It keeps coming back to The Irish Times. Perhaps it could never have been otherwise, the interviewee being Fintan O’Toole, Irish Times columnist for 34 years, covering our social, cultural and political evolution (among so many other strings to his bow).
An hour of conversation with his colleague Hugh Linehan for Winter Nights covered multiple subjects, some provoked by his most recent book, We Don’t Know Ourselves, a personal history of Ireland since 1958, the year of his birth. There’s the surreal and amusing vision of Fintan as a child, singing a sentimental ballad about the Black and Tans, upstaged by other pupils’ shambolic attempts to lift a heavy child aloft. There’s the working class lad from Crumlin, crossing class boundaries to go to university, getting a lift home from a middle-class friend, aware of her horror at a sea of identical houses – an estate. And there’s a golden age: early journalism at In Dublin magazine, part of the first – the only – generation not forced to emigrate, and with freedom to chronicle Ireland’s extraordinary changes.
An editor has never said to me, stay away from that, or we don't agree with that, so you're not allowed to say it. Never, ever, ever. That's really precious
But let’s get ethnocentric, and back to the Irish Times. Fintan O’Toole is so much part of what this is. The conversation, with a lot of warmth and humour and erudition, also has a lot of insight. A sort of poke around inside Fintan O’Toole’s (smart) head.
“Everybody complains about the Irish Times all the time, including everybody who works for it. And some of the criticism is fine. I also think, what would the place be like, without it?” The alternatives were the Irish Press, “a very good newspaper, but controlled by the de Valera family. A family-owned Fianna Fáil newspaper. And the Irish Independent, which was extremely conservative, and was subsequently open to being owned by big, powerful individuals, Tony O’Reilly, Denis O’Brien. The Irish Times was really the only alternative to that.” He was hugely influenced by 1980s women journalists in the Irish Times. Nell McCafferty (“writing with incredible skill and passion and precision”), Mary Maher, Maeve Binchy, Nuala O’Faolain (“world class”; “if your column’s gonna appear the day after Nuala, it better be bloody good. You can’t afford to rest on your laurels”).
It was “never just a gig. I always thought it was a very serious place. I don’t think there’s any other journalist in the world who can say what I can say now. I’ve worked for 34 years for a newspaper, and nobody’s ever told me what to write, or what I couldn’t write. The lawyers might get involved. But an editor has never said to me, stay away from that, or we don’t agree with that, so you’re not allowed to say it. Never, ever, ever. That’s really precious. l don’t know of any of my colleagues in America or Britain who could say that, even people working for really good respectable newspapers.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been spiked [dropped]. And I’m sure a lot of readers wish I was spiked, often!”
O’Toole applied for editor in 2002 (Geraldine Kennedy got the job). Twenty years on, Linehan asks does he feel he dodged a bullet. He feels “probably more relief than anything else. I sort of felt I had a few things to say and I was thinking about maybe radical change in the newspaper physically.”
My mother cleaned offices, my father collected the fares on buses. Compared to those jobs, I would do journalism for half nothing
But “who the hell knows? I’m a funny sort of creature. I just never think about the past, about things that didn’t happen. Largely because I’ve been very, very lucky. I’ve had a life that I still can’t quite believe. I was a lazy, disorganised, dreamy 21-year-old. I’ve written 24 books, been professor in Princeton and all that stuff. And 34 years in the Irish Times. I just wouldn’t have thought that was ever going to be me.” There was luck “to have been in the right places at the right times” and good fortune. “I don’t look back and say I wish I was editor of the Irish Times. It’s quite possible it would have been a disaster. For everybody, including me!”
O’Toole speaks about his journalistic process and sustaining an opinion column over many years: “I think it’s really important that you change your life. Your column comes out of your life, out of wherever you are. I think columnists should do other stuff, write books, have new experiences.”
For him, journalism is “the impulse is to try to tell stories, to explore the world around you. When you say I’m a journalist, a lot of people will sit down and talk to you, answer your questions. And then if you learn how to write, you can tell a story. It’s an enormously privileged and incredibly enjoyable thing to do. My mother cleaned offices, my father collected the fares on buses. Compared to those jobs, I would do journalism for half nothing. Don’t tell anybody that.”
People say “Oh, you’re always moaning about Ireland, talking the country down. I think Ireland is fantastic. I actually think we are one of the luckiest countries in the world. We have a rising population. We have opportunities and capacities. The level of higher education in Ireland is really remarkable, coming from where we’re coming from. I just think, why do the systems and the structures and the services not match the energy and the innovation in society? That does get frustrating. It gets frustrating for citizens. There’s that power of inertia.”
You still have Sinn Féin TDs doing 'Up the Ra' stuff. I find that personally very difficult
He also talks about the prospect of Sinn Féin in government. “I think there is an inevitability to it. In a way it’s been built into the whole process since 1998, which I fully support, bringing Sinn Féin in from the cold. I have no objection at all in principle to that.”
Huge numbers will vote for Sinn Féin in the next election. “But I can’t vote for Sinn Féin, because I remember too much stuff, that was so cruel, so inhuman. Planting bombs in cafes and pubs just to kill as many young people randomly as you possibly could. Doing that over and over and over again. I just can’t deal with it, until they’ve dealt with it. I want them to say, this is why it happened, how it happened. We’ve confronted it, we’re not doing that again. But you still have Gerry Adams telling us they haven’t gone away, you know. You still have Sinn Féin TDs doing ‘Up the Ra’ stuff. I find that personally very difficult. I completely understand why somebody in their 20s or 30s doesn’t. I feel very old in relation to this, because I have all these memories I can’t get rid of.”
And “a shocking confession”: “I’ve stopped reading the comments below the articles. Because they get in your head. You can’t avoid them. Some of them I’m sure are excellent, but at least half are by people who haven’t read the bloody thing. They’re arguing with each other or they’ve looked at a headline.”