The History of the Tobins
By Siobhán Tracey, Contributor
December / January 2003
Tobin is not an indigenous Irish name, but the family can be regarded as having become completely hibernicized. Its Irish form, Toibín, is a gaelicized version of the Norman ‘St. Aubyn.’ Another interpretation is that the name was first called de St. Aubyn and the original bearers were from Aubyn, in Brittany, France.
According to the renowned Irish historian and genealogist, Edward MacLysaght (1887-1986), the family came to Ireland in the wake of the Norman invasion and by 1200 were settled in Counties Tipperary and Kilkenny, from where they spread to the neighboring counties of Waterford and Cork. They are still found in considerable numbers in those counties, though the name is relatively rare elsewhere in Ireland. The Tobins became so influential in Co. Tipperary that in medieval times, the head of the family was known as Baron of Coursey, though this was not an officially recognized title. According to Clyn in his annals, the fourteenth century Tobins were a turbulent sept more dreaded by the English settlers than the native Irish. The place Ballytobin near Callan, Co. Kilkenny took its name from them.
A famous Irish American bearer of the name was Margaret Tobin (1867-1932) who was born into the “shanty town” section of Hannibal, Missouri. After working as a waitress and in a tobacco factory, Margaret moved west to Colorado where she met and married James Brown who had dreams of striking it rich in the gold mines. His dream was fulfilled and they became fabulously wealthy. However, wealth did not bring Margaret, or Molly Brown as she was more commonly known, social acceptance among the society women of Denver. She was snubbed by them however she sought consolation in travel. In 1912, after a trip to Europe, Molly Brown chose to return home on the doomed British ship the Titanic. When the ship struck an iceberg, she took charge of one of the lifeboats and helped others get through the ordeal by virtue of her indomitable spirit. She sang songs and raised spirits by refusing to give in to fear — the Titanic might be going down, she told the others, but she was unsinkable. Molly, who was forever thereafter known as “the unsinkable Molly Brown,” was hailed as a heroine by fellow survivors and became a celebrity.
Another well-known Irish American bearer of the name was Maurice Tobin (1901-53) who was governor of Massachusetts 1944-1946. The son of immigrants from Clogheen, Tipperary, Tobin became the youngest state representative at the State House at age 25, and was viewed as a liberal crusader in an era of conservative State House politics. In 1937 he made a surprise run for mayor against his mentor, James Michael Curley, and beat Curley. The Curley-Tobin feud was described in Edwin O’Connor’s novel The Last Hurrah. Tobin defeated Curley again in 1941 and in 1944 won his bid to become Governor of Massachusetts. He lost his re-election bid in 1946, and went on the campaign trail for underdog presidential candidate Harry S. Truman. He went on to become U.S. Secretary of Labor in Truman’s cabinet. Tobin died suddenly in 1953. At the funeral at Holy Cross Cathedral, former President Truman led a distinguished body of mourners.
The two best-known contemporary bearers of the name are Irish actor Niall Toibin and Irish novelist and journalist Colm Tóibón. Niall Toibin was born in 1929 in Cork. He joined the Radio Eireann Repertory Company and quit his day job at the civil service in 1954 “determined to be an actor.” He perfected his craft by playing almost every conceivable role during his 14 years in “the Rep.” From there, he established a distinguished tenure at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. Famous for his wonderful rich speaking voice, by the late 60s, he had become one of Ireland’s most distinguished actors. His theatre work in Ireland includes The Iceman Cometh, The Field, The Hostage and The Borstal Boy, which he also played in New York, as well as Fearless Frank in the Princess Theater in New York. His film credits include Ryan’s Daughter, The Country Girls, Children in the Crossfire, Eat the Peach, Rawhide, Fools of Fortune, The Outsider and Far and Away. He remains one of Ireland’s best-loved actors to this day.
Irish novelist and journalist Colm Tóibón (b. 1955) whose work has received much critical praise, is the author of three works of fiction that make up a loose trilogy: The South (1990); The Heather Blazing (1992), for which he won the E.M. Forster Prize, American Academy of Arts and Letters; and The Blackwater Lightship (1999). His most recent book is a collaboration with Diarmuid Ferriter entitled The Irish Famine, A Documentary, which explores the different treatments of the famine by Ireland and the U.S. The book seeks to question the popular American view that the famine was the result not of a massive Irish crop failure, but rather a deliberate campaign by the British to deny the Irish people the food they needed to survive. Famine-era documents produced by the authors suggest that the British government was in fact pursuing famine solutions seriously, if not successfully.
Tóibón has also published a variety of travelogues, many on Ireland but some too on Barcelona and Spain. Having grown up in an Irish Republican family in Enniscorthy, Co. Wexford, he studied English and History at University College Dublin and moved to Spain in 1975 after graduating, shortly before the death of Franco. He taught English in Barcelona before returning to Ireland, three years later. Recollections of his experience in Spain can be read in the book Homage to Barcelona. ♦