Fintan O’Toole: My personal history of modern Ireland

We Don’t Know Ourselves is the story of Ireland’s growth since the 1950s

On the weekend I was born, in February 1958, three stories were running in the Irish papers. Two of them were lurid and dramatic and ran for days. One was barely worth an inside paragraph.

Yet, over the next 60 years, the boring little story would compete on increasingly equal terms with the other two. It may even come to be, in the very long term, more consequential.

The first story was the cancellation of the Dublin Theatre Festival. The ruler of Catholic Ireland, the Archbishop of Dublin John Charles McQuaid, had silently indicated his displeasure at the inclusion of an adaptation of James Joyce’s Ulysses, and a new play by Sean O’Casey. Samuel Beckett had then withdrawn two of his works from the festival.

McQuaid had not even made any public statement. And the adaptor of the Joyce piece insisted rather plaintively that he had had his script vetted by a priest to ensure that anything objectionable was filtered out.


Much good it did him. The Church’s power worked in mysterious but unquestionable ways. The tortuous unravelling of that authority is one of the rhythms – very slow, then very fast – underlying my attempt to describe Ireland’s struggle with modernity in We Don’t Know Ourselves.

The second story that weekend in 1958 was that, while my mother was in labour with me in a basement flat in Blackrock in Dublin, the IRA was raiding a British army training camp in Blandford, Dorset. The raiders shot the sentry in the stomach and bound and gagged 10 young soldiers, all of them raw conscripts. It was very easy: the guards’ rifles were not even loaded.

The event was treated as if it were a scene in a comic opera. A few days later, the newly appointed British secretary of state for war, Christopher Soames, was asked, amid general laughter in the House of Commons, whether this was “the first battle in which he has been engaged”.

It seemed at the time that this kind of thing was the fag end of a dying history. Four days earlier, there was a vast public funeral in Dublin for a fallen young hero.

The body of Liam Whelan, the brilliant 22-year-old Manchester United inside-forward who had been killed in the Munich air disaster, was flown home on an Aer Lingus freight plane and accompanied by large crowds on a five-mile route from the airport to the Church of Christ the King in Cabra, with thousands more lining the route.

In a world in which young Irish people were bailing out to go and live in Manchester and Birmingham and London and Glasgow, it would not have been unreasonable to think of the Blandford raid as an anachronism and Whelan’s funeral as a more accurate gauge of the temperature of the times. How could people have known that Blandford was as much a harbinger of the future as a blast from the past?

The third incident that weekend – the departure for Paris of the minister for industry and commerce, Seán Lemass, for talks on European free trade – was scarcely visible, a boring non-story. Lemass himself called the negotiating session “important but of small general interest”.

Yet even if most people were not interested, his trip to Paris was a telling moment in the creation of the Ireland I would grow up in. While nationalism and religion sucked up almost all the oxygen, those dull, technical talks were exposing the existential dilemma of the whole project of Irish independence.

What Lemass was grappling with was whether, as western Europe continued to move inexorably towards the creation of a zone of free trade, Ireland could continue to exist as a viable economic entity. Neither he nor anyone else knew how profoundly it would have to change if it was to become a part of what was then called the West.

Becoming modern would be about much more than trade and economics – it would shape everything, including, incidentally, my life. That’s what I decided to write a book about.

Church and State intruded on all our intimacies, on the body, on sex, on the minutiae of our most confidential relationships

I have to know the title of a book before I can write it. It tells me – as I hope it will tell the reader – what the thing is.

What came to me is a kind of pun, though one that only really works for Irish people. We have that phrase: Ah sure, we don’t know ourselves!

It means that some change of circumstances is going very well. How’s the new house? We don’t know ourselves!

But of course it also has a more literal meaning. It suggests that in this great change of circumstances, there is also a struggle to get a fix on what we are choosing to know – and not to know – about who we are now.

Both of these meanings attach themselves to the story I was interested in telling. It is a narrative of what has happened to Ireland over the course of my lifetime, a startling and in many ways wonderful transformation that is also haunted by the persistence of an ability to hope that what is out of sight will stay out of mind.

