Ireland, We Hardly Knew Ye: Fintan O'Toole's Story of ModernizationHistorians in the News
tags: Catholic Church, Ireland, Irish history
Jack Sheehan is a writer, photographer, and PhD candidate in history at Trinity College Dublin. You can find his work at Tribune magazine, The Fence, and Lonely Planet, at jacksheehan.substack.com, or on Twitter @yulegoat.
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.