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Review: Fintan O’Toole’s personal history of Ireland traces the fall of Catholicism and rise of capitalism on the Emerald Isle

“Ouch!” You’ll say that more than once when reading Fintan O’Toole’s We Don’t Know Ourselves. American readers familiar with O’Toole from his reviews in The New York Review of Books or his work as a drama critic may not be aware that the Irish writer is also quite the polemicist. He turns the knife on an impressive array of persons, political and social institutions, and cultural nostrums in the 600-plus pages of this “personal history” of Ireland from the year of his birth (1958) to the present day.

“My life is too boring for a memoir and there is no shortage of modern Irish history,” he writes. “But it happens that my life does in some ways both span and mirror a time of transformation.” Accordingly, O’Toole brackets his material to focus on events that have occurred in his lifetime; this approach means he can flavor every analysis with personal memories and reactions, making this a far livelier history than most.

That notion of a personal account also gives his arguments something of a Teflon coating: On the few occasions I found myself pushing back against his description or analysis, I was faced with the fact that this is an Irish author writing a personal history of his experience of Ireland. There’s not a lot of rhetorical room there to respond with “Actually, that’s not true.” And is there any more obnoxious cliché than that of the Irish-American weighing in on the auld sod?

O’Toole turns the knife on an impressive array of persons, political and social institutions, and cultural nostrums in the 600-plus pages of We Don’t Know Ourselves.

The Ireland of O’Toole’s childhood had not changed much in the four decades before his birth, in part because the major engine of change—young people—emigrated in huge numbers every year. As a result, the Ireland of 1958 was “almost suffocatingly coherent and fixed: Catholic, nationalist, rural,” he writes. But at the same time, “Ireland as a lived experience was incoherent and unfixed,” because there was a second, less visible reality:

The first Ireland was bounded, protected, shielded from the unsavoury influence of the outside world. The second was unbounded, shifting, physically on the move to that outside world. In the space between these two Irelands, there was a haunted emptiness, a sense of something so unreal that it might disappear completely.

And indeed, the population of the Republic bottomed out at 2.8 million people three years after O’Toole’s birth; more than a century earlier, it had peaked at 6.5 million. Three in five Irish children raised in the 1950s were destined to leave at some point in their lives, a “slow, relentless demographic disaster” that made the nation seemingly impervious to change.

And yet today, Ireland is a modern state, seemingly well-integrated culturally and economically into Western Europe. The population of the Republic is over five million, and in terms of gross domestic product, Ireland is one of the wealthiest nations in the world. By almost any financial marker, the Ireland of today bears little resemblance to the poor, rural, traditional nation of half a century ago. “This was the great gamble of 1958,” O’Toole writes, where “everything would change economically but everything would stay the same culturally.”

“This was the great gamble of 1958,” O’Toole writes, where “everything would change economically but everything would stay the same culturally.”

The reality has turned out somewhat different, as economic growth brought more than just financial change. Politically and culturally, Ireland had always functioned as an alliance between church and state, and the Catholic Church held enormous sway over education, health care, politics and even the legal supervision of minor vices. The Archbishop of Dublin, O’Toole notes, was not embarrassed to call local radio stations and order bans on songs he considered too risqué.

The arrival of mass media made the situation almost comic. How should church and state respond in order to defend the traditional morals of the Irish people? Cut out all the sexy bits of “Casablanca”? Try to jam the signals of the British Broadcasting Corporation? Rail against the corrupting influence of European media, only to end up with an entire generation of children obsessed with American Westerns? (These had been suitably bowdlerized already by Hollywood in accordance with the Hays Code, largely written by—you guessed it—Irish-Americans.)

The deference long paid to priests and men and women religious by civil society also began to lose its strength in the 1960s and 1970s as the church showed its clay feet more and more. Like many Irish children, O’Toole was educated through high school by the Irish Christian Brothers, and his tales of their brutality match many other equally grim accounts. It was the cane or the leather strap the schoolboys feared; it would not be long before the stories of sexual abuse also became widely known (and O’Toole is quick to note that physical abuse and sexual abuse often go hand in hand).

