a journal of modern society & culture

Review: Fintan O’Toole, We Don’t Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Modern Ireland (Liveright /W.W. Norton, 2022)

Bill Nevins

“Fianna Fail, Fine Gael, Labour’s got me on the rails 
It never seemed to make no sense, I couldn’t tell the difference 
Stay married, hate her guts, no no no divorce 
Little girls all end up pregnant, hypocrites in every convent–

Gotta get out of the land of DeValera!”

                         –song by Larry Kirwan & Black 47 band, “Land of DeValera”, 1989

“Where the people are weak, and the people are spent,
From running in circles ’til their legs they are bent,
Lamenting the price of the petrol and the rent,
Ah we’re slow to learn in ould Éireann.
And the green rag that’s tied round our ears and our eyes,
Well it stops us from telling the truth from the lies,
For competitional patience we’d win the first prize,
For we’re too easy going in Éireann.”

                          –song by the Lankum band,“Déanta in Éireann”, 2020

Fintan O’Toole’s charmingly personalized history of modern Ireland could be titled, “How the Irish escaped from the Land of DeValera”. It’s a fascinating account of how The Republic of Ireland (aka Eire) evolved from a semi-fascist, deeply misogynistic, theocratic country ruled by religiously-anointed sexual perverts and their corrupt, lackey political hacks into the progressive, modern, secular state that it is today.

As O’Toole reminds us, contemporary Ireland is not the island-wide thirty-two county egalitarian Socialist Republic envisioned by 1916 revolutionary martyr James Connolly and his acolytes. The northeastern six-county section of the island (Northern Ireland) remains a contested and sometimes-turbulent part of the United Kingdom. Recent Irish economic history—with massive bank scandals, real estate bubbles, endemic homelessness, plagues of narcotics and suicides and widespread financial frustration– hardly reads as utopian.  The once-vaunted “roaring” Celtic Tiger has become at best a softly-purring kitten. Yet, for all its limitations, Eire is a respected member of the European Economic Community (EEC) and a fairly smoothly- functioning parliamentary democracy with decidedly liberal social laws and mores. Organized political violence has been reduced to minor sporadic and localized flare-ups, in sharp contrast to the near- civil war which raged in parts of the island from 1970 until 1998.

O’Toole himself shows little sympathy for the Irish Republican tradition of romanticizing political violence. He exposes the supposedly heroic martyr-subject of the well- known rebel ballad “Sean South” as an anti-semitic, reactionary bigot who died in a pathetically- bungled 1950s border attack on a British police station. More contemporary Irish Republican figures such as Bobby Sands, Gerry Adams and Bernadette Devlin McAliskey get less harsh assessments, but O’Toole feels closer in his views to John Hume and the Social Democratic and Labour Party than to the IRA and its affiliates. His memories of “the Troubles” focus more on paramilitary atrocities perpetrated upon civilians in Ireland and the UK than on any celebrations of “revolutionary” nationalist or loyalist martial glory.  His attitude towards contemporary Sinn Fein appears to be “wait and see”, although he clearly sees a Euro-integrated Ireland as of more importance than the long-sought “thirty-two county united Ireland”. O’Toole quips, “Being European was the ultimate way of not being British.” 

An internationally-published journalist who came from near-poverty and who often writes on economic and political matters, O’Toole understandably focuses on observations of Ireland’s changing GDP over the decades since his birth in 1958. The change, he notes, has been striking. Between 1960 and 1980, Ireland “had gone from being an agrarian economy where cattle was king to one that could be understood as part of the international industrial order”. This economic growth followed upon a 1958 Irish government plan for “Economic Development” which did, in fact, set forth modernization of the economy. Social modernization of “southern” Ireland took longer in what long had been a deeply-conservative country dominated by the powerful Catholic church hierarchy and which bordered on the equally socially-conservative Protestant/Presbyterian dominated British province of Northern Ireland (NI) to the north.  Ireland did not get its own television station until 1961, and then a large portion of its programming was American-made. 

O’Toole is well aware of the pervasive and puzzling Irish tendency to hold contradictory ideas simultaneously: it would seem that in Ireland no fact can be fully pinned down as “true” or “false”. The innate corruption of many Irish politicians such as “Boss” Charles Haughey seems less hypocrisy than a manifestation of a form of double-think. As the Boss, he saw himself above both the law and social constraints, and he flaunted his “special status”.  Haughey’s “mastery of hyprocrisy”, O’Toole writes, “was mesmerising, exquisite, magisterial”. Perhaps similarly, successful Sinn Fein politician Gerry Adams can deny membership in the IRA and yet bask in the public’s common knowledge of his service record as an IRA commander. About one particular national governmental scandal, O’Toole wryly comments, “The truth itself lacked credibility.”

Although the Irish economy improved in the late 20th Century, the religious and sexual repression ingrained in Irish society under DeValera’s rule persisted. It was not until very recent 21st century decades that contraception, abortion, divorce and gay rights were legalized in Ireland and the acknowledgement and investigation of the horrid history of the abuse (and murder) of women and children in Ireland is only now ongoing. Ironically, progress on social mores in the “British-held” six counties of N.I. was often more rapid than in the “free” southern twenty-six counties.

O’Toole points to the odd relationship of Ireland to the USA as disturbing. At the same time that interest was being revived in Irish traditional music, Nashville-style country-western dominated Irish popular taste. More significantly, American corporations have been given exceptional favorable treatment in Ireland, and American politicians such as JFK have been all but sanctified. Irish economic development relied exclusively on foreign, often American, investment. “In 2017”, O’Toole states, “US direct investment stock in Ireland totaled $457bn, a greater investment stake than in Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Belgium, Denmark and Sweden combined”. In 2015, Irish GDP rose by 26% but, it was, as O’Toole writes, “a miracle that was mostly a mirage”, based on unreliable statistics and foreign financial input, not on real Irish economic growth.

For all his reservations, O’Toole holds tentative hope for better days to come in Ireland, as the border conflict and bombastic nationalism recede and a more reasoned Irish sense of world-citizenship increases. He writes about our present moment: “The old was imploding but the new was not fully born.”  He also sums up the story personal and societal story of his book in these succinct words: “The transformation of Ireland over the last 60 years has sometimes felt as if a new world had landed from outer space on top of an old one.”

We Don’t Know Ourselves is a skillfully-written, intellectually- fascinating and most important read. Highly recommended.