We Don't Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Modern Ireland
A convenient convergence, a happenstance coincidence, an appropriate confluence — I finished reading Fintan O’Toole’s latest book, We Don’t Know Ourselves, on the same evening as the final votes were tallied in Northern Ireland’s election for its legislative assembly. His just-published book, subtitled A Personal History of Modern Ireland, is brilliant and insightful, although anyone trying to bring clarity to politics on the island of Ireland — North and South — cannot escape the dangers of trying to explain those complexities. They can change as quickly as a sunny day there turns to rain.
O’Toole weaves his life from his birth in 1958 to 2020 through the happenings and history in which he lived. The book is more of a memoir of Ireland in that time slot than one of his own. The two realities, however, blend well and O’Toole’s writing is superb; not surprising as he is a journalist of long-standing with the Irish Times and the New York Review of Books and as a professor in classrooms at Princeton. The book, all 570 pages, takes readers in, through and around Ireland from the 1960s, with flashbacks to earlier years, on to The Troubles in the North, to the Celtic Tiger and its collapse, to the legalization of same-sex marriage and abortion, and more. He writes of a time of change.
As I read, I became increasingly aware of my unknowingness of Ireland between my first visit in 1968 to another visit in 1972 and one in 1974, until my most recent in 2019. This was despite the fact my graduate dissertation was to be about the country. The place O’Toole writes about is shrouded behind a veil of the Catholic Church and Irish nationalism, the former of which I was not a part and the latter couched in opposition as Unionism by my living relatives and my mother’s Irish ancestors. The Ireland I had grown up encased in was not his Ireland. The more pages I read, I thought back to my 2019 trip and realized, no matter how much I was drawn to the country by heritage, I would never be Irish. I was an American. What I knew of the country, even with extensive reading and my four trips there, and hopefully more, was learned at arm’s length. I began to realize I could never fully understand the country because I was missing pieces of it that those who lived there defined as integral, even as they, too, kept themselves at a distance from the unknown known’s of which he writes.
A chapter in O’Toole’s book gives a chilling recounting of the horror, violence and wanton killing of The Troubles when Northern Ireland was occupied by thousands of British troops. There were shootings, skirmishes, kidnappings, bombings, internments. The country was a war zone. He reports on Bloody Friday, on July 21, 1972, in Belfast when the city was terrorized by as many if not more than 20 bombings in a span of several hours. Feelings of my own naivete so many years ago surfaced as I recalled my own reality of being in downtown Belfast that day as the bombs went off, while on a three-week trip to the country. O’Toole’s writing and a rereading of my own journal brought forth feelings of being there but of unknowing a known. My memory ever since is of walking along streets of shops, seeing and hearing soldiers who were sheltered in corner fortifications, hearing explosions, of going into a store and then another. A young bookseller cried out after a bomb went off. She sobbed quietly as she climbed a ladder to a high shelf to get a book for a customer, acting with a required semblance of normalcy in the midst of terror. A nervousness grew in me and I began to realize I needed to get back to where I was staying, to leave the downtown while I could. A week or so later, I remember my own surprise when the train I took from Belfast to Dublin crossed the border. My body relaxed. I hadn’t realized the tenseness that had gripped me during the preceding weeks. The “normalcy” projected by the woman in the bookstore, and so many others, was an adaption to an unknown known. What I wrote recounts her and the bombs, the shootings, the British Army patrols, sharing the daily lives with friends, and my feelings of distance from my Protestant relatives who blamed everything on the Catholics. All was “normal” but I had no idea what was. In actuality, abnormal enveloped me completely.
Having grown up in a household only a generation removed from Ireland, I was never in doubt of my connection to the island. My connection, though, was to the North. There was always a chasm between what it meant to be Irish if one was Catholic or if one was Protestant. I was the first member of the family to return to the homestead in 1968 from which my grandparents had left in 1910. My trip was a quest, of sorts, to discover my roots. Coming shortly after working in the American Civil Rights Movement over a four-year period my discovery — my thoughts and feelings — was a civil rights movement was needed in Northern Ireland. I learned one came to the fore in 1967 and continued to grow as the years progressed.