O’Toole reserves a special circle of hell for any kind of church authority, and his treatment of the Christian Brothers reaches far past a “personal history,” a curious moment in the book when his evidence seems to contradict his point. He quotes Éamon de Valera, a hero of the 1916 Easter Rising and Ireland’s most prominent politician for decades: “I am an individual who owes practically everything to the Christian Brothers.” He quotes Charles Haughey, another prominent Irish politician: “What the Brothers do is lay foundations for practically every aspect of one’s life.” But neither quotation—or a number of others—is used to show the good the Christian Brothers intended or accomplished; they are instead, to O’Toole, evidence of just how awful the violence was. Only a man beaten into submission, we are meant to conclude, would be so unable to articulate what had been done to him.

In any case, whatever iron grip the Christian Brothers or any other religious order had over its pupils has become a thing of the past in Ireland. Once it became clear that sexual abuse (as well as other horrors like the Magdalene laundries and the mistreatment of so many other vulnerable adults) had occurred throughout many hybrid church-state institutions, the Irish were even quicker than many other modern societies to shrug their shoulders and wave farewell to traditional religious adherence.

O’Toole even finds a cabbie who has bought a vacation flat in Cape Verde, a country he has never visited and cannot find on a map. “A good investment,” he declares.

A rather different gospel rose to the fore in the 1990s and 2000s, as the Celtic Tiger economic boom promised prosperity, a more cosmopolitan worldview and integration into the world economy. O’Toole even finds a cabbie—all good journalists know to interview the cabbie—who has bought a vacation flat in Cape Verde, a country he has never visited and cannot find on a map. “A good investment,” he declares.

“Ireland became a large-scale version of a TV makeover show,” O’Toole writes, “with the ‘before’ pictures showing a slovenly, depressed wretch and the ‘after’ images a smiling bling-bedecked beauty, who went on to start her own self-improvement course for similarly abject little countries.” And the new gospel did not brook dissent: “To state the obvious was to be a heretic.”

When the worldwide economic crisis of 2008 once again relegated Ireland to the ranks of European charity cases, O’Toole writes, the Irish were strangely accepting of their fate: “There was a cold but effective consolation in the return of the barely repressed—this was a drama that could be shaped as a medieval morality play. That drama had three acts—sin, punishment and redemption.”

“In 1958, and for many decades afterwards, there was this sense that, if it did not pretend to know itself thoroughly and absolutely, Ireland would not exist at all.”

Today, Ireland has recovered economically, to a large extent, from that crash. And while the culture might superficially resemble that of 1958, it has changed dramatically. In the last decade alone, public referendums have legalized abortion and same-sex marriage; Mass attendance and religious vocations are both in steep decline; immigration (to Ireland, not from it) is a growing reality, particularly in the megalopolis that is now Dublin. In 2017 Ireland became only the fourth country in the world to have an openly gay head of state.

Even the seemingly intractable political morass of violence and revenge represented by the Troubles seemed to have an end in sight with the passage in 1998 of the Good Friday Agreement between the British and Irish governments, as well as most of the political parties in Northern Ireland, on the political future of Northern Ireland.

“In 1958, and for many decades afterwards, there was this sense that, if it did not pretend to know itself thoroughly and absolutely, Ireland would not exist at all,” O’Toole writes in the book’s final pages. “Ireland did not start as one fixed thing and end up as another. It moved between different kinds of unfixity.” And it is O’Toole’s analysis of the peace accords that captures most aptly that change in Ireland over the course of his lifetime.

When the Irish Republican Army agreed to sit at the negotiating table without insisting on the reunification of all 32 counties as an absolute requirement—ever the sine qua non of I.R.A. politics—the group’s leaders were tacitly admitting that the rallying cry of three generations of freedom fighters was no longer seen as a realistic possibility. But the people of the Republic, O’Toole notes, “more or less accepted it.” These days you’re more likely to find an Irish-American singing the old rebel songs than the Irish themselves. Why?

“Certitude was what you killed and died for,” O’Toole writes. “Doubt was what you could live with.” From economics to religion to social change to cultural ferment, that formulation might be as succinct a description as any of the journey of Ireland to the present day.

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