‘Nora Webster’: an exclusive extract from Colm Tóibín’s new novel

After the death of her husband, Maurice, Nora Webster, now a widow in Enniscorthy in 1968, has gone back to work at Gibney’s, a big local business

After much argument, she had finally been granted a second pension, and both pensions had been increased in the previous year’s budget. She had not been aware at first that the extra money had been backdated by six months and she was surprised to get cheques in the post for what she thought were large sums of money. When she mentioned this to Jim and Margaret, Jim responded by saying that Charlie Haughey had been a hard-working minister for justice though a terrible minister for agriculture, but, if he could keep his head, he would go down in the books as a great minister for finance.

She remembered years before being in the hallway of Dr Ryan’s house in Delgany with Maurice. It was an engagement party for Dr Ryan’s daughter. Dr Ryan was minister for finance then. She was surprised by the opulence of the house itself, and the fact that waiters and caterers had been hired. All of the guests, except those who had come from Wexford, wore evening clothes. Dr Ryan exuded a sort of nobility and she was surprised at how Maurice and Shay Doyle, who had also come from Enniscorthy with them, seemed cowed and nervous in his presence. As they stood by the minister in all his considered grace in the hallway they became less than themselves. She was surprised too at the ease with which the minister dismissed Haughey, saying he was a young pup in too big a hurry, with no roots in Fianna Fáil.

“He joined us because we were in power,” she remembered Dr Ryan saying, “and that is all he wants, power.”

She remembered the silence in the car for the first half-hour as they drove home, and then, a few days later, the gravity with which Maurice imparted what the minister had said to Jim. She noticed afterwards, when the subject of politics came up with others, including Catherine and Mark, or her Aunt Josie, Maurice never repeated what he had heard from Dr Ryan, or alluded to it. It was private information and was not to be shared.


Only one other time had she seen Maurice cowed like that. It was a meeting of a Catholic lay group in the town, with Dr Sherwood of St Peter’s College in the chair, when some theologian spoke about change in the church. He then insisted that the power of the church itself took precedence and came before all other powers, including law, or politics, or human rights. For members of the church, he said, the church must come first not merely in religious questions but in all questions. This did not mean, he said, that it was the only power and that civil law did not matter, but it was the primary power. Nora nudged Maurice when it came to the time for questions and comments because she knew that he did not agree with what the theologian had said, as she certainly did not. But standing up in public to question a theologian was not something he would do. She never forgot the look on Maurice’s face, not only puzzled or powerless, but also intimidated, as he had been by Dr Ryan in the hallway in Delgany.

While Jim spoke warmly of Haughey’s prospects, she knew that he actually disapproved of him, as he did of most of the young ministers. She herself liked Haughey, or what she knew of him; she admired his ambition and his interest in changing things. She liked him even more now when she read his latest budget speech and saw that he mentioned widows. Once more he increased the pension, also backdating the increase. If she had known that these increases were going to come, she thought, she might not have sold the house in Cush. Once the latest backdated money arrived, she decided she would put it into the account in the bank where she had put some of the money she got for the house in Cush, but she did not know what she would do with it.

When Jim and Margaret came to visit, she spoke of Haughey again. Jim was not impressed.

“Courting popularity, that’s all he is doing now, and I saw a picture of him up on a horse, like a lord.”

“Oh, that was ridiculous all right,” Margaret said.

“Nothing good will come of him,” Jim said.

“Well, he’s the only politician I know who has bothered about widows,” Nora said.

“Jim heard about him in Courtown,” Margaret said.

“Drinking champagne,” Jim said, “and ordering more, with all sorts of Flash Harrys and builders and barristers and fellows on the make. And everyone watching him. Like a big performance it was.”

“I have no problem with him enjoying himself,” Nora said.

If Maurice were here now, he would defend Haughey, she thought. Unlike Jim, he had thought it was wrong that men in their 70s should be in positions of power in a country and he supported change.

Jim tapped the arm of the chair with the index finger of his right hand and whistled under his breath. He was not used to women disagreeing with him, and she smiled at the thought that he might, if he was to continue visiting her house, have to learn to tolerate it.

One evening in March she answered a knock to the door herself and saw a man whom she recognised as the lorry driver in Gibney’s who had spoken about the riots in Derry. As she invited him into the front room, she thought for a moment that something had happened to one of the children and went through them in her mind one by one. Donal was down in Margaret’s developing photographs, Conor was in the back room. It was unlikely that this man would know Fiona or Áine, or indeed Una or Margaret or Jim. He seemed nervous.

“I don’t think I know your name,” she said.

“I’m Mick Sinnott. I knew your father well. We were neighbours in the Ross Road. And the bossman, Mr Webster, God rest him, taught me.”

“You knew my father?”

“It was years ago all right. There wouldn’t be many left who knew him. We were in and out of one another’s houses. It was that way.”