There are many excellent books about the process that followed from the quiet revolution of 1958, the painful and complex metamorphosis of a stagnant backwater into a tributary of the globalised mainstream. What has not been done, I think, is to try to tell it as a story.

What that means in practice is to assemble the facts but to approach them as a novelist might do. What the novelist would ask, in essence, is: how did it feel? How, in other words, can we map the psychological and emotional – as well as the political and economic – contours of this radically shifting Irish landscape?

Before you can begin to answer that question, you have to answer another one: from whose perspective are you going to see this story? Somewhat reluctantly, I had to conclude that only one is possible: my own. A novelist could do otherwise. I can’t.

I have spent most of my adult life putting words on pages and screens, a process that is innately dull. I have no memoirs to write.

But there is another possibility, what I have called in the subtitle of the book “personal history”. Any one of us could tell the story of our times from the point of view of our own families, our own concerns, our own memories. We could find the places where our little private worlds crisscross the big public narrative.

I thought at first that I could do this through a series of vignettes, that the story could unfold as a set of glimpses and cameos. That would make for a nice short book. But it became obvious that it would also be a book with too much hindsight, too neatly shaped by the knowledge of how things turned out. There would be something false about that.

You have to encompass everything from electrification to country and western music, from Balubas to Bungalow Bliss, from Seán Ó Riada to Intel, from the Pope to the Provos

Ireland’s process of change has not been at all neat. There has been no straight flight path from the poor and benighted 1950s to a comfortable landing zone in shiny modernity. It has been, on the contrary, a very bumpy ride, full of reversals and contradictions, shadowed always by the many returns of the many repressed things: the unfinished business of sectarian division; the secrets and lies that kept the alliance of Church and State in power; the corruption of politics; the cognitive dissonance of an official story increasingly at odds with reality.

There are no clean distinctions between the present tense, the long lasting past and the many imagined futures of Ireland since 1958.

To tell such a story honestly, you really have to start at the beginning and follow it through year by year. There is no other way to capture the uncertainties that faced ordinary people at each moment.

I conveniently forgot how many such years there are, how old I actually am. A lot of years means a lot of pages. Ireland’s struggle with modernity is not a short story. It is an epic.

To write it, you have to allow for many modes and moods – tragic, outlandish, surreal, brutal, hilarious, hopeful. You have to encompass everything from electrification to country and western music, from Balubas to Bungalow Bliss, from Seán Ó Riada to Intel, from the Anglo Irish Beef Processors to Anglo Irish Bank, from the Pope to the Provos. The trick is to hold it all together and this is where the personal stuff comes in. The ballast I’ve used for the voyage is my own memories.

Being Irish is a big help in this regard. The texture of Irish life is woven out of the overlapping threads of public and private realities. In the intimacy that defines the place, most of us encounter large events in familiar, even familial, contexts. For decade after decade, what no one in Ireland needed to be told was that the wall between the private and the public was paper thin. Church and State intruded on all our intimacies, on the body, on sex, on the minutiae of our most confidential relationships.

I suppose what I was after was a kind of revenge, or at least a riposte: to allow the private to reclaim its place in the shaping of the grand public narrative of modern Ireland. This is the other side of the nature of the place: small memories intersect with big stories.

So I can tell you, for example, what it was like to serve Mass for John Charles McQuaid. His arrival in the Crumlin housing estate where I grew up was the equivalent of a monarch’s visit to his most loyal subjects.

But I also now know what he knew at that moment. He knew – because the police had told him, very discreetly – that his chaplain in Crumlin Children’s Hospital was taking photographs of naked kids. And he knew that he himself had just appointed a paedophile priest to the parish next to ours on the estate.

Or I can tell you what it was like to get a lift from Maynooth to Dublin from another bishop, Eamonn Casey, in his low-slung Lancia sports car: utterly terrifying. His driving was almost suicidally reckless and it made me think: this man is addicted to risk.