After two more trips and four years of graduate study, I moved on. My energies and attention during the bulk of those years between 1974 and 2019 were blinkered by the demands of my own life, by my educational and professional zigzags that landed in the all-consuming work and career as the co-publisher and editor of the newspaper my late wife and I bought in 1986. That, my marriage and fatherhood were my life. Ireland was a distant memory, only occasionally did a news story catch my attention, but I did not have a timely context to assess what it meant.
I had a sense on that most recent visit that the country had changed, changed dramatically in the 45 years that elapsed between 1974 and 2019, but I didn’t have an understanding I could grasp or articulate. I didn’t know how the Ireland I experienced most recently related to the Ireland as England’s first colony I had begun to research and write about almost 50 years ago. O’Toole’s book began to fill in the void I knew was there but was unable to explain.
Perhaps, that is OK as the theme of his book is how the people of the country, from historic times to the present, developed a knack for “not knowing” the known. In other words, the people and institutions of the country lived by a fiction rather than grappling with the reality of their own civic and spiritual lives. They were ruled by the all-demanding and all-powerful Catholic Church and the nationalistic — but not really a serious nationalism — of Fianna Fáil, the country’s ruling political party. The two gripped the mind of Ireland’s people and served as foundational blocks for a fully accepting and deluded population.
Not discounting the rich cultural heritage of Ireland, the forces of modernity lapped at the island’s shores with a rising tide in the 1960s. The Church and the political party, however, were not keen on allowing it to flow beyond the beaches to reach the land and people and cleanse them of their past. The two institutions, the book makes clear, wanted the benefits but wanted to keep control of “their” people.
O’Toole takes aim, documented and harsh, at the IRA and its terror and murders. The Catholic education children were given is also in his sights. The Christian Brothers who taught boys in their schools and the nuns who were responsible for the education of the girls and “care” of babies born out of wedlock were known to be vile, cruel, violent and worse, but the realities were ignored or covered up by the Church hierarchy. Thus, the people went to Mass and turned their heads as their local priests intoned a dogmatic dogma.
The leaders of Fianna Fáil were known to be dishonest, corrupt and greedy, enriching themselves illegally, but, O’Toole reports, turned heads were the solution taken by voters as the errant ways of their elected representatives were tied to the historic relics of an Ireland caught under England’s knee. The belief and practice focused on the long-ago past, of the 1916 uprising, the civil war that brought partition in 1923, the declaration in 1948 that the 26 counties — the Irish Free State — were a Republic, and the six counties of Northern Ireland would someday be reunited to make a new old whole.
The “unknown known” cracks in the foundation widened as the European Union came into being and Ireland wanted to be a part but was, at best, a distant stepchild knocking at the door of the more advanced countries on the Continent. And the descendents of the millions of Irish, who over a century and a half emigrated to America, exerted a beckoning influence that there were other ways to live than what existed within the Irish borders.
The book recounts how the Catholic Church worked to tighten its grip on Ireland, securing approval for a constitutional amendment in 1983 to ban abortion, by a two-to-one margin. But the reality told a different story. Going to England for an abortion was a standard, well-known practice but one that was “unknown.” And a developing feminist movement began to clamor for contraceptives, their use yet another long-standing practice prohibited by the Church and state. But the unknown known was that doctors willingly proscribed contraceptives for “menstrual regularity.” And political leaders, from the head of government, the Taoiseach, on down were well known and open, although “unknown,” about their affairs and their mistresses. The hypocrisy was blatant and accepted because it was easier to look the other way, to be unknown about the known than to confront it.
Beyond the realities of the unknown known, O’Toole details the story of a distant American cousin of a revered bishop of the Church who had an affair with him in the 1970s. She became pregnant but refused to give up her child for adoption. She and the baby boy were sent back to America, out of sight and out of mind. Some years later, she demanded the bishop pay for the education of their son. An agreement was reached but then, after some disagreement, she went public. The scandal was too great to hide. The bishop resigned, was sent to Texas, and then to South America for six years. The credibility of the church began to crumble.
As Ireland modernized public views changed from looking back to looking forward. In 2012, the death from sepsis of a woman whose water broke at 17 weeks, but whom doctors refused to treat because of the 1983 constitutional amendment, spurred a movement to remove Church/state restrictions on personal life. A referendum to allow same-sex marriage passed in 2015. A new amendment to the constitution was proposed to enshrine the right to abortion. This time, in 2018, the measure passed two-to-one. O’Toole offers an analysis that the vote was seen as a new, younger population asserting itself. It did, but the 65-and-older sector supported by greater numbers the vote for the amendment than the younger voters. They, perhaps, realized that living with the known known was better than a life of pretending, of continuing to go along with an unknown known.
As these factors simmered and boiled over, foreign investment in Ireland, particularly by American pharmaceutical and high tech companies, grew. From the late 1960s on, money from abroad flowed in. The tech and electronic sectors were there. Microsoft, Intel, Digital Equipment, Northern Telecom, Data 100, NEC, Westinghouse, Wang and Apple brought manufacturing, with more corporations to follow. Pfizer, with a bit of irony, manufactured Viagra, and Smith Kline & French, Merck and Eli Lily were among other multinational companies that found Ireland a good place to do business. The country’s exports grew, unemployment and poverty dropped.
A building boom began, but it, too, followed the unknown known pattern. Rather than build as needed, the growth went from manufacturing to consumption. People wanted more cars, a new home or a second home. Banks made loans, people borrowed and money flowed. The rush was on to modernize. Coming from a low floor, Ireland’s growth was noticeable but the extent of the growth was viewed as the achievement rather than viewing the depths from where it came as the significant factor to note. O’Toole explains how the unknown known — debt — remained. Debt catches up with borrowers if it is not repaid. The 2008 housing bubble that burst in the United States also brought a deflation in Ireland and elsewhere. Banks were overextended and had to borrow money to keep up. Companies cut back and reduced workforces. Homeowners lost jobs and income and couldn’t repay banks. Banks couldn’t repay what they owed and had to borrow more from the government, which had to look beyond its borders for credit. The vaunted “Celtic Tiger” was declawed. The unknown known could not be ignored.
O’Toole’s book is a case study of his native country. Perhaps, Ireland’s unknown known mindset is greater than seen elsewhere, but it is not unique. The current “non-war war” raging in Ukraine is an unknown known in Russia. The “stolen election election” in the United States is an unknown known. Certainly, blatant and systemic racism, from the enslaved people on whose backs a fledging America’s economy was built, to current gerrymandering and voter suppression, is one of its unknown knowns. The murder of George Floyd ripped off the delusion that racism was dead is another. More and more murders of Black people by police and white supremacists are shaking the unknown knowns of racism. The American people are accepting that continuing to kill Black people and suppress their right to vote is not OK but to pretend that solutions to those horrors don’t exist. The advancing efforts to restrict what can be read and taught in schools is the erection of an unknown known. What is known that the teaching of it must be suppressed? It must be pretty bad … The #metoo movement was an awakening from an unknown known of sexual harassment and rape. The expected Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade and remove a 50-year right means abortion will be illegal, but it will occur — an unknown known.
The Church in Ireland and the nationalist Fianna Fáil Party fought long and hard to maintain their power but they are shadows of their former selves. Their unknown knowns could not withstand the contradictions brought on by modernity. And in the North, a sectarian divide, although having achieved a peace accord in 1998 with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, continues to simmer. The complexities of Brexit and the Northern Ireland Protocol, which creates an economic border in the Irish Sea between England, Scotland and Wales, and Northern Ireland, allows the North to trade with the South without re-imposing a hard customs border so long as rules of the EU, of which Ireland remains a member, are followed. This muddies the water as the Unionists want to still have free trade with Britain. The British, however, with the economic constraints imposed by exiting the European Union, are changing the realities of everyday life in the North. Britain has, in one sense, turned its back on its Northern Irish member state in the United Kingdom. Perhaps, this will unintentionally force some in the population to rethink long-standing sectarian animosity to its 26-county neighbor to the south. Sinn Féin, (the traditional nationalist party of Ireland and Northern Ireland) — for the first time since Ireland was partitioned 100 years ago — won the most votes May 5, 2022 in the Northern Ireland Assembly. Although the various Unionist (Protestant) parties are nearly on par, this may show some attitudes — confronting the unknown knowns — in that country are changing, too. The Unionists may have to reckon with whether they want to maintain a Protestant known and refuse to work with Sinn Féin or be willing to work with their Catholic counterparts to create a country that works for all its citizens. The choices are varied: engage in the hard work of legislating together; direct rule from London; a return to violence; reaching out for a yet-to-be-determined unification with Ireland; or … The complexities of Ireland and Northern Ireland, despite modernity and external pressures, still glare over the entire island.
