We Don’t Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Ireland Since 1958, by Fintan O’Toole, Head of Zeus, 616 pp, £25, ISBN: 978-1784978297
For some time now, Fintan O’Toole has rightly been considered Ireland’s pre-eminent critic and commentator. An illustrious member of both the journalistic and academic guilds, the long-serving Irish Times columnist and Leonard L Milberg Professor of Irish Letters at Princeton University is beholden to neither. In this respect, he surely evokes that most slippery of terms, the “public intellectual”, which tends to get defined in this interstitial manner. Indeed, the idea of the public intellectual is perhaps best articulated through reference to those thought to embody it rather than by abstract description. Luckily for us, Ireland offers plenty of examples: from an earlier generation Conor Cruise O’Brien, Seamus Deane, Edna Longley and Denis Donoghue; more recently, the literary critic Declan Kiberd; historians Roy Foster and Diarmaid Ferriter, philosopher Richard Kearney and Presidents Robinson, McAleese and Higgins among others.
What do public intellectuals actually do? If nothing else, they intervene. The French meaning of the word seems to capture this best; the emphasis in intervention is on rhetoric, but rhetoric conceived as a kind of action. Accordingly, these interventions are commonly adversarial; accommodation with power and the powerful should be a rarity. It would seem hard to accuse O’Toole of such accommodation: many of his books, not to mention his regular columns, have been trenchant broadsides aimed at the Irish ruling class, clerical and secular. In particular, Ship of Fools: How Stupidity and Corruption Sank The Celtic Tiger (2009) and Enough is Enough: How to Build a New Republic brilliantly disclosed the delusions at the heart of Ireland’s economic “miracle”, which reached its fantastical apogee in the early 2000s. As O’Toole demonstrated, disaster was baked in to the boom from the outset, and yet on the madness went, fuelled by a potent combination of greed and outright stupidity.
By definition, the public intellectual needs an audience, and this is usually acquired through an institutional platform. Most find theirs either in newspapers or the more widely circulated periodicals. O’Toole is at home in both: in addition to The Irish Times – as well The Guardian, to which he now regularly contributes, usually on the topic of Brexit and its fallout – his writing frequently appears in The New York Review of Books, where he comments on US politics and Irish literature. Politically, these are all bastions of an establishment liberalism, albeit one softened by a social democratic conscience. Here tensions can arise: between hegemonic structure, on the one hand, and the public intellectual’s allegiance to critique, on the other – a tension which O’Toole’s writings often betray. As Daniel Finn pointed out in a sober assessment of his œuvre in the New Left Review, O’Toole “has always seemed more comfortable on the left of the mainstream than standing outside the consensus altogether”. No wonder Feargal O’Rourke, managing partner at PwC and architect of Ireland’s notorious “double Irish” tax avoidance vehicle, can describe himself as a “big fan” of O’Toole’s, as he did in a recent Irish Times article.
Finn’s other major issue is what he judges to be a tendency to “cultural fatalism” on O’Toole’s part, especially when trying to explain the source of Ireland’s woes, past and present. On the latter’s reading, the 2009 crash was more than yet another instance of neoliberalism run amok; rather, particular characteristics of Ireland and the Irish – a perennial backwardness and fetish for property rooted in a long history of dispossession, for example – made such a cataclysm almost inevitable. A particular kind of “Irishness”, in other words, was responsible for our troubles. In the pages of the Dublin Review of Books, the intellectual historian Richard Bourke and the literary critic John Wilson Foster mounted similar attacks on O’Toole’s more recent writings on Brexit, the latter dismissing his account in Heroic Failure as a “psychologically reductive” diagnosis that pathologises and personifies where it might have examined and analysed. Bourke, for his part, identifies O’Toole’s attempt to understand recent British politics through the Marxist literary critic Raymond Williams’s concept of “structure of feeling” as the primary culprit. For Bourke, we could, tellingly, substitute the term for a variety of others (as O’Toole does), such as “mentality” or “collective consciousness”. Adopting such an approach makes recourse to generalisation and stereotype unavoidable.
As a “personal” history of Ireland, We Don’t Know Ourselves, O’Toole’s latest book, would seem destined to invite this kind of critique. O’Toole is again, it seems, shoehorning devilishly complex history into a kind of roman national, in whose pages the nation qua evolving character-protagonist is represented. What is more, he is reading this roman through his own biography. The key term here is “reading”: while Finn and Bourke’s assessments are entirely appropriate – I will return to them later – their approach risks overlooking what is actually rich in O’Toole’s writings, whatever their conceptual shortcomings. In any case, his explicit framing of the new book as a “personal” history indemnifies him, to an extent, against such charges in advance: We Don’t Know Ourselves is making no claims to analytical omniscience; it is a subjective interpretation of events which its author lived through. While a book about history, this is history read by a writer who is primarily a literary critic, something which need not vitiate its insights.
Perhaps the first thing we might say about We Don’t Know Ourselves is how brilliantly titled it is. To the non-Irish ear apprehending it literally, the phrase will seem innocuous, even glib. To the Irish reader, though, it is deliciously polysemous: the idiom usually implies that someone has “made it” or “bettered themselves”. The subtext, though, is that this was not meant to happen; tonally, it is close to David Byrne’s bemused exclamation “how did I get here?”, in Talking Heads’ 1981 hit “Once in a Life Time”. Most importantly, the title does what it should do: it encapsulates the book’s overarching theme, Ireland’s complex and often contradictory self-understanding.
For O’Toole, the country has long found itself stuck in a sort of liminal state between tradition and modernity. Inculcated in its people has been a sense of profound duty to the former – the Platonic ideal of Ireland as an ancient culture, rural, pious and long-oppressed – that vies with a hunger for the latter and its promises of prosperity, openness and transformation. Conceptually, his framework draws implicitly on the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci’s oft-quoted apprehension of crisis. In his Prison Notebooks, Gramsci wrote: “the crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” As O’Toole shows across some forty-three chapters, Ireland’s protracted spiritual tug of war has spawned no shortage of morbid symptoms, which the book sets out to catalogue.
Most chapters begin with a biographical vignette, from which further reflections ramify; we get a series of close readings, essentially. O’Toole’s stimuli range from the momentous to the quotidian: the advent of television; Horslips; the Troubles in the North; the Christian Brothers; the country’s many iterations of state-sponsored misogyny. As material for consideration, he approaches these events and phenomena without prejudice: whether high or low, comic or tragic, cultural or institutional, they are all potentially significant. He sets out to decode their – often latent – meanings, drawing on experience and memory as well as on knowledge since acquired. The influence of Williams’s aforementioned “structure of feeling”, which seeks to capture how worldviews and ideologies are “actually lived and felt”, is pervasive, as well as his insistence that “culture” extends far beyond that designated as “high”. Gay Byrne and The Late Late Show reveals as much about Ireland and its people as commemorations of the Easter Rising do.
O’Toole’s account of JFK’s 1963 visit to Ireland is one of the book’s most illuminating sections. As he shows, the occasion revealed a society beset by insecurity and contradiction, one that felt it had to collude in its own caricature. While welcomed like a long-lost son – a heroic crystallisation of Ireland’s notoriously fissiparous diaspora – Kennedy was in many ways the antithesis of what post-independence Ireland was understood to represent. On the sole basis of his nominal Catholicism and New Ross ancestry, we managed to transform him, O’Toole writes, into “a particular kind of mirror, one in which a raw, uncertain society saw a fantastical reflection of itself that could be at once flattering and maddening”. We invariably interpreted Kennedy’s talk of the “green and misty isle” as panegyric rather than condescending. At the same time, lurking beneath was a longing for what he represented for us – wealth, glamour, freedom – and not what he attributed to us: tradition, authenticity, purity. If only he knew, as O’Toole puts it, “that what we wanted was to drive cars like his, to wear dark glasses like his, to be beautiful like him and Jackie, to be rich and happy, to shop in malls and bowl in alleys”.
