Irish Families and Secular Benevolence: Colm Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary and his Irish Short Fiction

Author: Michael Fontaine (Dalhousie University)

When asked in a 2013 interview how he first became interested in the character and the story of Mary, mother of Jesus Christ and the subject of his short novella, The Testament of Mary, Colm Tóibín declared, “I suppose it starts with Irish Catholicism.”[1] Given the overtly religious subject matter of the work, Tóibín’s answer seems rather obvious.[2] Having given birth to Jesus Christ, on whom Christianity is based, Mary is, after all, one of the most significant figures in Catholicism. Moreover, as John Littleton and Michael Carroll have both noted, the worship of Mary in Catholicism differentiates the religion from Protestantism—an important distinction given the socio-religious context of Ireland.[3] However, what is especially noteworthy in Tóibín’s answer is his qualification of his interest in Catholicism: it is Irish Catholicism that fascinates him. It might initially appear that the Irish dimension of Tóibín’s interest in the Catholic faith is inconsequential with regard to The Testament of Mary. The figure of Mary is, after all, a religious icon the world over, and, even in the novella itself, possesses no distinctly “Irish” characteristics. However, upon closer consideration of Tóibín’s work it becomes apparent that the writer’s interest in both the Catholic Church and, more specifically, in the figure of Mary, is born out of his formative years in a devout household and first-hand experiences as an Irish Catholic.

A number of reviewers of The Testament of Mary remarked that the novella, though thematically similar to his earlier work, was distinctive in Tóibín’s oeuvre. Ron Charles describes the novella as “dramatic and poetic rather than analytical and expansive,” a work devoid of the “studied subtlety” of earlier novels like The Master, and instead concerned with “tearing out rooms and replacing the furniture.”[4] Likewise, John Boland, writing for the Irish Independent, has suggested more broadly that “to say that this is a departure for the Wexford novelist would be an understatement, but it can hardly fail to be a major talking point.”[5] In certain ways, these critics are correct. In addition to the stylistic differences of Testament, the novella diverges from the Irish context with which Tóibín has most often dealt in his fiction, and even differs from works that are set, in part, beyond Ireland’s borders—The South and Brooklyn, for instance—in that it does not depict anything that is identifiably Irish. However, the idea that The Testament of Mary is a complete deviation from Tóibín’s previous work is, I think, inaccurate. Despite Testament’s difference from its predecessors, I want to suggest that it is possible to read the novella, if not as part of the “Irish” category of Tóibín’s corpus as a whole, then, at the very least, as parallel to his “Irish” short fiction because of the ways in which these texts are both rooted in the same ethos and concerned with the same issues: the nature of the bonds among family members, and the universality of these familial relationships.

Tóibín’s exploration of family dynamics in his work has been the subject of much criticism in recent years.[6] Eibhear Walshe, for instance, argues that “the destruction of the Irish family has been a key part of [Tóibín’s] project,” and has often found expression in his “remaking of the imagined role of the mother.”[7] The “silences and occlusions around the maternal relation” are particularly prevalent in Tóibín’s fiction, and, Walshe claims, “bear witness to [his] emptying of the traditional idea of the Irish family.”[8] In his succinct formulation, José Carregal-Romero similarly claims that the family in Tóibín’s work essentially “becomes an intimate but conflictive arena” in which “the certainties of the past [and of the present] are under examination.”[9] Like Walshe and Carregal-Romero, Kathleen Costello-Sullivan has identified the importance of families to Tóibín’s oeuvre. Arguing for a more political reading of his representation of families, she suggests that “Tóibín’s engagement with the construction of the family […] highlights his tendency to portray the damaging effects of political exclusions and normative ideologies for his characters.”[10] This political reading is possible, she claims, because “families in Tóibín’s canon at times double metaphorically for the state,” and frequently serve to collapse “the boundaries between the personal and the national.”

I would add to these critics’ readings of the family in Tóibín’s fiction the idea that Tóibín uses Irish families in his work to epitomize the complicated business of being benevolent and sympathetic in the face of difference. That is, the relationships between Irish family members in Tóibín’s work reveal the author’s ideas of what it means to truly be empathetic, and, more importantly, uncover the difficulties that exist in attempting to be compassionate and understanding in light of personal conflict.[11] As such, I want to propose that The Testament of Mary can be conceived of as a successor to Tóibín’s earlier “Irish” short fiction. After briefly tracing Tóibín’s own personal experiences growing up as a member of an Irish Catholic family and showing how he sees the concept of family as invariably bound up with that of (Catholic) benevolence, I will show that the “familial” framework of “Irish” stories from his aptly titled collections Mothers and Sons (2006), and The Empty Family (2010), is shared by The Testament of Mary. I contend that this recent novella is thematically congruent with these earlier “Irish” works insofar as they are all fundamentally interested in exploring the possibilities offered by the family unit in terms of the human fellowship and goodwill it might provide its members, in place of the more sacred bonds offered by Catholicism.

Born and raised in Enniscorthy, County Wexford, Tóibín is intimately familiar with Catholicism and its pervasiveness in the daily lives of the Irish people of the mid-twentieth century. Even at a young age, Tóibín claims to have recognized the influence of the Catholic Church in Enniscorthy. In his travelogue The Sign of the Cross: Travels in Catholic Europe—a work which Eve Patten describes as “a nostalgic quest for […] a former home, an Enniscorthy childhood reflected back from the fossilized Catholic pockets of Enlightenment Europe”[12]—Tóibín describes his early realization that the Church “was the centre of power.”[13] The size of the Cathedral in his town alone was indicative, he claims, of “the great, rich might of the Catholic Church in nineteenth-century Ireland,” and the power of that institution that had been carried over into twentieth-century Ireland.[14] Despite the ubiquity of Irish Catholicism in his hometown, Tóibín’s conception of his personal religious upbringing is intimately bound up with his family life. In a conversation with Eleanor Wachtel, Tóibín recalls, for instance, having to join his family at his mother’s behest in praying the Rosary every evening, an unsurprising revelation given Patsy McGarry’s note that “in Ireland [the symbolic religious head of the household] has generally been the woman.”[15] “The family would kneel down” Tóibín asserts, “led by my mother” through the “solemn” ritual.[16] For Tóibín today, it seems the significance of this childhood ritual corresponds much more to its familial practice than its religious meaning. He recalls the Rosary being primarily a family affair as opposed to a religious one.[17] Tóibín also claims that it was initially during these prayers that he first really encountered the beauty of language. He suggests that there was something in the “Hail Holy Queen” and the “Memorare”—a prayer not conventionally included in the Rosary, but added to the family’s recitation by Tóibín’s devout mother—that did not exist in regular speech or everyday language. His mother’s prayers, he asserts, “were my first connection to beauty…and to words as sonorous, as having cadence that went beyond […] mere vocabulary.”[18] Both these experiences of family prayer and the aural appeal of the words themselves have had a significant impact on Tóibín’s work.

As he matured, Tóibín continued to recognize the significance of religious devotion in the Irish people’s understanding of family life. In The Sign of the Cross, Tóibín describes the period after his father passed away when “religion was consolation” for him and his family.[19] With his father gone, prayer and devotion had “a way of holding [his] people together,”[20] especially during a time when Tóibín’s mother “was going to need us all.”[21] For the young Tóibín religious life and family life were one and the same, and to demonstrate religious zeal was to accept one’s role in the Irish family. This conflation of religious practice and familial practice reflects the reality that, as Sara Keating explains, “the Church […] saw the home as the site in which [its] Catholic ways could be monitored in the private sphere.”[22] She claims that “by situating the development of religious and ethical responsibility within the home, [the Church] co-opted the institution of the family to [its] own institutional ends, developing an ideological alliance with the home through which the behaviour and development of the individual was continually monitored through the lens of Catholic morality.”[23]

Despite describing himself as a “lapsed Irish Catholic,” Tóibín still claims to have an affinity for the religion today.[24] He claims not to believe, or, more to the point, not to see anything in which belief is possible, but still considers Catholicism—its prayers, its practices, its artistic heritage—to be part of who he is. “Those prayers belong to me,” Tóibín asserts when speaking of the Marian prayers of the Rosary.[25] Irish Catholicism “is in my blood,” he states, and it is, thus, unsurprising that issues relating to Irish Catholic life permeate Tóibín’s work to this day.[26] In his early days as a journalist, for instance, Tóibín reported on Pope John Paul II’s visit to Ireland, and the Irish Catholic zeal on display during this visit seems to have left a strong impression on Tóibín.[27] He claims that the visit and the public reaction to it “was pure drama […] it was like something out of a dream.”[28] Likewise, in 1985, Tóibín edited a volume of articles on the “moving statues” phenomenon, in which he notes how striking it was to see “thousands of people […] going to Marian shrines, [and] later claiming that they saw statues move, or visions, or lights in the sky.”[29] In more recent years, Tóibín has written numerous pieces on the Catholic sexual abuse scandals in Ireland, condemning the guilty parties for their unwillingness to understand the severity of the crimes and emphasizing the damaging legacies of these acts for all the individuals involved.[30] This second issue in particular has been something of a mainstay in Tóibín’s non-fiction writing—especially because it relates to the issue of the family. That is to say, despite the obvious reasons why one would object to such offences, Tóibín seems particularly incensed due to the effects of these acts on the families implicated.[31] The fact that priests and other Catholic authorities “don’t themselves have families” and “don’t know what it’s like to have to protect a child,” Tóibín claims, is the fundamental reason that the Catholic Church “misunderstood the gravity of the child sexual abuse issue” and mishandled the matter when it inevitably came to light.[32]

The religiously charged issue of the sexual abuse scandal has also seeped into Tóibín’s creative writing, especially his short fiction. He has addressed the scandals in several short stories including “A Priest in the Family” and “The Pearl Fishers.” In these texts, Tóibín narrativizes the widespread suffering caused by these crimes and, more importantly, illustrates the enduring trauma suffered not only by the victims, but by their families as well. Overall, Tóibín seems both confused and angry that the institution of Irish Catholicism could ignore the very thing that supports it—the family. It seems that for Tóibín, these infractions demonstrate not only the Church’s failure to grasp the importance of the institution of the family, but their inability to see that the family is, in many ways, the arena of religious life. Having glossed the significance of family life in Tóibín’s personal experience of Irish Catholicism, I want to turn my attention to two stories from Mothers and Sons and The Empty Family—a small, though representative, selection from what is obviously a larger corpus of relevant stories—and show how Tóibín’s representation of Irish families in these stories helps illuminate the family dynamics operating in The Testament of Mary.

In an article for the London Review of Books, Tóibín writes that “the Church now has a strange ghostly presence in Irish society.”[33] Despite both a steep decline in the numbers of churchgoers, and a drastic downturn in the positive public opinion of Catholicism, the Church in Ireland remains a strong force, if only a spectral one. Certainly, the longstanding presence and political importance of Catholicism in Ireland is enough to explain the residual influence wielded by the Church, but it is also true that this powerful position the Church still occupies, stands in stark contrast with today’s consistently modernizing, secular, post-Celtic Tiger Ireland. This complex tension between the “secularism” of contemporary Ireland and the “nostalgia for an earlier [Catholic] Church” underscores much of Tóibín’s short fiction. I want to explore here how, in “A Priest in the Family” and “The Colour of Shadows,” Tóibín uses the concept of the Irish family not only to explore the tension between a nostalgic religiosity and more modern or secular sensibilities, but also to show that a reconciliation between these two seemingly polar opposites is certainly possible, but must be rooted in a familial benevolence that exists beyond any strict religious category.

Tóibín’s “A Priest in the Family,” from Mothers and Sons, describes the events leading up to and following the protagonist’s discovery that her son, a priest, is charged with child molestation. Like many of the collection’s other stories, “A Priest in the Family” provides, as John McCourt has argued, “a substantial updating of our received images of the Irish mother” by challenging Irish culture’s celebration of “deeply Catholic mother figures—women who [excel] in obedience and abnegation, consoled only by their pious devotion to the Sacred Heart.”[34] In the text, Molly, a widowed mother of three adult children and proud grandmother to four boys, has, for reasons that are never explained, lost her faith. Despite the stereotype of the old devout Irish woman, Molly is an adamant non-believer. Nevertheless, she claims to be very proud of her son Frank, a priest in one of the local parishes. She sees her son as one “who’s very holy…one of the old school,” despite her own resistance to the Catholic faith.[35] Through the “modern” and “secular” character of Molly and her interactions with the other, more traditionally-minded Enniscorthy townspeople, Tóibín presents the problematic and complicated position of Irish Catholicism in the modern Irish cultural landscape.

