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We Don’t Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Ireland Since 1958, by Fintan O’Toole

Book review: An original and absorbing work underpinned by a profound humaneness

We Don’t Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Ireland Since 1958
Author: Fintan O’Toole
ISBN-13: 978-1784978297
Publisher: Head of Zeus
Guideline Price: £25

Fintan O’Toole has almost made his peace with Ireland. For decades, from his Irish Times pulpit and well beyond, this exceptional journalist and scholar has cast his penetrating eye on the hopes, hypocrisies and hallucinations of his native land, analysing, castigating and empathising.

Some in the privileged position of long-term opinion columnist might be tempted to construct a book as a “best of” collection or a lengthy reworking of their long-aired themes. We get no such thing here; We Don’t Know Ourselves is 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.

O’Toole insists the book is a not a memoir, and that is true, but it contains a rich vein of personal and familial experiences, including from his working-class childhood in Crumlin, that open windows on the themes he chooses to illuminate in relation to Ireland since 1958, the year he was born, over the course of 43 chapters and some 600 pages.

As he observes Ireland now, what strikes him most is the dilution of fear to the point where most, North and South, can “accept the unknown without being so terrified of it that you have to take refuge in the fabrication of absolute conviction”.

O'Toole is very much in the business of extracting meaning, not just from the misogyny, but from the grandiose scale of tax evasion

The historic urges to define by opposition, reject, avoid and blame run as a steady and stern river through the book, across politics, religion and society. But there was also a parallel defiance and creativity, allowing O’Toole to focus on economics, education, sexuality, emigration, violence, television, industrial schools, music, US multi-nationals and corruption amongst other issues. He crafts vivid portraits of individuals and institutions, often beginning by relating the personal to the national. And he distinguishes between what he recognised at the time and what he understood in retrospect.

There is humour and self-effacement, too. In 1972, O’Toole “couldn’t get over how beautiful I looked … for us the big conflict was not the emerging disaster north of the border. It was hair.” At school, like so many others, he was reminded that “God Made the World” but that there were times “when it seemed that the Christian Brothers had been his main subcontractors”.

He slides between farce and ferocity, documenting absurd denials but also the real terror of corporal punishment. The same teacher that was “the first person ever to praise me for writing” viciously beat another child: “even under the squeaks and whimpers coming from the heap on the floor I could hear his low grunts but could not tell if they expressed effort or pleasure.” Ultimately, it was free secondary education that “influenced my life more than any other political act”.

There are some arresting revelations – O’Toole shouting “Up the IRA!” at taoiseach Jack Lynch in Croke Park in 1972; his father spitting in the face of his dead, violent stepfather – but what preoccupies him most is the scale of the ambivalences and the extent of the obscuration that went on, part of the reason for “the great tensions of the place I was born in to”.

There is no shortage of examples of the “doubleness that characterised the culture”: TK Whitaker writing in 1958 of the need to reorientate economic policy in order to “shut the door on the past” while simultaneously invoking the blessing of a Catholic bishop, or John B Keane’s Sive rejected by the Abbey Theatre but embraced by local amateur groups in a “revolt from below”, or Fianna Fáil’s Pádraig Faulkner arguing the Irish needed television “from the spiritual point of view” as “there are very different standards of morality in this country”.

He juxtaposes the drenching of his childhood in Catholicism. As an altar boy, he kissed the ring of Archbishop McQuaid, “a man so utterly in command” – with what we know now of the protection of abusers – but also underlines the extent of the “silence, evasion and creative ambiguity” in relation to contraception, with thousands of women prescribed the pill as a “cycle regulator”.

As to the counterproductive preoccupation with occasions of sin: “when sex was not open to discussion or acknowledgement, everything was hyper-sexualised”. It was a country that endured the likes of the tragi-farce of a paedophile priest officiating at a Catholic marriage tribunal, questioning “distressed couples in intimate details about their sex lives”.

The slaughter during the height of the Troubles and its impact on civilians is coolly unpacked, including the UDA torturing to death a mentally disabled Catholic and burning a cross into his back, and the Official IRA’s Aldershot bomb in 1972, which killed seven, including five cleaners. O’Toole’s initial elation at the “savour of revenge” for Bloody Sunday was replaced by dizzying nausea: “my own mother worked as a cleaner”.

He documents the Dunne family, who brought heroin to Dublin; the family’s brutalisation in industrial schools had provoked this response from Henry Dunne: “after that we felt what is the f**king point?” Ultimately, one in 10 of 15-24-year-olds in the north inner city was using heroin, but “the official mind went entirely absent from what was happening in working class communities”.

O’Toole has a ball in dissecting Charles Haughey and his psychology, and it makes for a gripping portrait; fittingly, given the degree to which Haughey’s “mastery of hypocrisy was mesmerising, exquisite, magisterial”, he writes about him more than any other politician.

When the crash came, blame was collectivised (according to Brian Lenihan, 'we all partied')

And then there were the multiple “women to blame” during the moral civil wars. O’Toole went to listen to one of the founders of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children speak in Kildare, during which she informed the audience that “men who go in for rape are not very fertile … a woman who has been raped can have a washout”. During the Kerry Babies saga “black magic” was “ruled out” as a cause of infanticide.

There were many who were “overwhelmed by the task of extracting meaning from these events”, but O’Toole is very much in the business of extracting meaning, not just from the misogyny, but from the grandiose scale of tax evasion (“the frauds were so open that it took a conscious effort on the part of the authorities to pretend not to see them”) and the blatant crimes that were let lie due to what officialdom referred to as “the sensitivity of the matter”.

Much of this amounted to a “system of feigned ignorance” accompanied by much winking where “you have one eye open and one closed, and we hadn’t yet decided whether we wanted to look at the country with both eyes open”. The myths gradually imploded with the exposure of the chasm between image and reality. He writes warmly of Mary Raftery and Sheila Ahern (“a two-woman tribunal of inquiry”) in tracking down victims of industrial schools and their trojan efforts to end “the consignment of lived experience to the margins of lived reality”.

In tandem, the dynamic of violence in Northern Ireland became an expression of powerlessness, but through the peace process, the “capacity to believe opposite things at the same time … played a benign part in Irish history”.

Culturally, Irish ambivalences were mined to considerable effect by great playwrights, including Tom Murphy and Brian Friel, while the changed texture of Ireland (in 2016, the country contained immigrants from 180 countries) and the legacy of emigration underlined the extent to which we are a hyphenated people.

New extremes lay in wait with the Celtic Tiger era, which involved “a euphoric embrace of hyper-globalised post-modernity”. While the atmosphere of depression and inferiority may have been banished, it was also largely fuelled by debt. When the crash came, blame was collectivised (according to Brian Lenihan, “we all partied”), which amounted to an assertion that “all Irish people were responsible for the debts of a few Irish casino banks”.

The subsequent widespread resignation to collective punishment was partly because, “deep down”, we had “a low level of expectation” and much experience of “shifting between extremes”. US investment kept us afloat, joined to our own “homemade volatilities”. But Ireland’s “own stories were also unfolding in their own forms and at their own pace”, including those of an older generation.

The real significance of the repeal of the Eighth Amendment, O’Toole suggests, was not young people dragging Ireland to modernity but that 40 per cent of over-65s voted for repeal. The country had allowed itself gradually “to shrink away from the stories that were too big to match the scale of intimate decencies”.

Diarmaid Ferriter is professor of modern Irish history at UCD. His new book is Between Two Hells: The Irish Civil War (Profile Books)