by love for a young man dying of Aids. It is Toibin's big theme: how divided people - straight and gay, hurt daughter and careerist mum - try and often fail to understand each other, fitfully illumined by stares across the dark, estranging, loss-filled sea between them. Of course he should wear his white shirt.

Colm Toibin, a biography

Colm Toibin was born in 1955, the son of a teacher, and grew up in Enniscorthy, Co. Wexford. He attended University College, Dublin, and then moved the Barcelona to teach English and to write. His non-fiction book Homage to Barcelona (1988) explored the city's history and culture and his first novel The South (1990) combined Irish and Spanish themes. It was followed by The Heather Blazing, set in Ireland, and The Story of the Night. He has written much political and cultural journalism for the Irish and British press, and has published two other travelogues: Bad Blood, about the Irish border country, and The Sign of the Cross: travels in Catholic Europe. His new novel is The Blackwater Lightship (Picador). Colm Toibin lives in Dublin.