But of course, everyone now knows how momentous the consequences of his risk-taking would be. He had a son with Annie Murphy. The story eventually came out in The Irish Times. The veneer of episcopal sanctity was shattered.

Or I can tell you a little bit about my uncle, Willy, who was one of the Irish United Nations soldiers who endured the siege of Jadotville in the Congo in 1961, victims of Ireland’s confused and tentative attempts to claim a place for itself in the big world of Cold War conflict.

All I really knew was that he was a really lovely, gentle man who didn’t talk about what happened but who seemed shadowed by some silent hurt. Or rather, I did know one thing because I remembered him mentioning the swimming pool in Elizabethville. After being released from captivity by the Katangese rebels led by Moïse Tshombe, Willy spent some weeks guarding the compound of the UN special representative, Conor Cruise O’Brien. As a good Catholic, he was disturbed to discover that O’Brien, who was divorced, was living in the house with Máire Mac an tSaoi, to whom he was not yet married. But he was somewhat mollified because the Cruiser allowed him to use the swimming pool.

And then I came across the claim by George Ivan Smith, a UN official who also lived in O’Brien’s bungalow, that the only thing that frightened him in the Congo were “the shell shocked babies with sub-machine guns on guard duty round Conor’s swimming pool”. And I read Mac an tSaoi’s memoir where she recalls of Willy and the other guards that, “When Tshombe’s jet-fighter flew over they trembled like aspens, and their weapons trembled too”. Such images of the aftermath of trauma – men trembling like aspens – open little windows into the personal consequences of historic events.

Or I can tell you how I realised in retrospect that the big story of the horrific industrial schools – a story we only allowed ourselves to “know” in the 1990s – had shaped my father’s life and thus mine. His father died of TB. His mother, with five children, had to marry someone – or else he and his siblings would be sent to industrial schools. She sacrificed herself and married the only man who would take her, a violent brute.

The more I thought and wrote about the hurry of Ireland's race to become modern, the more I was struck by the strange things passing through it

A phrase that Cruise O’Brien used has always stuck in my head. He was passing the Pro-Cathedral in Dublin when he saw the ancient de Valera going in to pay his respects to the body of the dead McQuaid. “History”, he wrote, “brushed me with its wing.”

For unlucky people – and there were tens of thousands of them in the decades of the Troubles – history’s touch is not nearly so gentle. It is a vicious smack, and I have tried to evoke in the book some of its cruel force.

But for most of us that sense of being touched, almost accidentally, by the passage of great forces is closer to our experience. I was among the lucky ones and I have tried to describe the feel of the feathers on my own particular skin as Irish history flew by on its errant way. As I wrote I kept thinking, too, about Seamus Heaney’s line: “a hurry through which known and strange things pass”. It says in nine words what I have taken 600 pages to try to describe.

Historians are great at the known things, at helping us to define and pin them down. But their Olympian gaze is perhaps not so good at the strange ones, the sheer oddity of the collisions that life throws up all the time, the stuff that seems like you made it up.

And I have to admit that the more I thought and wrote about the hurry of Ireland's race to become modern, the more I was struck by the strange things passing through it. So much of it can seem – when it is not nightmarish – dreamy and fantastical. Did people really put on blackface and dress up as "Balubas" in fancy dress parades in small towns? Was there really a fashion show in 1966 featuring "the GPO trouser suit" as a tribute to our martyred dead? Did Charlie Haughey actually give Brian Lenihan's wife £200 as a grand gesture of generosity while he was stealing the money raised for her husband's life-saving liver transplant? Did Martin McGuinness's mother wonder in 1972 what her son was going to do with his life now that the war was over?

Such things did indeed happen. The truth about modern Ireland has long been stranger than fiction. I’ve tried to make it almost as credible.

We Don’t Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Ireland since 1958 is published by Head of Zeus

Fintan O'Toole

Fintan O'Toole

Fintan O'Toole is an Irish Times columnist and writer