Suddenly, he was at ease, but she could not think why he had come to the house.

“And what can I do for you?” She tried not to sound too imperious.

“I’ll tell you now. The others told me I was not to come up, but it was only when I went home and told my own missus and we discussed it. You see, the whole staff of Gibney’s, barring a few, are joining the Irish Transport & General Workers’ Union and we are going to do it in secret tomorrow night in Wexford town. If they find out about it, they’ll stop it, they’ll divide us, make better offers to people who won’t be able to say no. The others thought that they would leave you out of this, seeing as you are friends with the family and only part-time and new in the place. But I decided I’d let you know. I have seen you all my life. I remember you getting married and everything. Anyway, the long and short of it is that we are all joining the union. And I know you well enough to be sure that you won’t say anything to the daughter when you go to work tomorrow, and if you want to come with us, there will be a lift for you, and if you don’t, no one will be any the wiser that I spoke to you.”

“What time are you going?”

“We have to be there at eight.”

“Would someone collect me?”

“They would, they would be delighted to.”

“Are all the office workers joining?” she asked.

“All the ones we asked,” he replied.

She said nothing for a moment.

“Do you need time to think?” he asked.

“No, I was wondering how long we’ll be down there for.”

“To be honest, none of us have ever done this before, and all I know is that they want every one of us there. They want no one saying they’ll join and then telling the Gibneys that they didn’t really mean it.”

“That’s fine,” she said. “I’ll get someone to look after the boys.”

“I wasn’t suggesting that you would be one of the ones who would say one thing and mean another,” he said.

“I know you weren’t.”

“Your father would be proud of us now. He had no time for the bosses of this town. He wasn’t a diehard or anything, but he was decent.”

“I was the oldest, so I remember him best,” she said and smiled.

“He would be 80 this year if he were alive. That’s hard to imagine, isn’t it?”

“It is all right,” he replied.

“So I’ll be here tomorrow at half seven waiting.”

“There will be some of them surprised when I tell them that. We tried to do it years ago, just a few of us, and the old fellow threatened to sack us. He said he’d close the place and we had to back down because we had no support. But with this son of his, the efficiency expert, and the idea that no one’s job is safe, then I think we have support this time. And there’s a great man in Wexford by the name of Howlin, Brendan Corish’s right-hand man. I know that’s not your party now, but there could be changes coming, that’s what they say. Anyway, this man in Wexford will make the Gibneys mind their manners, especially the little pup.”

Nora opened the door for him.

“I’ll see you tomorrow, missus,” he said as he went down the steps.

When he had gone, Nora felt light, almost happy for a moment. There was something about Mick Sinnott’s tone – how oddly confident he was, and talkative, and how perfect his manners were – that reminded her of years before, years when she was young and went to dances. But it was not just that, it was the idea that she had made a decision for herself, the idea that she had asked no one’s advice. It was the first time since she had sold the house in Cush that such a chance had come so easily, and she was glad she had taken it. Perhaps it was not wise; perhaps it made more sense to be grateful to the Gibneys. But it pleased her now to be grateful to no one.

She arranged with Donal and Conor once more that they would not need a babysitter and that Donal would be home from Aunt Margaret’s by seven.

She did not know what to wear and thought it was funny that no one, certainly not her sisters, or her daughters, or her aunt, would be able to advise her on how to dress at a meeting of the Irish Transport & General Workers’ Union. Dowdy, she thought. Clothes that no one would notice.

As she walked down the stairs wearing a plain skirt and blouse and a warm pullover, she liked the idea of how little the Gibneys could imagine what was happening. She was not sure that being a member of a trade union would make any difference to anyone working in Gibney’s, and the family would, in time, get used to it. But the fact that it was done behind their backs would irritate them, maybe even shock them. Peggy Gibney, she thought, would never speak to her again when she heard that she was part of it, and that gave her a strange satisfaction.


The hall on the quay was half-full when they arrived. As soon as she came in, she felt that people were watching her. Working in the room with Elizabeth had isolated her, and she did not even know the names of some of the people who worked in the office. The decision to come here would have taken Maurice two weeks to consider. He would have discussed it with her and then with Jim. Nothing, from the buying of the house to the date each year when they went to Cush, was ever decided quickly or easily. And it was not just Maurice. Most people, she believed, needed time to think before they made decisions. Probably everyone in this hall had weeks to think about whether they wanted to join the union or not. She had made the decision in one second, and now she saw it as an act of pure foolishness. For a moment she wondered how she was going to explain it to Maurice, and thought how puzzled he would be by what she had done. And then as she remembered in a flash that she had no one to whom she would have to explain herself, she felt relief.