In Tóibín’s story, Molly epitomizes the modern consciousness. In spite of her age and the fact that she would have known a time when “old women [like her] spent their lives praying,” she recognizes that she lives in a new Ireland where women “get our hair done and play bridge”; a time and a place where “[we can] say what we like.”[36] Similarly, she sees the importance in “keep[ing] up with what’s going on,” and, as such, learns how to use her computer and how to navigate her new e-mail account, the primary purpose of which, we learn, is to keep in regular contact with her grandsons.[37] Molly’s modern sensibilities do not cause her atheism, but the two are related. The implied earlier interest Molly would have had in “rosary beads” and “the parish newsletter” is replaced by her concern for “more important things” like her e-mail account and the mastery of her computer’s mouse.[38] Again, Tóibín certainly does not suggest that one cannot have an e-mail address and also be a practicing Catholic, but instead foregrounds the disparity between an older, traditional, and faithful Ireland (an Ireland in which Molly would have been brought up) and the modern day Republic in which women’s roles extend beyond the fulfilment of “their duties in the home.”[39]

Standing in opposition to Molly, are characters like Jane and Father Greenwood. Jane, Molly’s sister-in-law, is characterized much as one would expect Molly to be—that is, as an old devout Irish woman. Unlike Molly, Jane has no interest in “get[ting] a video machine.”[40] She is of the old Irish Catholic ways, and is satisfied with being, in Molly’s terms, “the holiest one in the family” and nothing more.[41] Unsurprisingly, Father Greenwood, too, is characterized as possessing an old-world and strongly Irish Catholic view of small town Irish life. In his daily encounters with the townsfolk, he carries himself with “his hands joined in front of him…as though ready for prayer.”[42] For all intents and purposes, these characters exist in an Ireland different than Molly’s, and when these characters meet, their opinions and world-views often collide with “a sudden fierce hostility.”[43] However, in spite of these hostilities, Tóibín does not suggest that the characters or their world-views are entirely at odds, or that they cannot coexist. The very fact that the relationship between Molly and Jane is cordial and even amicable suggests that the disparity between the old Ireland and the new one is not only bridgeable, but also that its resolution is made possible by the empathy and mutual concern that emerges through the family bonds that connect the two. In other words, the family ties between these two characters enable a sense of cooperation and compromise that eclipses any religious or secular ideologies.

This constructive idea of familial cooperation and empathy is repeated when Molly encounters her disgraced son Frank at the end of the story. First of all, when Frank’s immoral act of child molestation is revealed, it undercuts the contemporary merit of the Catholic religion: Frank is characterized not simply a criminal, but as a “paedophile priest.”[44] In the town, there is a sense that there is no place for a religion that allows the violation of moral values. Due to both her proximity to the people involved in this scandal and her adamant atheism, this conflict is especially upsetting for Molly who is forced to consider where her allegiances and sympathies lie. Despite the intensely religious aspect of her son’s transgression, the act does not simply offend her as a Catholic. Instead, she is hurt as a mother and as a grandmother, the “secular” roles by which she defines herself. In having abused children, Molly’s son not only epitomizes what Tóibín has described as the Church’s failure “almost as a matter of policy in their duty to protect children,” but also forces Molly to consider whether she should sympathize with the victims and their families, or with the man to whom she gave birth.[45] When, at the end of the story, Frank and Molly meet in the street, Tóibín shows the significance of the family bonds, and the redemptive possibilities these bonds make available. Despite his transgression, Molly asserts that she and her family will do for Frank “whatever we can do…and none of us will be going away;” as a mother, she will “do the best [she] can” for her son.[46] Molly adamantly refuses, in Eibhear Walshe’s words, “to take the role of innocent mother protected from the grim reality [of Frank’s situation],” and is “determined to remain” with and for him.[47] Molly certainly does not condone her son’s actions, but as a mother, is able to find it in herself to forgive him. Tóibín uses the episode to suggest that forgiveness and love are made possible by Molly’s distinctly secular, maternal morality. Despite her condemnation of his actions, Molly still loves her son, but her love—the redemptive force in the story—stems from her role as a mother and not as a Catholic. As John McCourt incisively puts it, “Molly will not have the consolation of faith to help her pull through this trial,” though, I would add, seems not to need it.[48] Again, Tóibín is certainly not saying here that one cannot both forgive these horrendous acts and be religious, but instead that forgiveness and real compassionate love are possible without any religious underpinnings. And though, as McCourt rightly suggests, it is the “self-preserving qualities” of Tóibín’s “modern Irish grandmother” that “render her sympathetic to the reader,” I would add that the reader’s sympathy is equally aroused by Molly’s motherly benevolence. Likewise, despite epitomizing the “modern” dismantling of an “inherited tradition which lingers like a cloud over what attempts to be [a] bright, cosmopolitan, new Ireland”—a dismantling that, as I will later show, the character of Mary in Testament similarly epitomizes—Molly is also crucially defined, I am suggesting, by her secular goodness.[49] In the story’s modern context, Molly’s secular morality takes the place of any antiquated religious obligation to forgive and, as such, seems both relevant and suited to her continually secularizing Irish environment.

Like “A Priest in the Family,” Tóibín’s “The Colour of Shadows,” from The Empty Family, uses the notion of family relationships to explore the tension that exists between the moral framework underpinning the older, traditional, faithful Ireland, and the new, modern, secular one. In the story, Paul, a gay man living in Dublin, begins caring for his ailing aunt Josie. Having adopted Paul after his mother abandoned him, Josie is very protective of her nephew, and he, in turn, feels responsible for his aunt just as if she were his own mother. However, despite his sense of duty towards his aunt, Paul feels that he exists at quite a distance from her. In a flashback to his early adulthood when he first left Enniscorthy and moved to Dublin—a modern city that stands in stark contrast to the conservative old-fashioned town where he was raised—Paul recalls an unfortunate encounter with his aunt that was never again broached. In his recollection, Paul recounts having come back to visit an aging Josie who has, over time, slowly lost both her hearing and her vision. When Paul enters her house, Josie misrecognizes her nephew and believes him to be Tom Furlong, one of her neighbours. When Paul attempts to tell Josie that “it’s Paul, Paul,” who has come to visit, she misunderstands him and, believing she is speaking with Tom, says that “Paul got involved with a rotten crowd up in Dublin”—implying, of course, a gay crowd.[50]

For Josie, Paul’s life in Dublin and his homosexuality exemplify his modern sensibilities and, more importantly, the generational gap that exists between her and her nephew. Similarly, for Paul, the fact that Josie still keeps a missal and “five or six memorial cards” exemplifies her conservative Irish Catholic outlook.[51] Just as in “A Priest in the Family,” these two seemingly opposed perspectives form the central tension in the text, but as Tóibín again shows, they are not irreconcilable. Despite the fact that Josie is conflicted about her feelings about Paul’s sexual identity, she does know one thing for certain: that she “worrie[s] about [him]” and cares about his wellbeing.[52] Paul too cares for his aunt, responding to her anxiety by claiming that “there’s no need to worry” and that he “love[s] and appreciate[s] her” concern.[53] The mutual love and respect between Paul and Josie, and, implicitly, the possibility of a “secular” benevolence is most obvious in the text during another of Paul’s flashbacks. In it, he recounts an episode that took place over the Christmas holidays when “at Mass on Christmas morning” he “did not go with [Josie] to communion but sat in his seat.”[54] He claims to have recognized the potential offence this might have caused towards his devout aunt, but is surprised to see that, as with his homosexuality, Josie does not seem bothered by this choice despite her initial bewilderment: “somehow, it seemed she had understood.”[55] The lives she and her nephew lead are different, but their choices and actions simply reflect their respective secular or religious values. However, Josie seems also to have understood that the disparity between them does not preclude love for the other. Though Walshe describes the characters making up The Empty Family as “uneasy within their contexts […] and battling to achieve some sort of meaning on their own terms,” I am arguing that, in spite of the discrepancy between their “own terms,” Josie and Paul, as family members, are able to create new, meaningful “terms.”[56] The pair have “a way of making [the other] feel loved […] and something close to proud,” and it is this secular, yet equally powerful family bond that Tóibín seems to endorse.[57]

Overall, in these two short stories, the bonds between mothers (or surrogate mothers) and their sons demonstrate that neither traditional, conservative religiosity nor modern liberal-mindedness necessarily excludes the other. Certainly these two conditions exist in a tension, but as Tóibín shows, the apparent social gulf between them is not irreconcilable. In the penultimate scene of “The Colour of Shadows,” for example, Paul settles down with a group of nurses to “[say] a decade of the Rosary as Josie fade[s] into death.”[58] Despite his lack of religious belief, Paul understands the communal value of this act. That is, he may not believe in God, but the final connection the prayers allow between him and his dying aunt makes it worth participating in the ritual. Again, for Tóibín, the bonds between family members are stronger than ideological differences, and, provide an avenue through which these tensions can be resolved. With regard to religion specifically, the family, as Tóibín envisions it, carries “a prominently personal and emotional meaning,” that mirrors religious experience.[59] In simple terms, familial responsibility and love can provide an alternative or, maybe more specifically, a more secular religious experience. Tóibín’s conception of the family in these stories is, after all, underpinned by the notion of sympathetic imagination and empathetic connection—both basic tenets of Catholic belief. Put another way, just as he sees the non-doctrinal role of Catholicism as the realm of mutual goodwill, the bonds between the Irish families Tóibín depicts in his stories provide the possibility of the same kind of benevolent experiences, albeit ones that are more recognizable given that they are detached from religious ideology, and thus better fitting our modern lives.

Upon being published in 2012, The Testament of Mary courted both critical acclaim and some controversy. The play of the same name, staged on Broadway in early 2013, was picketed and ultimately cancelled due in part to poor ticket sales after just two weeks. The unfavourable public reaction to these works was, Tóibín has stated, unsurprising and yet still incomprehensible. He claims that in portraying an iconic religious figure in his text, “I realized that I was playing with fire.”[60] However, despite anticipating some negative reactions, Tóibín has also said that he does not understand the public backlash that ensued as, for him, “the impulse to write [the book] was not political, was not to intervene in a debate about the church, but rather to work with a voice that had mattered to [him] personally, a voice that was iconic as well as human.” Yet, it is the very “human” and imperfect nature of Mary’s voice and character—one which dominates The Testament of Mary—that readers and audiences reacted to most negatively.[61] In an especially dogmatic review of the book, for instance, Mark Shea describes Tóibín’s Mary as a “sullen old crone” instead of “the beautiful saint” to which Western society has grown accustomed.[62] Even the more levelheaded Mark Oppenheimer takes issue with Tóibín’s revision of “mythical types,” claiming: “I don’t want a Mary this contemporary and human—just as I do not want a Jesus who hikes up his shorts.”[63] Certainly, the character of Mary in Tóibín’s novella is unlike any of the culturally widespread images of the virginal mother of Jesus draped in blue, pure, and holy. However, it is precisely by portraying Mary as a human, or more specifically as a human mother who is endlessly concerned for her son’s well being,[64] that Tóibín succeeds not only in redeeming the culturally overdetermined image of Mary as a symbol of divine purity, but also, in demonstrating that it is the love between Mary and her son that inspires the kind of human benevolence encouraged by religious teaching.[65]

In The Testament of Mary, Tóibín’s characterization of his title character stands in stark contrast to commonplace cultural or religious representations of the beautiful and virtuous mother of the Son of God. Unlike the image of a divine Mary on display in Titian’s Assumption of the Virgin, or in the innumerable stained-glass windows adorning churches the world over, the woman in Tóibín’s book is freethinking, assertive, and unapologetic. She refuses, for one, to yield to the two men who have taken care of her for the twenty or so years since her son’s death. In doing so, she provides what Eibhear Walsh sees as a “pragmatic, insightful humane maternal voice [that] is in conflict with the myth-making Evangelists” and which serves the novella’s “profound deconstruction […] of the founding ideology of Christianity.”[66] Likewise, she is not afraid of telling the men that she considers them to be “a group of misfits,”[67] and that, when she looks at them, she hopes “they see contempt or some reflection of their idiocy.”[68] Yet Mary also feels threatened by the pair and, although they care for her, she is afraid of them and of their power. From the outset, Mary describes them as “hungry and rough” and claims that there is “a brutality boiling in their blood.”[69] By the same token, Mary understands that she is very vulnerable, describing herself as “an animal that is being hunted.” Based simply on the depiction of her relationships with her guardians, we see that Tóibín’s vision of Mary is not that of the righteous Queen of Heaven, but instead that of a mortal woman struggling against the disciples’ aggressive nature.

What is interesting about Tóibín’s description of Mary, is not so much that it is a “subversive” one, but instead that it, in effect, downplays or undermines her traditional iconic status as a way of revealing and underscoring the more modern consciousness she possesses and the more “secular” roles that she occupies: those of wife and mother. In other words, in describing Mary’s acute perception of the beliefs of her guardians, and resistance to their objectives, Tóibín is not debasing her, but instead seeks to erase the religious connotations associated with her. In doing so, Tóibín is able to create an image of Mary in which we can truly recognize something of ourselves.[70] This is especially true when Tóibín begins to explore her role as mother of Jesus because he focuses on the human aspects of this relationship rather than the divine or religious aspects.[71] The divine dimension is again undermined in such a way as to highlight the humanity of her character and, more importantly, the humanity of this familial bond.

In Tóibín’s novella, the relationships at play between Mary and both her son and her husband are presented retrospectively. At the moment the narrative takes place, both Jesus and Mary’s unnamed husband are long dead. Despite the men’s absences from the text, Mary’s relationships with them remain at the heart of her narrative. As the novella progresses, Mary struggles to come to terms with the death of her family. With regard to her husband, for example, Mary explains that she keeps a chair for him in her house that is always to remain vacant. The chair, she claims, came into her possession “during a time when I needed desperately to remember some years when I knew love.”[72] She describes how the chair “belongs to man who will not return” and that by keeping it, she has been able to maintain “the memory of him as I enter my last days.”[73] The chair is an incredibly powerful symbol for Mary. It allows her to preserve the marital bond that she once shared, but that now “[can] not return.”[74] When one of her guardians chooses to sit in this chair, thus threatening to undermine the remnants of her relationship with her husband, Mary proceeds to threaten him at knifepoint until he backs away. The chair and the relationship it conjures for Mary are vital aspects of her life. By keeping the chair as a memento of her husband, Mary is able to pull “something back into the room, or a shadow of something, enough for me in any case.” She sees that others are able to accept the deaths of their loved ones—Farina, for instance, is able to display “a sort of light in her eyes, a kindness,” even though she knows that her husband is suffering and that his death “would be for the best”[75]—and yet is not ready herself to “consign the chair [or the relationship] to nothing.”[76] Her husband and his “presence” are much too important for Mary to “break the spell.”

Like her undying love for her husband, Mary’s relationship with her son dominates the text, and again reveals the importance she places on familial bonds. Early in the text, for example, she recounts the pride she felt for her son. She claims: “he could have done anything […] and he was grateful, good-mannered, intelligent.”[77] However, she believes that her son’s favourable traits were wasted on the men who followed him. She feels responsible for having been unable to turn him away from these men—her failure in this regard is, she states, “what I live with now.” Similarly, during Mary’s extended account of the final weeks of her son’s life, she repeatedly expresses her desire to try to save him from what she knows will be his imminent death. When Marcus first confronts her about Jesus’ disruptive public spectacles, Mary asks: “is there anything we can do […] to stop him.”[78] Furthermore, when she first hears that her son will be crucified, Mary wonders once again “is there anything that can be done.”[79] In these moments, Mary’s concern for Jesus does not stem from her belief that he is, as he says, the Son of God. Instead, Mary is concerned for him as a mortal man. Her love for her son outweighs any sort of metaphysical or divine qualities he may or may not possess. Unlike other characters like Martha or the disciples who believe that Jesus’ death will “be the beginning […] of a new life for the world” or that “something [will have been] played out for the sake of the future,”[80] Mary seems only able to look upon the man on the cross as one who has come “from my heart and my flesh.”[81] For others, Jesus dies as the Son of God; for Mary, Jesus dies as her own flesh and blood.

Just as in his other stories in which the Irish families come to represent a modern sort of secular benevolence, Tóibín’s portrayal of the relationship between Mary and her son in The Testament of Mary express a similar sort of familial and “modern” sympathy. In other words, by offering such an unorthodox vision of Mary—one in which she is not a religious icon but instead a mother and a wife—Tóibín positions her vis-à-vis the reader’s conventional divine or holy preconceptions of her, and demonstrates, again, that the value of her character lies not in her iconic status, but in her humanity. As the West continues to secularize, the idolized cultural creation of Mary depicted in statuettes and adorning votive candles are at risk of becoming, if not entirely worthless, then largely inconsequential. However, through his presentation of a “flesh and bone” woman fundamentally concerned with the well-being of her mortal son –Tóibín severs Mary from a solely religious framework and presents her as a symbol of real human morality.

Unlike the mother who “stood by the cross of Jesus” in the Bible, ready to give up her son “for the sins of the whole world,” Tóibín’s Mary is unwilling to let go of her son despite the apparent meaning his death will have.[82] She tells her guardians “when you say that he redeemed the world, I will say that is was not worth it.”[83] However, despite the fact that Mary challenges her guardians’ beliefs, Tóibín does not seem to suggest that she hates them. In other words, despite the fact that she feels threatened by these men and that she disagrees with their objectives, Mary comes, in the end, to understand the men and to have sympathy for them, regardless of their aims. Like her, these men loved her son, and it is this love and loss that leads them to act the way they do. She claims, in the end, that they “are not fools,” and that “I admire how deliberate they are, how exact their plans […] how different from the group of unshaven brutes and twitchers” they are.[84] “They will thrive,” Mary asserts, even after she has died.[85] This tremendous change of heart at the end of Tóibín’s novella derives from Mary’s recognition that the love she has for her son, many others had for him as well. She finally sees that she is not the only one who has experienced loss as a result of Jesus’ death, noting: “we could have been spared.”[86] She knows, of course, that Jesus was her son, but that, in many ways, the motherly love she had for him should not exclude her love for others. Mary’s love for Jesus, she claims, has “ma[de] its way into [her] spirit” and enables her to accept his death just as the chair enables her to do for her husband.[87] Put simply, like Molly in “A Priest in the Family” and Paul in “The Colour of Shadows,” Mary is able to recognize the value in familial love. Unlike these other characters, however, at the end of the novella Mary is willing to extend this love beyond her family and, in a sense, forgive those around her. Most importantly though, Mary’s love for her son enables her to forgive herself: she knows that she loved Jesus, and this thought alone “lifts the darkness and pushes away the grief.”[88]

In The Testament of Mary, just as in his Irish short fiction, Tóibín shows that the human(e) compassion and benevolence available in the relationships between family members might perhaps provide a sort of substitute to older forms of religious (Catholic) duty. As the “gradual waning of religious practice […] [takes] hold,” Tóibín shows that universal morality must come from elsewhere.[89] In his portrayal of the family in these texts, Tóibín provides a vision of fraternity that carries substantial moral weight, and yet that exists beyond the confines of a religious “institution frozen in its own rules and rituals.” Like the human Mary, Tóibín implies, we might still be able to find kindness, patience, and sympathy amidst “the shadows of the gods of this place.”[90]


[2]. It is worth noting that Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary was first produced as a dramatic work entitled Testament, and that this play, renamed The Testament of Mary, was restaged following the publication of the novella. In this article, I use the short-form, Testament, to refer to the novella, unless otherwise noted.

[3]. John Littleton, “Catholic Identity in the Irish Context,” in Irish and Catholic?: Towards an Understanding of Identity, ed. Louise Fuller, John Littleton, and Eamon Maher (Blackrock: Columba Press, 2006), 16; Michael Carroll, “Visions of the Virgin Mary: The Effect of Family Structures on Marian Apparitions,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 22, no. 3 (1983): 205.

[4]. Ron Charles, “In Colm Tóibín’s ‘The Testament of Mary,’ Jesus’s Mother Takes on the Gospel Writers,” The Washington Post, November 13, 2012,

[5]. John Boland, “Holy God, Here Come the Big Guns,” Irish Independent, July 21, 2012,

[6]. For Tóibín’s own exploration of the significance of families in writers’ lives, see Colm Tóibín, New Ways to Kill Your Mother: Writers and Their Families (New York: Scribner, 2012).

[7]. Eibhear Walshe, A Different Story: The Writings of Colm Tóibín (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2013), 6.

[8]. Ibid., 127.

[9]. Jose Carregal-Romero, “Colm Tóibín and Post-Nationalist Ireland: Redefining Family Through Alterity,” Estudios Irelandeses 7, (2012): 4, 8.

[10]. Kathleen Costello-Sullivan, Mother/Country: Politics of the Personal in the Fiction of Colm Tóibín (Bern: Peter Lang, 2012), 3.

[11]. See George O’Brien, “Cutting the Apron Strings,” The Irish Times, August 26, 2006, George O’Brien has suggested that Tóibín’s representations of personal conflicts and familial tensions are related to his interest in the intersections of the private and public realms in Irish society. In his review of Mothers and Sons, O’Brien writes: “There’s a tension between the ostensible authority of the mother’s role and the misgivings and mistakes of the person trying to live up to that role. This tension is, in a sense, another variation on the author’s longstanding concern with the interactions and disconnections between the rather stiff, pro forma character of social conduct and the more nuanced and fluid world of private life.”

[12]. Eve Patten, “‘The Sign of the Cross’: Travels in Tóibín’s Europe,” in Reading Colm Tóibín, ed. Paul Delaney (Dublin: The Liffey Press, 2008), 85.

[13]. Colm Tóibín, The Sign of the Cross: Travels in Catholic Europe (London: Jonathan Cape, 1994), 2.

[14]. Ibid., 2-3. As the editors of Irish and Catholic? note, the “unbridled power” the Catholic Church wielded in Ireland resulted from the fact that this Church “was merely a reflection of the society which spawned it.” The institutional Church was able to act “as a sort of ‘moral police force’ for a long time in Ireland, because that was the role the population expected from them”; see Louise Fuller, John Littleton, and Eamon Maher, introduction to Irish and Catholic?: Towards an Understanding of Identity, ed. Louise Fuller, John Littleton, and Eamon Maher (Blackrock: Columba Press, 2006), 8-9.

[15]. Patsy McGarry, “The Rise and Fall of Roman Catholicism in Ireland,” in Irish and Catholic?: Towards an Understanding of Identity, ed. Louise Fuller, John Littleton, and Eamon Maher (Blackrock: Columba Press, 2006), 38. Interestingly, McGarry also suggests that coinciding with the period in which women became the “religious head of the household” was “an explosion in devotion to the Virgin Mary and the practice of reciting the Rosary” and a period in which “all over the country, shrines of devotion to Mary sprang up”; see Patsy McGarry, “The Rise and Fall of Roman Catholicism in Ireland,” 38.

[16]. Tóibín, Writers and Company.

[17]. See Colm Tóibín, Love in a Dark Time (Oxford: Picado, 2002), 268. In addition to leading the prayers during the Rosary, Tóibín recalls his mother having to “[make] us kneel up, [stop] my father laughing.” The religious exercise was also an exercise in child-rearing: “This was [my mother’s] work. It seemed natural then, it was what every mother did.”

[18]. Colm Tóibín, interview by Mark Lawson, 2013 Man Booker Prize Readings, October 13, 2013,

[19]. Tóibín, The Sign of the Cross, 7.

[20]. Ibid.

[21]. Ibid., 132.

[22]. Sara Keating, “‘I’d like to be this family please’: Tom Murphy and the De/construction of Irish Catholic Family Home” in Irish and Catholic?: Towards an Understanding of Identity, ed. Louise Fuller, John Littleton, and Eamon Maher (Blackrock: Columba Press, 2006),165.

[23]. Ibid., 165. See also, Clair Wills, “Women, Domesticity and the Family: Recent Feminist Work in Irish Cultural Studies,” Cultural Studies 15, no. 1 (2001): 44. Wills has also written on the intersection of the institutional Church and family life in Ireland, but unlike Keating, focuses on the woman’s role within the “Church/Home” system. She suggests that in Ireland, “the ‘house’ [became] the ‘home’ and therefore [a] particular sphere of authority” for women, but adds that this “authority is also the point at which […] the institution of the Catholic Church enters the ‘intimate’ sphere.” Building on the work of Tom Inglis—a sociologist who, in his influential Moral Monopoly: The Rise and Fall of the Catholic Church in Modern Ireland, dedicates an entire chapter, “The Irish Mother,” to the longstanding relationship between Irish ideas of Catholic morality and motherhood—Wills claims that, beginning in late nineteenth-century Ireland, “the consolidation of the power of the Catholic Church” occurred, in part, through the “alliance formed between priests and […] new[ly] domesticated Irish mothers.” This new domestic situation and its religious associations, she adds, “offered Irish women a new basis for authority,” and this authority “needs to be understood […] as a linchpin in the process of modernization in Irish society.”

[24]. Tóibín, 2013 Man Booker Prize Readings.

[25]. Ibid.

[26]. Tóibín, Writers and Company.

[27]. See Louise Fuller, “New Ireland and the Undoing of the Catholic Legacy: Looking Back to the Future,” in Irish and Catholic?: Towards an Understanding of Identity, ed. Louise Fuller, John Littleton, and Eamon Maher (Blackrock: Columba Press, 2006), 82. Fuller has noted that Pope John Paul II’s visit to Ireland was notable for more than the tremendous welcome he received. She claims that during the Pope’s stay, he “saw that Irish society was at a crossroads,” and addressed in his speeches “the more liberal influences which began to prevail from the late sixties,” ultimately warning that “Irish society was being confronted with [these liberal] values and trends formerly alien to it.”

[28]. Tóibín, The Sign of the Cross, 9.

[29]. Colm Tóibín, “Introduction,” Seeing is Believing: Moving Statues in Ireland, ed. Colm Tóibín (Dublin: Pilgrim Press, 1985), 7. Reporting on the “moving statues,” Mary Holland, in an article included in Tóibín’s collection, notes that this phenomenon coincided with a period of social modernization in which “the Catholic Church in Ireland [had] in the main come to terms with the fact that it [could] no longer exercise the old, unquestioned authority over its flock.” In an interesting way, however, Holland suggests that the tremendous public reaction to these apparitions reflected the fact that “many Irish Catholics want[ed] nothing to do with the new enlightenment” and yearned “for the old rituals—the Latin Mass, the family Rosary,” things that “gave a warmth and comfort to their faith,” things that modern Irish society—as well as the post-Vatican II Church—had “failed to replace.” The “moving statues,” Holland ultimately claims, were widely perceived as divine intervention; the Virgin Mary was simply “reminding [the Irish] that Ireland had remained faithful to the Catholic Church through the worst of the penal days,” and that, as the country “occupied a special place in her heart,” it would find its way once again; see Mary Holland, “Ballinspittle and the Bishop’s Dilemma,” in Seeing is Believing, ed. Colm Tóibín (Dublin: Pilgrim Press, 1985), 46, 48. This sentiment is echoed by Dáithí Ó hÓgáin, whose article “A Manifestation of Popular Religion” also appears in Tóibín’s collection. Ó hÓgáin claims that, as with past apparitions of the Virgin Mary, the “moving statues” illustrated the “belief that the Blessed Virgin could save the people.” Through her apparitions, the Virgin Mary was seen as stepping into “the role of interceder and proctectress [sic] from otherwise overwhelming forces.” The common perception, he claims, was that “the same great mother who is the refuge of the sinner at the hour of death is the refuge of the whole community when it is under threat”; see Dáithí Ó hÓgáin, “A Manifestation of Popular Religion,” in Seeing is Believing, ed. Colm Tóibín (Dublin: Pilgrim Press, 1985), 73.

[30]. See Louise Fuller, John Littleton, and Eamon Maher, introduction to Irish and Catholic?: Towards an Understanding of Identity, ed. Louise Fuller, John Littleton, and Eamon Maher (Blackrock: Columba Press, 2006), 8. Building on the comments of Joseph Veale, the editors of Irish and Catholic?, like Tóibín, suggest that the result of both the clerical abuse scandal in Ireland and the essential lack of “genuine repentance for the hurt and damage caused” was “nothing so superficial as the loss of influence or diminished power,” and in fact that it changed the fundamental ways that “the Irish related to the Catholic Church.”

[31]. See Colm Tóibín, “In the Shadow of Pugin: A Troubled Local Church,” The Furrow 54, no. 6 (2003): 352, 355. Tóibín notes that the clerical abuse scandal’s effects on families were one of the major sources of public backlash. He claims that over the lengthy period of clerical abuse, the power of priests “was considerable; the parents of the boys under their control would have accepted and trusted their authority more or less completely.” It is to this breach of trust to which the public reacted when the scandal eventually came to light. Tóibín claims that the “damage [these priests] did” was understood in personal and familial terms as the victims came “from the same backgrounds, the same sort of families as the rest of us.”

[32]. Tóibín, Writers and Company.

[33]. Colm Tóibín, “Among the Flutterers,” review of The Pope is Not Gay, by Angelo Quattrocchi, trans. Romy Clark Giuliani, The London Review of Books 32, no. 16 (2010): n.p.

[34]. John McCourt, “A Battle for Space: ‘Mothers and Sons’,” in Reading Colm Tóibín, ed. Paul Delaney (Dublin: The Liffey Press, 2008), 149-150.

[35]. Colm Tóibín, “A Priest in the Family,” in Mothers and Sons (London: Picador, 2006), 152.

[36]. Ibid.

[37]. Ibid., 155.

[38]. Ibid., 158.

[39]. Const. of Ireland 1937, art. 41.2.2.

[40]. Tóibín, “A Priest in the Family,” 158.

[41]. Ibid., 157.

[42]. Ibid., 159.

[43]. Ibid., 160.

[44]. Ibid., 163.

[45]. Tóibín, “Among the Flutterers.”

[46]. Tóibín, “A Priest in the Family,” 169.

[47]. Walshe, A Different Story, 168.

[48]. McCourt, “A Battle for Space,” 163.

[49]. Ibid., 151-2.

[50]. Colm Tóibín, “The Colour of Shadows,” in The Empty Family (London: Viking, 2010), 132.

[51]. Ibid., 130.

[52]. Ibid., 131.

[53]. Ibid., 132.

[54]. Ibid., 131.

[55]. Ibid., 131.

[56]. Walshe, A Different Story, 141.

[57]. Tóibín, “The Colour of Shadows,” 137.

[58]. Ibid., 143.

[59]. Carregal-Romero, “Colm Tóibín and Post-Nationalist Ireland,” 3.

