An Post Irish Book of the Year 2021: Fintan O’Toole’s personal history of Ireland wins award

We Don’t Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Ireland Since 1958 ‘a book for the ages’

An Post Irish Book of the Year 2021: Fintan O’Toole with his award. Photograph: Barry Cronin

An Post Irish Book of the Year 2021: Fintan O’Toole with his award. Photograph: Barry Cronin

 

We Don’t Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Ireland Since 1958, by Fintan O’Toole, has been announced as the An Post Irish Book of the Year 2021.

Maria Dickenson of Dubray Books, who chaired the judging panel, said: “We Don’t Know Ourselves is a book that will remain important for a very long time – a reflection of who we are and where we came from. Truly, this is a book for the ages. Fintan O’Toole understands Ireland in a visceral way – it isn’t just politics but culture and popular culture. He gets all of Ireland and its turbulent history during his lifetime.”

Her fellow judge David McRedmond, chief executive of An Post, said: “I think it’s an astonishing book, fresh and passionate. Deeply moving but often funny and wry, a chronicle for our times. The most remarkable Irish nonfiction book I’ve read in the last 10 years.”

O’Toole, who has been a columnist for The Irish Times since 1988, said: “This book is more personal than anything I’ve written before, with a lot of stuff about my childhood and my family history. So it feels a bit more exposed than usual, and the relief that most people seem to like it is all the greater for that.

“I wanted to tell the story of the transformation of Ireland in my lifetime in a way that most Irish people could relate to. The hope was that my own experiences could be woven into a shared narrative. That only works if readers recognise at least something of themselves in the book. Unlike a more conventional history, where feelings should be kept out of it, I wanted people to think at some point, Yes, that’s how it felt for me living through this time.

“That’s why it’s especially gratifying that so many readers made the effort to vote in the An Post awards and that the judges felt that the book touches on something a bit broader than any particular category or genre.”

The other shortlisted titles were category winners from the recent An Post Irish Book Awards: Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney; Did Ye Hear Mammy Died? by Séamas O’Reilly; Aisling and the City by Emer McLysaght and Sarah Breen; Your One Wild and Precious Life by Maureen Gaffney; and A Hug for You by David King, illustrated by Rhiannon Archard. Last year’s winner was A Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ní Ghríofa.

A young Fintan O’Toole with some of the people whose stories he tells in his award-winning personal history of Ireland
A young Fintan O’Toole with some of the people whose stories he tells in his award-winning personal history of Ireland

The prize, chosen by an online public vote and a judging panel that also included Madeleine Keane, literary editor of the Sunday Independent; senior librarian Marian T Keyes; and literary agent Simon Trewin, was announced on RTÉ One this evening.

Reviewing We Don’t Know Ourselves, which is published by Head of Zeus, for The Irish Times, Diarmaid Ferriter, professor of modern Irish history at UCD, called it “a remarkably original, fluent and absorbing book, with the pace and twists of an enthralling novel and the edge of a fine sword, underpinned by a profound humaneness”. Colm Tóibín in the Guardian called it a “sweeping, authoritative and profoundly intelligent book”.

O’Toole has been described as Ireland’s leading public intellectual. His several prestigious awards include the Orwell Prize for Journalism and the European Press Prize in 2017 and on three occasions the NewsBrands Ireland Journalism Awards Broadsheet Columnist of the Year. His book A History of Ireland in 100 Objects, based on an Irish Times series, won an Irish Book Award in 2013.

Born in Crumlin and educated at Coláiste Chaoimhín and University College Dublin, he is currently a visiting lecturer in Irish letters at Princeton University, in the United States. In 2017 he was commissioned by Faber & Faber to write the official biography of Seamus Heaney.

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