A personal history of modern Ireland

September 19, 2023
book cover
Background image: Adam Jones from Kelowna, BC, Canada, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

We Don’t Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Modern Ireland
By Fintan O’Toole
Liveright/WW Norton, 2022
616 pp

“Fianna Fail, Fine Gael, Labour’s got me on the rails 
It never seemed to make no sense, I couldn't tell the difference 
Stay married, hate her guts, no no no divorce 
Little girls all end up pregnant, hypocrites in every convent — Gotta get out of the land of De Valera!”

— From “Land of De Valera”, by Larry Kirwan & Black 47 (1989).

“Where the people are weak, and the people are spent,
From running in circles ’til their legs they are bent,
Lamenting the price of the petrol and the rent,
Ah we’re slow to learn in ould Éireann.
And the green rag that’s tied round our ears and our eyes,
Well it stops us from telling the truth from the lies,
For competitional patience we’d win the first prize,
For we’re too easy going in Éireann.”

— From “Déanta in Éireann” ("Made in Ireland"), by the Lankum band (2020).

Fintan O’Toole’s charmingly personalised history of modern Ireland could be titled, “How the Irish escaped from the Land of De Valera”. It’s a fascinating account of how the Republic of Ireland (aka Eire) evolved from a semi-fascist, deeply misogynistic, theocratic country ruled by religiously-anointed sexual perverts and their corrupt, lackey political hacks into the progressive, modern, secular state that it is today.

As O’Toole reminds us, contemporary Ireland is not the island-wide, 32-county, egalitarian, socialist republic envisioned by 1916 revolutionary martyr James Connolly and his acolytes. The north-eastern six-county section of the island (Northern Ireland) remains a contested and sometimes turbulent part of Britain.

Recent Irish economic history — with its massive bank scandals, real estate bubbles, endemic homelessness, plagues of narcotics and suicides and widespread financial frustration — hardly reads as utopian. The once-vaunted “roaring” Celtic Tiger has become at best a softly-purring kitten.

Yet, for all its limitations, Eire is a respected member of the European Economic Community and a fairly smoothly functioning parliamentary democracy with decidedly liberal social laws and mores. Organised political violence has been reduced to minor sporadic and localised flare-ups; in sharp contrast to the near- civil war that raged in parts of the island from 1970‒98.

O’Toole shows little sympathy for the Irish Republican tradition of romanticising political violence. He exposes the supposedly heroic martyr-subject of the well- known rebel ballad “Sean South” as an anti-semitic, reactionary bigot who died in a pathetically bungled 1950’s border attack on a British police station. More contemporary Irish Republican figures such as Bobby Sands, Gerry Adams and Bernadette Devlin McAliskey get less harsh assessments. O’Toole feels closer in his views to John Hume and the Social Democratic and Labour Party than to the Irish Republican Army and its affiliates. He says little about contemporary Sinn Fein, which is a surprising shortcoming of this book.

His memories of “the Troubles” focus more on paramilitary atrocities perpetrated upon civilians in Ireland and Britain than on any celebrations of “revolutionary” nationalist or loyalist martial glory. His attitude towards contemporary Sinn Fein appears to be “wait and see”, although he clearly sees a Euro-integrated Ireland as of more importance than the long-sought “thirty-two county united Ireland”. O’Toole quips: “Being European was the ultimate way of not being British.”

An internationally-published journalist who came from near-poverty and who often writes on economic and political matters, O’Toole understandably focuses on observations of Ireland’s changing gross domestic product over the decades since his birth, in 1958. The change, he notes, has been striking.

Between 1960 and 1980, Ireland went “from being an agrarian economy where cattle was king to one that could be understood as part of the international industrial order”. This economic growth followed upon a 1958 Irish government plan for “Economic Development” which did, in fact, set forth modernisation of the economy.

Social modernisation of “southern” Ireland took longer in what had long been a deeply-conservative country dominated by the powerful Catholic Church hierarchy and which bordered on the equally socially conservative Protestant/Presbyterian-dominated British province of Northern Ireland. Ireland did not get its own television station until 1961, and then a large portion of its programming was American-made.

O’Toole is well aware of the pervasive and puzzling Irish tendency to hold contradictory ideas simultaneously, where it seems no fact can be fully pinned down as “true” or “false”.

The innate corruption of many Irish politicians such as “Boss” Charles Haughey seems less hypocrisy than a manifestation of a form of double-think. As the Boss, he saw himself above both the law and social constraints, and he flaunted his “special status”.

Haughey’s “mastery of hyprocrisy”, O’Toole writes, “was mesmerising, exquisite, magisterial”. Perhaps similarly, successful Sinn Fein politician Gerry Adams can deny membership in the IRA and yet bask in the public’s common knowledge of his service record as an IRA commander. About one particular national governmental scandal, O’Toole wryly comments, “The truth itself lacked credibility.”

Although the Irish economy improved in the late 20th century, the religious and sexual repression ingrained in Irish society under De Valera’s rule persisted. It was not until very recently that contraception, abortion, divorce and gay rights were legalised and the acknowledgement and investigation of the horrid history of the abuse (and murder) of women and children is only now ongoing. Ironically, progress on social mores in the “British-held” six counties of Northern Ireland was often more rapid than in the “free” southern 26 counties.

O’Toole points to the odd relationship of Ireland to the United States as disturbing. At the same time as interest was being revived in Irish traditional music, Nashville-style country-western dominated Irish popular taste. More significantly, US corporations have been given exceptionally favourable treatment, and US politicians such as John F Kennedy have been all but sanctified.

Irish economic development relied exclusively on foreign, often US, investment. “In 2017”, O’Toole writes, “US direct investment stock in Ireland totaled US$457 billion, a greater investment stake than in Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Belgium, Denmark and Sweden combined”. In 2015, Irish GDP rose by 26% but was, as O’Toole writes, “a miracle that was mostly a mirage”, based on unreliable statistics and foreign financial input, not on real Irish economic growth.

For all his reservations, O’Toole holds tentative hope for better days to come in Ireland, as the border conflict and bombastic nationalism recede and a more reasoned Irish sense of world-citizenship increases. He writes about our present moment: “The old was imploding but the new was not fully born.” He also sums up the personal and societal story of his book in these succinct words: “The transformation of Ireland over the last 60 years has sometimes felt as if a new world had landed from outer space on top of an old one.”

We Don’t Know Ourselves is a skillfully-written, intellectually fascinating and most important read. Highly recommended.

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