After a while, Nora moved closer to the front, sitting with other women who worked in the office so that no one would think she was there as a spy. With a Wexford town accent, a man was explaining that they were living in a time of newfangled ideas, with management training and the arrival in offices and companies of so-called efficiency experts, people who knew next to nothing about business and nothing at all about labour relations. For the bosses, he said, the old ways were changing, but for the trade union movement the same priorities remained, as anyone who was a member of the Irish Transport & General Workers’ Union would know. But the union did not just live on its history, he went on, it depended for its reputation on the work it did day in, day out for its members, both in times of industrial peace and in times of crisis.

“There comes a moment in every crisis where only one thing carries the day,” he said. “There comes a moment in the battle with employers when brute force and ignorance carry the day.”

Nora looked at him and listened. She imagined how interested Maurice would have been in this gathering and in the speech. But then she thought of Elizabeth Gibney, the person she spent most time with now. She imagined what a good imitation Elizabeth would do of this man and how funny she would find the phrase “brute force and ignorance”.

Everyone around her was listening intently; there was applause when the man had finished and agreement that they would form a line and one by one sign their names and become members of the Irish Transport & General Workers’ Union.

The following morning everything was quiet in the office. It was clear from Elizabeth that she knew nothing about what had happened the night before in Wexford. She was in good humour all morning and discussed plans to go with Roger to a rugby weekend in Paris in the autumn.

“It will keep him out of harm’s way if I’m there. He gets terrible hangovers, the poor mite. And if we go two days before the match I can do plenty of shopping in all the fab places.”

The next morning Elizabeth arrived late and was wearing dark glasses.

“I suppose you heard the news,” she said. “No one slept in our house last night. Old William is fit to be tied. He started by blaming Fianna Fáil until Little William told him that the union was affiliated to the Labour Party, at which point he started to blame Thomas for bringing down newfangled ideas from Dublin. Thomas, of course, remained calm, which is always a mistake with Old William. That’s why he loves Francie-Pants so much, because she creates hysterics. “Thomas told him that he would halve the office staff in the next few years and he slowly started to name all the methods he would use until Old William said that he had heard enough. He threatened to sell the firm and move to Dublin and live in Dartry. He said that the buildings alone and all the assets would make a tidy sum. He has a cousin in Dartry and he thinks it’s a haven of peace and quiet. And that might have been it, until Little William, my darling brother, said that we would have to get advice about how to deal with the Bolsheviks. That made me laugh so much that my mother said that she was going to close the kitchen if there was any more trouble. And that made Old William worse. He explained how he could make twice the money if he sold the firm, especially the milling part, and invested the proceeds, and that the only reason he didn’t was loyalty to all the people who worked in the firm and loyalty to the town. He said that he literally felt stabbed in the back and then he named the ringleaders. Seemingly, there’s a very nasty piece of work called Mick Sinnott who’s a lorry driver from the Ross Road. He’s a lout. Old William was pale at this stage and said that he didn’t care if Mother closed the kitchen. And then Thomas said that he would personally sack this Mick Sinnott in the morning and make an example of him and make phone calls to ensure that no one else would take him on. ‘I’ll grind him into the ground,’ he said. At that point, Little William said that it was not the end of the world, plenty of companies dealt with trade unions. But all Old William could say was that they were curs, every one of them. He said that he would not deal with any union and that was the end of that. Thomas then wanted to get the keys to Mick Sinnott’s lorry and move it before he came to work in the morning, but Little William told him not to be a fool. Later in the night, my mother used a word that we didn’t know she knew. She used it to describe all the people of the town.”

Nora thought of interrupting Elizabeth to say that she too had been at the meeting in Wexford and had signed her name with the rest of them. She wondered how Elizabeth would react when she found out, thinking that maybe Elizabeth was taking a light view of the matter. But, later in the morning, when she heard her speaking on the phone to Roger, she realised how Elizabeth really felt.

“They did it behind his back,” she said. “They went down like rats in the night, and, no, he didn’t sleep at all, he kept walking up and down the stairs and coming into my room and into Thomas’s room and Little William’s room, and wondering how it could have happened, how no one at all warned him or any of us about it. There was no loyalty, he said, and if it wasn’t for my brothers he would just close the place, having built it up to twice the size it was when he got it from his father. He kept saying it would be a great moment to sell. “This morning my mother said to me that the whole thing has broken his heart. He doesn’t want to see the place ever again. He has known some of the staff for 40 years and some of them have been with the company even longer. They all stabbed him in the back. My mother has a friend a nun, an old bat called Sr Thomas, and I had to phone her and ask her to come over, that is how bad things are.”

As she was leaving for the day at one o’clock Nora came face to face with Thomas Gibney, who stopped and looked at her. His expression suggested cold rage. She knew that it would not be long before Elizabeth and the rest of the Gibneys discovered that she was among those who had betrayed them.

This is an extract from Nora Webster, by Colm Tóibín, which is published by Viking on October 2nd