Colm Tóibín is an Irish writer with an annoying range of work. He writes novels, short stories, plays, travel writing and journalism. He wins awards for it, too. Tóibín has long been on my list of to-be-read authors, if only because of fellow Irish writers William Trevor and Caoilinn Hughes. I’m happy to make Tóibín’s acquaintance by way of this short story collection Mothers and Sons.
When Mothers and Sons was first published in hardback in 2006, Ireland was riding the wave of the Celtic Tiger boom. Optimism and wealth were on the rise. Surely, the dark days of pedophile priests, industrial schools and small-minded small towns would be over soon.
Maybe Tóibín is not an optimist. In the opening story, “The Use of Reason,” a master thief finds himself in a bind. He’s lifted some paintings. The Rembrandt alone is worth millions but how to offload it? This thief is a careful man who doesn’t drink. He’s come up in the school of hard knocks, also known in Ireland as an industrial school, a dumping ground for orphaned, abandoned and neglected children. This thief has learned to internalize silence and fear.
The spectre of the Roman Catholic Church looms large in “A Priest in the Family.” Like so many Irish families, Molly O’Neill has given one son to the church. She herself may not be such a churchgoer but that does not diminish any of her pride in her son, the priest, Frank.
Years ago the old women spent their lives praying, Now, we get our hair done and play bridge and go to Dublin on the free travel, and we say what we like. But I’ve got to be careful what I say in front of Frank, he’s very holy.Colm Tóibín, “A Priest in the Family” in Mothers and Sons (Scribner 2008)
Alas! What Molly doesn’t know, but the rest of town does, is that Frank has been interfering with young boys. Father Greenwood, Molly’s daughters and friends, they all want Molly to leave town so she can be spared the torment of a trial.
Tóibín’s Ireland is a place of country pubs and small towns. It’s impossible to escape each other, let alone your past.
Paddy Duggan, who lived on his own in a tithe cottage which had not been cleaned since his mother died; Annie Parle and her soft sister from near the Bloody Bridge with five gates to open and close before you reached their old farmhouse; the twins Patsy and Mogue Byrne, who ate potatoes and butter for their dinner every day with boiled rice and stewed prune for their sweet.Colm Tóibín, “The Name of the Game”
These are the last of Nancy Sheridan’s customers, the ones who demand their groceries be delivered to their homes. The family grocery store is failing. Nancy’s husband has bequeathed her nothing but debt. She’s at the bank begging for credit but how’s a woman to manage? Nancy falls back on a trick she hasn’t used in years.
She had done it when her mother irritated her, and she had done it when she went to work first, and she had done it also to George, but not since the first year or two of their marriage. She traced the word FUCK on her skirt with her finger, quietly, unobtrusively, but deliberately.
Noel and his musician pals are touring County Clare. They’ve chosen the emptiest of country pubs and the most private houses as their venue, trying to avoid the tourists.
Noel played tin whistle with more skill than flair, better always accompanying a large group than playing alone. His singing voice, however, was special, even though it had nothing of the strength and individuality of his mother’s voice, known to all of them from one recording made in the early seventies.Colm Tóibín, “A Song”
Eileen is the mother’s name. Noel hasn’t seen her in 19 years. Then someone says to him, I suppose you know your mother is here.
Absent mothers, dead mothers, mothers who wander off into a snowstorm. If mothers and sons form the heart of this collection then music is the bass line that thrums it all together. A son uncovers his mother’s musical past.
“You weren’t that bad. I promise. You should hear some of the other stuff Ian’s dad plays, like the Irish Rovers and the Wolfe Tones.”Colm Tóibín, “Famous Blue Raincoat”
Go to any small town in Ireland and sit for a while across from the local church. Watch the parishioners stream from Mass or a wedding or a funeral into the pub. Listen to the fiddle wind up.
You know that I do not believe in God. I do not care much about the mysteries of the universe, unless they come to me in words, or in music maybe, or in a set of colors, and then I entertain them merely for their beauty and only briefly. I do not even believe in Ireland.Colm Tóibín, “One Minus One”
25 April 2021 | Karen Kao