25 years of Irish life through the columns of Fintan O’Toole

This is an introduction from a special supplement marking 25 years of Irish Times columns by Fintan O'Toole. To see more of the supplement, including themes such as emigration, the rise and fall of Fianna Fail, the dynamics of terror and the bubble and the bust, see the link to our digital edition below

This is an excerpt from a special supplement marking 25 years of life through the columns of Fintan O'Toole
[To read more in this series see our
digital edition here]

One of the most startling incidents in the Bible introduces the concept of the newspaper columnist. The young hero David enters Jerusalem in triumph as the new king of Israel, anointed by God and acclaimed by the people. He brings the sacred Ark of the Covenant, symbol of Jewish identity, back to the holy city. It is a moment of immense political and religious significance. David leads the Ark through the streets in a ritual dance.

But the narrator suddenly shifts our vision up to a high window and the watching figure of David’s disaffected first wife Michal: “Michal looked out through the window and saw King David leaping and whirling before the Lord and she scorned him in her heart.” She tells the hero that he is literally making a show of himself in the skimpy ritual loincloth that is all he is wearing: “How honoured today is the king of Israel who has exposed himself . . . as some scurrilous fellow would expose himself!”

Michal would have made a good op-ed columnist. The job is essentially about sitting at the window while the parade of power, the verities of church and state, goes by. It is about casting a cold eye on the “leaping and whirling” of public triumphs and seeing the parts that are exposed in all the gyrations. The columnist is, for the most part, a professional killjoy, a licensed sourpuss. When the powerful are intoxicated with their own rhetoric and society is pumped up on irrational exuberance, a dry voice pipes up: stop making a show of yourselves! To which those on the parade quite reasonably reply: who the hell are you up there in your high window with that curdled look on your face?


It is not an easy question to answer. I acquired my place at the window for no better reason than that, in the autumn of 1988, the then editor of The Irish Times, Conor Brady, offered me a contract to write columns and features. Having previously worked for Vincent Browne, who never hid his revulsion at opinion- mongers and, I think, saw my apostasy as a form of early retirement from real journalism, I had my doubts. Would I not merely be exposing myself as some scurrilous fellow to be scorned for his small stock of left-wing views and narrow experiences?

I discovered, however, that Irish Times readers are disputatious and sceptical but also remarkably tolerant. If a column is food for thought, readers see the columnist as no more than a waiter in the great, loud banquet of Ireland's conversation. They don't expect you to do much more than provide something to chew on.

Beyond that, the job is mostly about stating the obvious. Occasionally, the pieces collected here – a rough cross-section of the last 25 years of serial opining – say something most readers didn’t know at the time. Mostly, though, they say things that pretty much everyone did know but that significant numbers of people didn’t want to know. I’ve written before about the Irish variation of Donald Rumsfeld’s infamous ramblings about known knowns and unknown knowns and unknown unknowns: the unknown known. Irish culture has been very good at not knowing what it knows – that Charles Haughey was a kleptocrat, for example, or that the whole point of industrial schools was to be places of torment or that three-bedroomed suburban houses were not worth €1 million. Stating the obvious is a modest enough function but it is not, in this context, entirely pointless.

Which is not to say, on the other hand, that it changes much. In the preface to the second edition of Gulliver's Travels, Gulliver expresses his outrage that the first edition has failed to transform society: "For, instead of seeing a full stop put to all abuses and corruptions, at least in this little island, as I had reason to expect; behold, after above six months' warning, I cannot learn that my book has produced one single effect according to my intentions." How would poor Gulliver feel if he knew that, after 25 years of fulminations, the abuses and corruptions of this little island have yet to reach a full stop?

The little island has, in some respects, changed immeasurably and in others not at all. Looking over these pieces what strikes me is that I could not have imagined in 1988 how seismic the shifts would be and yet how little they would alter the landscape. If someone had said that the institutional power of the Catholic church would be broken, that Fianna Fáil would lose its grip and that violent Irish nationalism would be so marginalised that even Sinn Féin would recognise Northern Ireland, I would not have been entirely surprised. Indeed, these columns contain intimations of precisely those reversals and transformations. But what I would not have been able to grasp is that these epic changes would mask so many continuities: mass emigration, mass unemployment, a largely unreformed political system, continuing impunity and lack of accountability, a culture of fatalism, a State that is often, for those at the bottom, a very cold house.

A better place
The hope behind all the arguments is always that Ireland will be a better place, one that makes the most of its tremendous resources of compassion and imagination, of humour and invention. In some ways, that has happened. This is a much more open and tolerant place, with a much better educated and more self-confident population, than it was in 1988. The daily drip-drip of cruelly spilt blood has been largely staunched. But it is still very far from the genuine republic of equals that it should and could be. Perhaps we've spent the last 25 years stripping away illusions and coming to accept that we're not the model country we pretended to be. And perhaps we may spend the next 25 years learning to believe that, even without grand illusions, we can create a place that looks more like our better selves.