Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 20, 2018

Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know, the fathers of Wilde, Yeats and Joyce (2018), by Colm Tóibín

Mad Bad and Dangerous to Know, the fathers of Wilde, Yeats and Joyce is, as you would expect from Colm Tóibín, beautifully written— but whether it’s a book for you might depend on how interested you are in Wilde, Yeats and Joyce.

This is the blurb:

From Colm Tóibín, the formidable award-winning author of The Master and Brooklyn, an illuminating, intimate study of Irish culture, history, and literature told through the lives and work of three men—William Wilde, John Butler Yeats, and John Stanislaus Joyce—and the complicated, influential relationships they had with their complicated sons.

Colm Tóibín begins his incisive, revelatory Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know with a walk through the Dublin streets where he went to university—a wide-eyed boy from the country—and where three Irish literary giants also came of age. Oscar Wilde, writing about his relationship with his father, William Wilde, stated: “Whenever there is hatred between two people there is bond or brotherhood of some kind…you loathed each other not because you were so different but because you were so alike.” W.B. Yeats wrote of his father, John Butler Yeats, a painter: “It is this infirmity of will which has prevented him from finishing his pictures. The qualities I think necessary to success in art or life seemed to him egotism.” John Stanislaus Joyce, James’s father, was perhaps the most quintessentially Irish, widely loved, garrulous, a singer, and drinker with a volatile temper, who drove his son from Ireland.

Elegant, profound, and riveting, Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know illuminates not only the complex relationships between three of the greatest writers in the English language and their fathers, but also illustrates the surprising ways these men surface in their work. Through these stories of fathers and sons, Tóibín recounts the resistance to English cultural domination, the birth of modern Irish cultural identity, and the extraordinary contributions of these complex and masterful authors.

Now I am an unabashed enthusiast for everything Joyce has written and you can find plenty of evidence for that in the hours of my life that I have spent not only reading his books as a student, but also blogging my adventures with Ulysses, with Finnegans Wake, and a reprise of my love of Dubliners. So I loved reading about the father of James Joyce, and his various manifestations in Ulysses, especially since Joyce had a generous view of his father’s undoubted failings.

By contrast, Stanilaus Joyce, James’ brother, has nothing good to say of his father’s fecklessness and abusive behaviour in his books My Brother’s Keeper (1958) and The Complete Dublin Diary of Stanislaus Joyce (1971).

My father was still in his early forties, a man who had received a university education and had never known a day’s illness.  But though he had a large family of young children, he was quite unburdened by any sense of responsibility towards them.  His pension, which could have taken in part the place of the property he had lost and been a substantial addition to an earned income, became his and our only means of subsistence.  (p.166)

He is domineering and quarrelsome and has in an unusual degree that low, voluble abusiveness characteristic of Cork people when drunk… He is lying and hypocritical.  He regards himself as the victim of circumstances and pays himself with words.  His will is dissipated and his intellect besotted, and he has become a crazy drunkard.  He is spiteful like all drunkards who are thwarted, and invents the most cowardly insults that a scandalous mind and a naturally derisive tongue can suggest. (p. 167)

But James Joyce was magnanimous, partly but not entirely because he was at a distance in Trieste.  He wrote to his benefactor Harriet Weaver:

I was very fond of him always, being a sinner myself, and even liked his faults.  Hundreds of pages and scores of characters in my books came from him… I got from him his portraits, a waistcoat, a good tenor voice, and an extravagant licentious disposition (out of which, however, the greater part of any talent I may have springs) but, apart from these, something else I cannot define. (p.173.)

The chapter about Joyce’s father, despite his manifest faults, is a pleasure to read because Tóibín considers at some length the ways in which Joyce pays homage in his fiction to this flawed father.

My experience with W.B. Yeats, alas, is confined to a brief study of his poem ‘Easter 1916’ at university,  and so the chapter about the influences that derived from his relationship with his father was interesting to me mainly because his father seems to have been a genial sort of failure who never finished his paintings – so Tóibín is able to make an engaging tale of his life even for those unfamiliar with W.B.  Like Joyce’s father, William’s father was also safely at a distance… in the US, from which his correspondence was apparently generous.