This ambiguity also plagued Ireland’s own. O’Toole describes in another extraordinary anecdote his chance encounter with the pioneering composer and musician Seán Ó Riada on a bóithrín in the Cork Gaeltacht. Ó’Riada, born John Reidy in Cork city, had spent much of his youth on the continent studying the discordant modernism of Schoenberg and Webern. He thus cut an “exotic” figure around Cúil Aodha. But what was he doing there? He was rebelling against precisely this image, that of the worldly artist. For O’Toole, such a “turning inwards” suggested a kind of Rousseauian epiphany; Ó’Riada was one of a number of Irish intellectuals who, for all their apparent cosmopolitanism, had concluded that Ireland’s modernisation portended a creeping decadence: a selling out of its cherished traditions. But Ó’Riada, O’Toole points out, “wanted both to reject cultural modernity and enjoy its fruits. He fantasized about building a large hotel on the banks of the Sullane, with an airport beside it to bring tourists into the area to hunt and fish – and listen to his music and that of the local singers.” O’Toole’s intent here is not to arraign Ó’Riada for hypocrisy, but to point out, yet again, Ireland’s mid-century dilemma: what was Ireland’s uniqueness in isolation? Could its cultural distinctiveness be shared without being commodified?
We Don’t Know Ourselves is at its most witheringly polemical when O’Toole launches his attacks on the Catholic church’s erstwhile political and social dominance. As has been exhaustively documented, Catholicism was the ideological pillar by which post-revolutionary Ireland defined itself. But any stability it afforded came at a devastating cost, not least to Irish women and children. In addition to describing again in harrowing detail the institutional abuses abetted by the Irish state, O’Toole manages to capture with chilling accuracy the peculiar psychological reflexes the theocratic regime fostered in those subject to it. Essentially, Irish people had developed an acute “instinct for when to look away”; “they could walk,” he writes, “like circus performers across tightropes that were strung between private knowledge and public acknowledgement”. Most disconcertingly, because anything that smacked of sexuality was hidden behind a “wall of ignorance”, and such was the taboo around the topic in general, revelations of sexual abuse were greeted as just more albeit sinful and regrettable instances of “lapses from the vows of chastity”. Sex, in effect, had been relativised, but in the most perverse way imaginable. But while sexuality tout court was deviant, only certain sections of society – indeed mainly one gender – faced sanction. How this vast machinery of abuse co-existed side-by-side with ordinary life seems, in retrospect, incredible, but it did. The mere suggestion of sex was the supreme cue to awkwardly deflect one’s gaze. A “culture of deliberate unknowing” had become Ireland’s toxic lingua franca.
Almost as omnipresent as Catholicism in We Don’t Know Ourselves is the spectre of nationalism. It is here that problems with O’Toole’s approach begin to emerge. Early in the book, referring to minister for education Donogh O’Malley’s decision to introduce free second level education for all, O’Toole makes the following curious statement, something of a non sequitur in the chapter in question: “[t]his decision was, for me, much more revolutionary than any Rising. It influenced my life more than any other political act.” In one sense, this analogy is innocuous, if tautological. In another sense, though, it is revealing. O’Toole means to imply an opposition between the Rising, on the one hand, with all its mystical, sentimental, mythological, ideological, anachronistic, romantic and violent baggage, and O’Malley’s enlightened, disenchanted, reasonable, moderate, modern, worldly, sober, social democratic vision, on the other. The latter is unequivocally good, dovetailing with Ireland’s mid-century mission to “normalise” itself. The former, however, is not so easily recuperated; the savagery of the Provisional IRA has revealed the Rising’s true essence as an intolerable celebration of atavistic violence.
Here Finn and Bourke’s criticisms of O’Toole’s previous work become valid, specifically their charges of cultural determinism and excessive psychologising. It is also where his literary-critical propensity to move quickly from the particular to the general becomes problematic. Any mention of specific instances of IRA brutality is reliably followed by a reference to 1916, whose nefarious legacy explains all. At one point, in a chapter on the 1981 hunger strike, O’Toole writes: “what Irish governments had always been determined to avoid was the fusion of nationalist with Catholic martyrdom. They understood, because they were steeped in the history of blood sacrifice from Easter 1916 onwards, that when these two currents met, there would be an explosion.” In the same chapter: “the Irish government […] had the advantage of the Irish culture of ambiguity”. Later on the same page: “Irish governments knew how incendiary the culture of martyrdom could be.” Finally: “[t]his was exactly what anyone with an understanding of Catholic nationalist mythology would have anticipated”.