[60]. Colm Tóibín, “Our Lady of the Fragile Humanity,” The New York Times, April 4, 2013,

[61]. Given the dramatic origins of Testament, it is worth noting that Tóibín’s exploration of Mary’s distinct “voice” in the work shows an interesting engagement with modern Irish theatre. Namely, as Susan Harris has argued, “the symbology of […] sacrifice retains enormous power for modern audiences and provides a literary model that writers and readers alike return to again and again in their attempts to understand or represent Ireland and Irish history.” I would suggest that by giving Mary a strong voice and, therefore, a subject position from which to use this voice, Tóibín challenges what Harris sees as a convention of modern Irish drama: “Irish drama requires a male victim whose body can be more easily translated. It requires, also, a female counterpart—the mother/wife/lover who accepts the sacrifice and whose body can then fulfill the more “natural” role of transforming that death into a rebirth.” As I show, in Testament, the figure of Mary refuses her son’s “sacrifice” and resists the idea that his death is a form of “rebirth.” In a very real way, Tóibín’s Mary challenges Irish drama’s tendency to stage subject matter rooted in “Catholic dogma and iconography [that] have made Christ and the Virgin Mary the only culturally acceptable role models available to Irish men and women.” The female voice of Testament overturns these dramatic (and dogmatic) traditions, and more specifically, questions the modern value of Irish cultural forms, which “requires [Irish men and women] to continually recreate not only the crucifixion but also the pieta”; see Susan C. Harris, Gender and Modern Irish Drama (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2002), 3-4.

[62]. Mark Shea, “Not Your Mother: An Autopsy on ‘The Testament of Mary’,” The Catholic World Report, December 11, 2012,

[63]. Mark Oppenheimer, “The Gospel Truth—Colm Tóibín Reinvents Mary,” New Republic, December 26, 2012,

[64]. See Angela Alaimo O’Donnell, “The Trouble with ‘The Testament of Mary’,” America: The National Catholic Review, May 2, 2013, Alaimo O’Donnell describes her distaste for Tóibín’s depiction of Mary as a mother. She claims that, as she enjoys “the many versions of Mary I have met on the walls of churches and museums and in the pages of books” including those that emphasize “Mary’s humanity over her sanctity,” she “greeted the publication of the novella with enthusiasm and attended the play as soon as I could get a ticket.” And though she asserts that “it is not Mary’s unorthodoxy [in Tóibín’s work] that troubles me,” O’Donnell finds fault with Tóibín’s representation of the mother/son relationship. She takes issue, specifically, with the scene in which Mary leaves the site of the crucifixion: “She runs away because she cannot help him, because she is afraid and (here is the hardest part to swallow) because she wants to save her own skin.” According to O’Donnell, Tóibín’s Mary fails as a character because she (like Tóibín) sins against the “universal code of Motherlove—that irresistible compulsion that drives a mother to protect her child at any cost.” Unlike the play’s protesters and general opponents, O’Donnell does not object to Tóibín’s depiction of Mary’s humanity, but to his denial of “what makes her most human,” her motherhood, and therefore suggests that Tóibín has simply created “one more Mary we cannot believe in.”

[65]. See Scott Hahn, Hail Holy Queen: The Mother of God in the Word of God (New York: Doubleday, 2001), 92. I am essentially arguing here that, in its explicitly human portrayal of Mary, Tóibín’s novella challenges what theologian Scott Hahn describes as facts about Mary that “are implicit in the biblical text, but have always been taught by the Church” and that “make up the fabric in which the narrative [of the gospels] is woven.”

[66]. Walshe, A Different Story, 178.

[67]. Colm Tóibín, The Testament of Mary (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2012), 9.

[68]. Ibid., 19.

[69]. Ibid., 3.

[70]. See Scott Hahn, Hail Holy Queen: The Mother of God in the Word of God (New York: Doubleday, 2001), 93. I am suggesting, in this way, that Testament questions the notion that, as Hahn puts it, “the Church’s Marian dogmas keep us close to the incarnate reality of God’s family,” and that these dogmas are not “abstractions or metaphors,” but “aspects of a living person, our mother.” The text offers us an undeniably and recognizably flawed woman who resembles us far more closely than some abstract or ideal “living person,” and yet is capable of some sort of benevolence.

[71]. See Jaroslav Pelikan, Mary Through the Centuries (New Haven: Yale UP, 1996), 131; Maurice Hamington, Hail Mary? (New York: Routledge, 1995), 90, 119. My distinction between Tóibín’s Mary’s position as “the mother of God” rather than as “the mother of God” is crucial given the biblical Mary’s position as Mediatrix. As Jaroslav Pelikan explains (albeit, in a rather convoluted formulation), the “title [of Mediatrix] was a means of summarizing […] [Mary’s] twofold function: she was ‘the way by which the saviour came’ to humanity […] and she was also the one ‘through whom we ascend to him who descended through her to us’.” Mary embodies, in other words, the gate between heaven and earth, and as such, as Maurice Hamington notes, “can intercede or act on behalf of those who ask.” That she is primarily the mother of God in Tóibín’s novella, I am suggesting, eliminates this mediating function—i.e. enabling humans to “return” to Christ. That is, by portraying Mary as a mother to her son, and to her son only, Tóibín essentially undermines her doctrinal role as divine mediator by extinguishing what Hamington characterizes as the Mediatrix’s desire to “save her flock, the children of the earth.” Put simply, Mary’s position in Testament as mother to her son exclusively, overturns her doctrinal position as caring mother to all Catholics.

[72]. Tóibín, The Testament of Mary, 19.

[73]. Ibid., 19-20.

[74]. Ibid., 21.

[75]. Ibid., 13.

[76]. Ibid., 22.

[77]. Ibid., 10.

[78]. Ibid., 26.

[79]. Ibid., 65.

[80]. Ibid., 65-72.

[81]. Ibid., 84.

[82]. John 19:25; 1 John 2:2 (King James Version).

[83]. Tóibín, The Testament of Mary, 102.

[84]. Ibid., 102-3.

[85]. Ibid., 103.

[86]. Ibid., (emphasis added).

[87]. Ibid., 100.

[88]. Ibid., 103.

[89]. Colm Tóibín, “Our Lady of the Fragile Humanity.”

[90]. Colm Tóibín, The Testament of Mary, 104.