As for Oscar Wilde and his relationship with his father Sir William, while I found Sir William’s scandals mildly interesting, I couldn’t equate them in any way with what happened to Oscar. Yes, Tóibín stresses the differences in outcomes: Sir William suffered no opprobrium when his wife was sued for slander by a woman called Mary Travers.  (The details of which, in Tóibín’s account, would rate a #MeToo these days, I suspect).

What is remarkable is how many connections there are between the case of Mary Travers versus Lady Wilde and the case that Oscar Wilde took against the Marquess of Queensberry.  First, there was the frenetic, fearless, almost manic activity of both Travers and Queensberry, who sought to embarrass and harass in public and private Sir William and Oscar Wilde respectively, both of whom were becoming increasingly famous and feeling more and more unassailable. (p.74)

While Oscar went to prison and was ostracized by polite society, many in the medical establishment supported Sir William in the aftermath of the court case… (p.75)

But I was left wondering how much, if any, support Oscar might have had from his father, had he lived to see Oscar’s persecution and humiliation… I just didn’t have a good feeling about Sir William at all.


The cover design by Na Kim is inspired, gentlemen’s hats from the different eras of the fathers.  They are repeated to even more stunning effect on the hardcover, without the text.  It makes a beautiful book for gift-giving at this time of the year.

Author: Colm Tóibín
Title: Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know, the fathers of Wilde, Yeats and Joyce
Publisher: Picador (Pan Macmillan Australia), 2018, 215 pages
ISBN: 9781760781149
Review copy courtesy of Pan Macmillan



  1. The book sounds interesting because I have some familiarity with all three writers and because I am going to Ireland this spring. I knew nothing about Yeats’ father until I recently attended a lecture about his son. This moved me to look up John Butler Yeats’ painting. He was not a lightweight. Here is a link:


    • You’re right – those portraits of WB are sensitively done and the number of them show that he must have been a favourite subject. I bet they’re worth a lot now too.
      I think this is probably the perfect book for on the plane:).


  2. I’m intrigued – though I still might find reading about the sons more interesting than the fathers!


  3. As a son whose father found him difficult I have always been interested in writing that looks at the father-son relationship. In my matric year – 50 years ago give or take a week I must have just finished my exams – we studied Martin Boyd, A Difficult Young Man and Samuel Butler, The Way of All Flesh and I’ve gone on from there. As Wilde says, the big problem is how similar you are.


    • Ah yes, for women, it’s our mothers…


  4. The UK cover is completely different to your one, quite plain in comparison!

    I might try to give this a listen on Radio 4 while walking through town one day – it was featured on their Book of the Week slot fairly recently, so with any luck it will still be available to hear.


    • Yes, that would be nice, read in a lilting Irish accent!


      • Hopefully – I’ll have to check who the narrator is!


  5. That’s a beautiful review of this book, Lisa. I particularly like the way you singled out the cover, which is superb


    • Thanks, Jonathan, much appreciated!


  6. […] Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know by Colm Tóibín […]


  7. […] The Magician does reveal Mann’s suppressed desire for young men and boys.  I assume this aspect of Mann’s life, revealed posthumously in his diaries, is already covered in literary biographies, but not being an expert on Mann, but rather just a reader of his books, I didn’t know about it.  Whatever about that, Tóibín doesn’t IMO do anything illuminating with it.  In a newly released Australian novel called Modern Marriage, by Filip Vukašin, the author engages in a sophisticated way with the harm that derives from repressed sexuality.  He shows how a young gay man marries because of fear of rejection by his conservative family; he shows how that decision impacts disastrously on the wife.  He shows the damage that can be done and felt, even in an apparently open and tolerant society like Australia. Tóibín, OTOH, doesn’t seem to invite the reader to understand anything much about Mann, not empathetically imagining how his repressed sexuality affected his relationships, not adequately exploring how exile affected him or his writing, and offering only a glimpse of how Mann’s detachment made him a poor father. (Tóibín is interested in fathers, as we know from reading Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know.) […]


Please share your thoughts and join the conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: