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Ireland, We Hardly Knew Ye

Fintan O’Toole’s just-so story of Irish modernization

We Don’t Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Modern Ireland by Fintan O’Toole. Liveright, 624 pages.

Fintan O’Toole is probably Ireland’s best known public intellectual. A longtime fixture of the Irish Times and omnipresent talking head on radio and television, his voice has become increasingly familiar to foreign audiences in recent years with writings on Brexit, Trump, and other American political figures regularly published in the New York Review of Books. We Don’t Know Ourselves, his latest book, takes on an onerous task: to tell the story of the last sixty-five years in Ireland, a country that went from a poor, conservative, and largely agrarian afterthought to a modern, liberal, developed economy, tightly integrated into the European Union.

O’Toole has been here before, with his History of Ireland in 100 Objects, published in 2013. But he is first and foremost a columnist, not an historian. As such, the book lands midway between personal memoir and Reeling in the Years, the popular history program that Irish national broadcaster RTÉ has been showing on hard rotation for twenty years now. In We Don’t Know Ourselves, the years proceed chronologically and thematically; each offers a thumbnail sketch of subjects like the church, the IRA, corruption, and modernization. A series of fortunate coincidences have placed the author at a Forrest Gump-like distance from several key figures. Here he is as an altar boy to Archbishop John Charles McQuaid; there he goes with Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald; and is that composer Seán Ó Riada I see? This achieves the neat trick of conferring both authority and deniability. When O’Toole wants some credibility, he can say, well, I was there, and if anyone asks for more evidence to back up any claim, well, it’s just a personal story. The form is something of an illusion, hiding as much as it reveals.

By far the book’s strongest sections are those on the Catholic Church and “the vast system of coercive confinement” they ran in concert with the Irish state: Magdalene laundries, industrial schools, and Mother and Baby homes. On the Church’s depraved sexual, physical, and psychological abuse, O’Toole writes with a genuine fury, the sort of white-hot moral clarity that the subject merits. As a working-class child, his proximity to history works to grim effect:

I don’t remember a time when I did not know certain words: Artane, Letterfrack, Daingean—the names of the places where the biggest industrial schools were. They formed a hinterland of dread. When I was eight, Georgie, a boy who lived just across from me on Aughavannagh Road, a boy I was at school with, disappeared. The word that emerged from the street was: Artane. He was a good kid, a little bit wild but sweet-natured. It was said he had stolen a bike.

It is remarkable that after innumerable official inquiries and reports, tribunals and settlements, the stories of the violence meted out to women, children, and the vulnerable in the name of God retain the power to horrify. Underlying them all is the knowledge that almost no one really paid for these crimes, with their freedom or money. Vanishingly few of the thugs who ran these institutions ever saw the inside of a courtroom, and certainly no one in charge.

There is no occurrence so mundane that someone will not declare it could only happen in Ireland.

But these sections on institutional violence have a precision and weight that is not matched elsewhere. As befits a cultural critic, O’Toole’s usual method of analysis is a combination of literary criticism and psychoanalysis: taking a snappy quote, a well-chosen anecdote, and spinning it out into an elaborate theory on the way things were then. Sometimes these assessments have a ring of truth to them, particularly when accompanied by evidence. Frequently, they do not, and several declarations are, on second glance, unknowable, inscrutable, preposterous, or banal. A proliferation of ugly one-off house building becomes “the petrified spirit of Irish country and western [music].” A martyr’s grisly head is paraded through the streets, and O’Toole declares, omnisciently, that “nobody thought any of this at all strange.” His claim to clairvoyance extends to the subject of emigration, about which he says that “even those who did not go, thought about it.” What bills itself as penetrating, original history instead regularly resolves into a series of just-so stories about Ireland that pander to the received wisdom of Irish liberals.

This is dogma of a different sort, but dogma nonetheless. O’Toole’s secondary sources mostly come from canonical and establishment scholarship of the last fifty years. There seems to be little room to engage with the path-breaking work of brilliant young Irish academics, though plenty for citing talk-show host Ryan Tubridy. O’Toole repeats the tired story that the Irish constitution was “created by [Taoiseach Éamon] de Valera in 1937 (with help from McQuaid).” The Archbishop is his supervillain: “McQuaid’s eye was like the eye of God: all-seeing, unblinking.” This is great man history, and a lazy half-truth. McQuaid was an important part of a system of religious and social control that operated within Ireland, but he did not author the constitution. In place of evidence for O’Toole’s claim, we get secondhand tales about McQuaid spying on “courting couples” with a powerful telescope and examining women’s magazines for accidental nudity. Worse than being bad history, this flatters the ego of a man who certainly wished to feel himself all powerful but frequently came up against his very real limits. It also elides how unjust power resided not in individuals but in persistent structures that have been passed on to the less cartoonish political figures of today.