O’Toole’s book offers solid analysis of the changes that occurred in Ireland in the past 50-60 years. The parallels between the lessons of Ireland, America and other countries continue to evolve. The complexity of Northern Ireland’s dilemma and its future with its southern neighbor are not predicted to soon evolve into a peaceful united Ireland. When a foundation crumbles, however, the need to find a new known becomes critical. Sinn Féin’s ascendance, as slim as it is, may represent the beginning of the crumbling of the sectarian foundation partition brought on in 1923 or, once again, harden it. That’s unknown. Hopefully, O’Toole will follow what happens next and give readers another book about new knowns.
NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER
NEW YORK TIMES • 10 BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR
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Best Books of the Year: Washington Post, New Yorker, Salon, Foreign Affairs, New Statesman, Chicago Public Library, Vroman's
“[L]ike reading a great tragicomic Irish novel.” —James Wood, The New Yorker
“Masterful . . . astonishing.” —Cullen Murphy, The Atlantic
"A landmark history . . . Leavened by the brilliance of O'Toole's insights and wit.” —Claire Messud, Harper’s
Winner • 2021 An Post Irish Book Award — Nonfiction Book of the Year • from the judges: “The most remarkable Irish nonfiction book I’ve read in the last 10 years”; “[A] book for the ages.”
A celebrated Irish writer’s magisterial, brilliantly insightful chronicle of the wrenching transformations that dragged his homeland into the modern world.
Fintan O’Toole was born in the year the revolution began. It was 1958, and the Irish government—in despair, because all the young people were leaving—opened the country to foreign investment and popular culture. So began a decades-long, ongoing experiment with Irish national identity. In We Don’t Know Ourselves, O’Toole, one of the Anglophone world’s most consummate stylists, weaves his own experiences into Irish social, cultural, and economic change, showing how Ireland, in just one lifetime, has gone from a reactionary “backwater” to an almost totally open society—perhaps the most astonishing national transformation in modern history.
Born to a working-class family in the Dublin suburbs, O’Toole served as an altar boy and attended a Christian Brothers school, much as his forebears did. He was enthralled by American Westerns suddenly appearing on Irish television, which were not that far from his own experience, given that Ireland’s main export was beef and it was still not unknown for herds of cattle to clatter down Dublin’s streets. Yet the Westerns were a sign of what was to come. O’Toole narrates the once unthinkable collapse of the all-powerful Catholic Church, brought down by scandal and by the activism of ordinary Irish, women in particular. He relates the horrific violence of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, which led most Irish to reject violent nationalism. In O’Toole’s telling, America became a lodestar, from John F. Kennedy’s 1963 visit, when the soon-to-be martyred American president was welcomed as a native son, to the emergence of the Irish technology sector in the late 1990s, driven by American corporations, which set Ireland on the path toward particular disaster during the 2008 financial crisis.
A remarkably compassionate yet exacting observer, O’Toole in coruscating prose captures the peculiar Irish habit of “deliberate unknowing,” which allowed myths of national greatness to persist even as the foundations were crumbling. Forty years in the making, We Don’t Know Ourselves is a landmark work, a memoir and a national history that ultimately reveals how the two modes are entwined for all of us.
Praise for We Don't Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Modern Ireland
O’Toole, a prolific essayist and critic, calls this inventive narrative 'a personal history of modern Ireland' — an ambitious project, but one he pulls off with élan. Charting six decades of Irish history against his own life, O’Toole manages to both deftly illustrate a country in drastic flux, and include a sly, self-deprecating biography that infuses his sociology with humor and pathos. You’ll be educated, yes — about increasing secularism, the Celtic tiger, human rights — but you’ll also be wildly, uproariously entertained by a gifted raconteur at the height of his powers.
