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. Subtitled A Personal History of Modern Ireland, it starts when O’Toole was born in 1958 and tracks the tumultuous changes that wracked the excessively mythologized island as it strained in fits and starts to catch up with the modern world while also trying to keep things exactly as they were.
Following World War II, the rest of Western Europe and America leaped eagerly into the future. But Ireland remained a closed-off rural society mired in the past. It was kept there, according to O’Toole, by two forces that equally feared modernity: the Catholic theocracy and the clique of republican politicians who, after leading the anti-British Easter Rising of 1916, fossilized into the Fianna Fáil party, which ruled nearly uncontested for most of the 20th-century. This alliance kept Ireland in a curious limbo that seemed impossible to change.
By 1958, though, the situation was desperate. Protectionism—moral, cultural, and economic—kept new ideas and products out. In what O’Toole calls a “bitter paradox”, Ireland was then “an agrarian economy that was actually not much good at producing food.” Education was primarily limited to the well-off, keeping business and farming relatively primitive. In a comical but illustrative moment, Irish bishops refused an American offer through the Marshall Plan to create a National Institute of Agriculture to modernize farming because “it would not have a proper basis in religious doctrine.” Ireland’s stagnation produced despair, waves of emigration that threatened to empty the island completely, and one very good joke that made the rounds: “The wolf was at the door, howling to get out.”
However, like Hemingway’s description of going bankrupt, Ireland did bend to the winds of change, gradually and then suddenly. It’s an epic story that O’Toole tells through both sweeping narratives and intimate detail. From his vantage point growing up in a working-class Dublin suburb and then becoming a well-plugged-in journalist, O’Toole weaves his recollections into a larger story of how calcified institutions like the Church and Fianna Fáil rotted from the inside until it only took a sharp breeze at the right moment to topple them.
The political and the personal frequently overlap. In a vivid childhood anecdote, O’Toole writes about first hearing stories of his fathers and uncles’ service in World War II—tens of thousands of Irish volunteered for the British army. However, the war was rarely discussed because Ireland stayed neutral and the British were still viewed as detestable colonizers. He felt opened up to a history that was not just new, but refreshing: “not the endless, dreary tale of Ireland’s oppression and martyrdom.”
Ireland’s nearly unfathomable historical lacunae points to one of O’Toole’s themes about all the things the Ireland of his youth did not want to know. This framing of Irishness will be confusing for many readers, who take the country’s vaunted storytelling tradition at face value. The Irish spirit, as conveyed through its literature, revels in the richness of language, gutsy wrangling with the fundamentals of life, and the willingness to say it all.
The confounding part—at least for those of us who, even if able to claim membership in the island’s world-spanning diaspora, have never lived among the Irish—comes from O’Toole’s description of the things that his famously loquacious people do not say. Calling this lengthy tradition one of “not knowing”, he illustrates it in several illuminating vignettes. One, in a chapter dated 1971, describes his school run by the Christian Brothers, the Catholic order that had a near-monopoly on Irish education and valued beatings and obedience over learning. One Brother who taught Latin was a clear predator, feeling up the boys “openly, constantly, shamelessly.” After a friend of O’Toole’s got the courage to shout an accusation out loud in class, the Brother simply ignored him, as did the other students, and a moment of honesty was silenced by the not-knowing:
Here it was again: the open secret, the thing that everybody knew and nobody grasped, the truth that could be seen but never identified. We were adepts at epistemology. Most of us could walk like circus performers across tightropes that were strung between private knowledge and public acknowledgements. The only ones who ever looked down were those who were badly abused, and they became even better at suppressing reality.
O’Toole writes about this suppression of reality (“what really mattered was the maintenance of the twin-track Irish mind”) as a uniting recurrence across Ireland. Even as the island opened up to foreign investment, strengthened the economy, saw emigration numbers dwindle, and became more culturally accepting on the surface, its mindset remained closed. Not knowing helped the media and public ignore the flagrantly grasping corruption and open womanizing of longtime Fianna Fáil leader Charles Haughey. It helped people support Church bans on abortion and contraception even as thousands of Irish women went to Britain for their procedures. People knew that, based on recommendations from agents known as “cruelty men”, authorities could take children out of homes deemed unsuitable and dump them in an archipelago of gothic institutions. The children would be used as slave labor and if they died (as they often did, from primitive conditions), they were dumped in unmarked graves. But people did not want know this.
In one striking chapter, O’Toole describes how in the early 1980s, a family in his neighborhood became among the largest heroin dealers in Dublin. But authorities took years to even notice how fast addiction was spreading in the city because “it was assumed that ‘hard drugs,’ like every other form of moral threat, were associated with foreigners.”
O’Toole is even more cutting when describing Ireland’s relationship with the IRA’s terror campaign waged against Britain and their own countrymen to the north. These sections are the closest he comes to disgust, laying out a lengthy indictment of the IRA’s war crimes and a skillful fileting of their supporters’ hypocrisy. At the same time, he clarifies the very human suffering of northern Irish Catholics targeted in the Protestant militias’ sectarian murder campaign.
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? O’Toole describes the show hitting Ireland in 1995 like a thunderbolt, reclaiming the sex and energy of Irish dance from its dire imprisonment inside Church tradition. For him, the show made by two Americans born to Irish immigrants also reconfigured traditional Irish culture inside a Broadway stage format, thus completing the returning immigrant cultural exchange (he points out that Broadway’s style had been largely crafted by emigrant theater impresario George M. Cohan, or as O’Toole calls him, “a Mick called Keohane”).
We Don’t Know Ourselves lucidly illustrates the Ireland that was and the “blank and bleak” future its people thought was ahead of them. Despite all the doors that were thrown open by the collapse of Church power, O’Toole does not try to define where or what Ireland is right now. In some ways, he does not know. And for a people stuck for so long in a tightly proscribed world, that seems like a good thing.