One of the strangest tics that afflicts the Irish people (see how easy this is?) is a tendency to imagine that they are perfectly unique. There is no occurrence so mundane that someone will not declare it could only happen in Ireland. O’Toole has spent many years psychoanalyzing the Irish, and he, too, seems to regard us as one-of-a-kind, particularly in our ability to hold dissonant or contradictory beliefs. On clerical abuse, the Irish have “a genius for knowing and not knowing at the same time.” Large scale tax evasion and fraud becomes “bad Irish fiction run rampant.” This view is parochial, and the evidence presented for it very weak. Most, perhaps all, other nations engage in cognitive dissonance, doublespeak, and hypocrisy, and many peoples find creative and unusual ways to evade censorship. The phrase “unknown known” is used repeatedly throughout the book, without attribution to either Donald Rumsfeld or Slavoj Žižek. O’Toole reaches for it every time there is a moment of strategic ambiguity that must be immediately branded as Irish. Are we to imagine that other places don’t have open secrets or unacknowledged truths that everybody knows? Even the magazine that he cites as circumspectly highlighting Taoiseach Charlie Haughey’s misdeeds, Private Eye, is not Irish at all, but a British publication famous for its libel-defying blind items about politicians in Westminster.

The limitations of O’Toole’s perspective come to the fore in an odd section on the Kerry Babies scandal, a 1984 case in which a woman called Joanne Hayes was falsely accused of murder after the body of a newborn child was discovered on a beach. He begins with a sloppy caricature of the local people before concluding that it was some ineffable storytelling quality in the Irish spirit that made the police attempt to pin infanticide on an innocent woman—rather than the sort of state arse-covering, misogyny, and petty malice that is typical of police forces the world over.

Market Square, Bagenalstown, Co. Carlow, 1991. | Padraig J. Laffan/National Library of Ireland

It is on state violence that O’Toole is at his very weakest. Police corruption and brutality is discussed, but without acknowledgment of its primary cause. The worst excesses of the police in the late twentieth century—like the infamous Garda “Heavy Gang,” a violent “interrogation” squad who operated with impunity—came about in response to the return of serious Republican violence in the early 1970s. The Provisional IRA in particular were thought by the Irish establishment to be a threat to the state so profound that nothing was off the table to counter them. Over the course of the Troubles, concrete political steps were taken by successive law-and-order governments to escalate and hide the violence employed in this project. Corruption, the constant enemy of the liberal, is a narrow and insufficient way to analyze the things done not for private gain but quite deliberately in the name of the state.

O’Toole’s rhetorical restraint extends to the UK. The treatment of those in the care of Irish religious orders is fairly described as torture. That same treatment, when inflicted on internees by the British army, becomes merely “torture-like” methods. The actions of Republican paramilitaries are treated at all times as nihilistic, intentional, and monstrous, while those of the British state are wrongheaded, mistaken, or a bungle. O’Toole has no interest in the ways in which the British government used its intelligence agencies to infiltrate paramilitaries, to organize and conceal mass murder for their own ends. Where, in six hundred-odd pages of recent Irish history, is collusion? Where is the Glenanne Gang? Where are the Dublin and Monaghan bombings, among the deadliest attacks of the entire conflict? The Miami Showband get a mention, but where is their brutal murder, at the hands of some who were almost definitely connected to British intelligence? The existence of some British agents “at the heart of the IRA” is glancingly referenced, but only to note approvingly their access to information, not to question the British state’s complicity in the violence orchestrated and carried out by the group.

One does not have to be a supporter of the campaigns of the IRA, or even particularly nationalist, to wonder whether O’Toole might not have an especial hatred for Republican violence above that of all other combatants. This palpable dislike tips over into dishonesty at the end of the chapter “1972: Death of a Nationalist,” which recounts the extraordinarily bloody period of the early 1970s. After a long list of IRA bombings and civilian deaths, O’Toole brings things home with the story of the December 1972 bombing in Dublin that killed two men, bus workers just like his own father. “I knew,” he concludes, “I was never again going to feel that such people were somebody else.” Emotionally, the section is very effective. The only problem is that this bombing was never claimed by either wing of the IRA (or any other organization); loyalist paramilitaries were widely suspected of carrying out the attacks, with the possible assistance of British intelligence. O’Toole is insinuating that the IRA were ultimately responsible for all the violence that occurred during the Troubles because they in some sense lit the match. This is the dominant ideology of southern Irish liberals, and it diminishes the responsibility of states and other actors in thirty years of carnage, feeding the pernicious idea that this was somehow all the fault of ordinary people. (His interest in the north, it must also be noted, does not extend much further than the Troubles.)

O’Toole cannot honestly name this state violence as he holds a special antipathy toward republicanism as a political ideology—by his own admission because he once considered himself in the tent, albeit briefly. He chastises himself for shouting “Up the IRA” as a teenager and spends considerable time flagellating himself (and us) for our complicity in Republican violence: it was the ambiguity of the average Irish position on the North, on partition, and on the IRA, O’Toole argues, that gave them license to commit the acts they did. This disdain makes the book abruptly lurch from measured if shallow history to op-ed polemic. The complex stew of warring ideologies—socialist, nationalist, Catholic, quasi-fascist—that made up the IRA (and the broader Republican movement) in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s is reduced to caricature in the person of the right wing, anti-Semitic Seán South, whose 1956 death was commemorated in song. The book repeatedly takes to task the martyrdom of Irish Republicanism, how it makes saintly figures of its noble dead, from the signatories of the 1916 Proclamation of the Irish Republic to South, Frank Stagg, Bobby Sands, and the nine other dead in the Maze Prison hunger strikes.