— New York Times Book Review, 10 Best Books of 2022
In a book that is at once intimate and deeply reported—sharp in its judgments and its humor—Ireland’s finest journalist chronicles his country’s painful emergence into the modern world. Stand-alone chapters (on emigration, schools, television, contraception) form a coherent arc: from O’Toole’s childhood in working-class, tradition-bound Dublin to his reporting on Ireland’s overwhelming embrace of same-sex marriage by referendum. Two figures illustrate what Ireland has had to overcome. One is Archbishop John Charles McQuaid, the fastidious, imperious prelate who controlled Catholic life from the 1940s up to the early 1970s. McQuaid turned a blind eye to the abuse of young children by priests (and was himself later accused of abuse), epitomizing a Church that, O’Toole writes, had “successfully disabled a society’s capacity to think for itself about right and wrong.” The other is Charles Haughey, the three-time taoiseach, or prime minister, first elected in the late 1970s. Deeply corrupt, loyal to his own hypocrisy, Haughey lived like “an Ascendancy squire” while pressing to maintain bans on abortion and divorce. Central to We Don’t Know Ourselves is the uneasy coexistence of opposites: of an inward-looking past and an outward-looking present, of knowledge and denial.
— The Atlantic, 10 Best Books of 2022
Amazing. It feels special to me.
— Ian McEwan
[O’Toole] develop[s] a narrative swagger as compelling as any novel’s. His working-class Dublin background — his father, Sammy, was a bus conductor and his mother, Mary, worked in a cigarette factory — opens onto a sort of narrative everywhere. The tiny grows epic. The local becomes universal. We skip from year to year, from story to story, from tile-piece to an eventual mosaic . . . O’Toole writes brilliantly and compellingly of the dark times, but he is graceful enough to know that there is humor and light in the cracks. There is a touch of Eduardo Galeano in the way he can settle on a telling phrase. . . . But the real accomplishment of this book is that it achieves a conscious form of history-telling, a personal hybrid that feels distinctly honest and humble at the same time. O’Toole has not invented the form, but he comes close to perfecting it.
— Colum McCann, New York Times Book Review, cover review
[L]ike reading a great tragicomic Irish novel, rich in memoir and record, calamity and critique. The book contains funny and terrible things, details and episodes so pungent that they must surely have been stolen from a fantastical artificer like Flann O’Brien . . . [O’Toole] beautifully tells the private story of his childhood and youth . . . His great gift is his extremely intelligent, mortally relentless critical examination, and here he studies nothing less than the past and the present of his own nation . . . James Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus promised to forge in the smithy of his soul the uncreated conscience of his race; less Parnassian than Dedalus but just as angry as Joyce, O’Toole tells the story of how his race, at last breaking the fetters of religion and superstition, created its own conscience.
— James Wood - New Yorker
Splendid... Lively... An aversion to reality is, indeed, a poor prophylactic as Mr. O’Toole’s survey of six decades—1958 to 2018—demonstrates... All of which is elucidated with the acuity and sardonic wit that we might expect from this veteran journalist and critic... The overall tone is irreverent, yet never glib... Each episode is also cannily decoded thanks to Mr. O’Toole’s appetite for intricacies—personal, political and statistical—and his eye for idiosyncrasy.... For all its weight, this is a buoyant work. And the leavening agent is, to a large extent, Mr. O’Toole’s own story, which he relates with novelistic flair.
— Anna Mundow - Wall Street Journal
Masterful . . . O’Toole’s sweeping, intimate book covers a lifetime of Ireland’s history . . . Books about modern Ireland abound—the Irish love their words; isn’t that what people say? They include magisterial scholarship (the works of R. F. Foster), searing fiction (Edna O’Brien’s The Country Girls, John McGahern’s The Dark), and episodic recollections with a sharpened edge (John Banville’s recent Time Pieces). O’Toole’s We Don’t Know Ourselves is in a category all its own, a blend of reporting, history, analysis, and argument, explored through the lens of the author’s sensibility and experience . . . . We Don’t Know Ourselves is astonishing in its range. . . . The chapters move forward chronologically. What unites them all is O’Toole’s moral presence and literary voice: throughout, a sly, understated humor; when needed, passion and even anger. In the end, surveying what Ireland has become during his lifetime, he manages an optimistic note, one that is not merely asserted but earned. . . . I came away from We Don’t Know Ourselves seeing modern Ireland more convincingly portrayed and explained than ever before. I wish I understood modern America half as well.