But O’Toole and the generation of Irish liberals of whom he is the most prominent have their own set of sanctified figures: the men and women whose farsightedness, evenhandedness, and practicality supposedly led Ireland out of the dark ages. Their names are repeated throughout We Don’t Know Ourselves with almost Catholic reverence: T.K. Whitaker, Gay Byrne, Donogh O’Malley, Séan Lemass. A reference to “the saintly George Mitchell” reveals an author who might have been well advised to do a quick google on their subject’s recent news appearances.

In this way, O’Toole’s perspective is only selectively anti-elite. He clearly (and rightly) despises the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, of Fianna Fáil, of a self-appointed ruling class. But he seems not to recognize his own adjacency to it. He is at pains to distance himself from the elite, stressing his working-class roots and painting himself as an iconoclast in increasingly questionable ways. He describes being invited to a state dinner with the Canadian prime minister but makes sure to say that it was “by some mistake.” We are asked to believe that this stalwart of Irish media, visiting lecturer at Princeton, published in The Atlantic and the Guardian, is some kind of outsider.

O’Toole and the generation of Irish liberals of whom he is the most prominent have their own set of sanctified figures.

This denial may explain why his tone softens in the years he grows more successful. As the century ends and Ireland’s GDP increases, the keen sense of class conflict O’Toole felt as a kid growing up on a working-class estate and going to college with the dumb upper crust dissolves into air. The sensitive and furious broadsides about the effects of the church and heroin on society’s poorest come to an end. Instead, we get lazy rehashes of columns and books written very recently about the history of the last twenty years. He rightly criticizes the line deployed by former finance minister Brian Lenihan after the 2007 financial crash that “we all partied,” and yet still writes sentences like, “Through the boom years, it had become normal to fly across the Atlantic once or twice a year and spend a long weekend in the megastores, malls, and outlets.” Normal for whom? Perhaps some of this material is not really for domestic consumption but rather to be read by the fashionably informed in London, New York, and Brussels. The segment on the recent referendum to legalize abortion is shockingly lazy. Decades of activist work from the left are hand waved away in favor of a chummy pub chat with a member of Ireland’s most socially conservative party about how the country had spontaneously, almost magically, changed.

Indeed, the left itself is barely mentioned anywhere. They are not here because they do not fit O’Toole’s narrative. The radical left, small though they have been through the last seventy years of Ireland’s history, have always been the ones asking awkward questions about the very rotten power structures that O’Toole rails against. Unfortunately for him, they were frequently militant, Republican, skeptical of the promises of membership in the European Union, or all three. Some even held the view that Ireland’s place in the world was not in the orbit of the United States or Europe but among post-colonial nations struggling out of imperial control. Though he regards Ireland’s 1973 entry to the EEC as the most important development of the century, he only briefly touches on those who opposed it, presenting them as frivolous, odd, and doomed. There is little consideration of whether any of their fears and critiques may have been borne out in the nearly fifty years since.

You get the sense that O’Toole is quite embarrassed by Ireland. This is given vivid life in his disdainful story about a colleague who wouldn’t stop singing along to the syrupy classic Sylvia’s Mother. It’s there in his discussions of Ireland’s faltering state in the 1950s; our initially failed attempts to join the wider European project; the way we bored the world with our talk of partition and British colonialism; our grasping, unrefined middle class; the fearful specter of our ugly houses; and worst of all, our mortifying country music. To be among the “shirtless ones” of Europe is a deeply shameful thing. For O’Toole, Ireland’s vices are inherent, its virtues imported from somewhere a bit more put together. Ironically, this story about modern Ireland is quite old-fashioned, and flirts at times with a Victorian notion of the Irish psyche as unserious, work-shy, and conniving. It imagines “modernization” of the country as a one-way street, rather than a complex, multi-directional exchange.

One early review of We Don’t Know Ourselves called it “remarkably original, fluent and absorbing.” Closer inspection reveals a certain familiar feeling. Take chapter seven, on the much-mourned TV broadcaster Gay Byrne. It begins: “The man sipped, replaced his pint on the bar counter and glanced through the haze of cigarette smoke at the television screen.” Now, an excerpt from O’Toole’s 1997 book The Lie of the Land: “The man sipped, replaced his pint on the bar counter and glanced through the haze of cigarette smoke at the television screen.” The entire chapter is lifted, with a few minor alterations, from a book written a quarter century ago. I don’t regard self-plagiarism as the worst crime an author can commit; in a lifetime of writing millions of words, you are bound to repeat a few. But this is merely the most egregiously recycled material in a work full of it. Pick virtually any book that O’Toole has written in the last thirty years, and you’ll see its preoccupations turn up as a chapter. His ideas have not changed, nor has his analysis. They may have been innovative and thought-provoking three or four decades ago, but they have become the same old story that Ireland’s liberal establishment tells itself. It is long past time for a new one.