— Cullen Murphy - The Atlantic
A landmark history.... Leavened by the brilliance of O'Toole's insights and wit, and by the story of his own life, which he expertly intertwines into a larger historical narrative... [He] sees the country's shift with an eye that is simultaneously critical and compassionate... O'Toole's is a wildly ambitious project, one that accounts for inevitable partiality precisely through this invocation of the personal. It is a winning gambit.
— Claire Messud - Harper's
Engrossing... With deep research, a journalistic eye for detail, and a series of revealing personal anecdotes, he paints a vivid and affecting portrait of Irish life, touching on politics, religion, economics, and pop culture. The result is a comprehensive work of social criticism that tells the story of a country that was once so fixated on maintaining an idealized vision of its past that it almost gave up on the prospect of a better future.... We Don’t Know Ourselves is a powerful book, not just for what it says about Ireland, but for what it has to teach us about national identity in general. It’s a lesson that feels particularly relevant in the United States today.
— Michael Patrick Brady - Boston Globe
[M]asterly, fascinating . . . O’Toole, a journalist, historian and academic, is Ireland’s pre-eminent public intellectual . . . We Don't Know Ourselves is surely his masterpiece, a long detailed and beautifully executed study . . . O’Toole has a marvelously sharp eye for the illuminating fact, the telling anecdote, the overlooked or forgotten piece of history; but he also has a poet's gift for figurative language.
— John Banville - Times Literary Supplement
[S]parkling . . . we encounter O’Toole as a Zelig-like figure with an amusingly personal chain of connections to the great events and characters . . . the quiet heroes of We Don’t Know Ourselves are the Irish people, who O’Toole shows to have been ahead of their political and spiritual leaders in being ready to face the contradictions that underpinned national life . . . an uplifting, almost playful read, with suggestive analysis lying beneath skillful vignettes.
— Caoimhe Nic Dháibhéid - Financial Times
The centenary of Irish independence has inspired a flood of writing. Among the many traditional histories and current political commentaries, this book stands out. It charts the extraordinary economic, social, and political transformation of Ireland since 1958, the year the author was born... The author, perhaps Ireland’s foremost public intellectual, employs a unique combination of intimately personal narrative, piquant facts and figures, and sharp (often ironic) commentary to describe the experience of this transformation.
— Andrew Moravcsik - Foreign Affairs
This powerful book is a lucid, highly informative amalgam of memoir, national history, economic, social and cultural observation, and behind-the-scenes political intelligence. . . . [O’Toole’s] narrative has the color and movement of a novel, with subplots and villains aplenty.
— Katherine A. Powers - Minneapolis Star Tribune
Reading Fintan O’Toole’s transporting We Don’t Know Ourselves is an experience close to hunger; even at 600-plus pages, there is so much richness here you want to gulp it right down.... It’s an epic story that O’Toole tells through both sweeping narratives and intimate detail.... While O’Toole laces into some targets with icy sarcasm, he is overall a generous and sympathetic observer, with an appreciation for human inconsistency. If this was not the case, could he have written so eloquently about the totemic slab of cheese known as Riverdance?
— Chris Barsanti - Popmatters
O’Toole unpacks this truth with passion and smouldering rage. Although set an ocean away, the book holds lessons, about national self-delusion and its repercussions, that are relevant here.... We Don’t Know Ourselves is a masterpiece of perceptive analysis, made accessible by personal anecdotes and clear, passionate prose.... This timely book reminds us how unknown knowns have a way of eventually becoming known knowns, how buried children often find a way to speak from the grave.
— David Dunne - Literary Review of Canada
[U]tterly fascinating . . . Fintan O’Toole, the Irish Times journalist, is at his best as a reporter and commentator . . . Tracking the story of modern Ireland by pinning important cultural moments to personal events in his life allows O’Toole to humanize and particularize complex historical realities. . . O’Toole makes this book both deeply personal and rigorously objective at the same time.
— Michael Pearson - New York Journal of Books