Rhetorically and analytically, this tedious recycling of Conor Cruise O’Brien’s greatest hits is O’Toole at his weakest. Whether being “steeped in” this history makes one more susceptible to irredentist violence or whether, on the contrary, such knowledge tends to inoculate against fanaticism, as he seems to be suggesting here, is unclear. Earlier in the book, referring to the aftermath of the 1970 Arms Trial, O’Toole tries to address this ambivalence head-on: “the truth was that there was no fixed truth, that this whole thing had happened because the state itself, in these early years of the Troubles, simply did not know what is was supposed to feel or think or do.” Yet confusion remains: can we actually impute the capacity to know, feel and think to “the state”? The move is all the more eccentric given that it is embedded in a passage whose logic is distinctly postmodern. This is symptomatic of a wider tendency on O’Toole’s part to appeal to indeterminacy and ambiguity – perhaps because these are so easily conflated with analytical subtlety – all the while attributing the most rigid of categories to all manner of institutions and groups. Shallow absolutism is for others – Thatcher and the Provos are “wedded to implacability”, “adamant for clarity”, locked in “a binary mindset, a zero-sum game” – even when the most fixed of essences litter his own writing. I should add that I am far from the first to point out this contradiction in O’Toole’s work; in a 1998 review of The Ex-Isle of Erin: Images of Global Ireland, Michael Cronin wrote that for all the book’s “invocation of hybridity”, O’Toole is “fixated with opposites”: national/international, traditional/modern, Catholic/secular.
Indeed, throughout We Don’t Know Ourselves, the overriding impression we get is that violence in modern Ireland has invariably been the product of respective lunatic fringes, Catholic and Protestant. As such, the conflict is literally non-sensical, because most of its actors – or at least the ones invoked by O’Toole – are fundamentally irrational people, in thrall to myth and murder. Moreover, the men of violence are figured as a tiny minority – most Irish people are fundamentally moral and decent, of course – and yet somehow pandemic: across the book, O’Toole implies that their “culture of martyrdom” was everywhere in Irish society. We should be thankful, then, for a spate of enlightened Irish governments, “always” there to waylay “the fusion of nationalist and catholic martyrdom” among the island’s heady peoples. O’Toole himself even admits to having felt the pull of this culture: he once shouted “Up the Ra!” at taoiseach Jack Lynch when riled up at a Wolfe Tones gig.
The point here is not to deny that Republican and Loyalist paramilitaries instigated an appalling and unjustifiable campaign of terrorist violence, but that O’Toole gives little sense – at least not until much later in the book – either of the real political and social cleavages encouraging reluctant support for these groups, or of the origins of the dispute itself (he is significantly more perceptive on how the violence came to sustain itself). If there is one for O’Toole, it has something to do with that original totemic outrage, Easter 1916. With each passing reference to the rebellion, it was hard for this reader not to think of Seamus Deane’s (who taught O’Toole at UCD) ferocious polemic “Wherever Green is Read”, which attacked the “revisionism” spearheaded by Roy Foster as performing the very binary thinking it accused its opponents of embodying. As Deane put it, for all its apparently courageous refusals of comforting myth, revisionism’s ascription of psychological instability and incorrigible fanaticism to the Rising’s leaders – and their ostensible progeny – is among the more consoling.
As the violence intensified, the rest of civilised Europe, whom we were then propositioning, looked on aghast. Of this crucial period O’Toole writes:
The biggest thing that happened to Ireland since Independence was its formal entry into the EEC on 1 January 1973. It was the moment at which Ireland became officially a western country, fixed in space at last as part of the developed and democratic world. This was all the more important because, unofficially, it was not quite either of those things. It was not economically developed in the sense that its new partners like France and Germany were. And its democracy, though institutionally very well established, was not as certain as it looked. It had within it two great subversive forces – its own traditions of violence and martyrdom; and the continuing confusion of Catholicism with citizenship.
Prima facie, this all seems relatively uncontroversial. But when read closely, the passage is surely bizarre in how it frames Ireland as somehow uniquely stalked by threats of violence and subversion; France and (then West) Germany, on the other hand, seem like paragons of social democratic modernity and sophistication, their reputations pristine. Perhaps I am expecting too little of the reader, but that in 1973 it was less than five years since France had descended into a state of quasi-insurrection – de Gaulle briefly fled the country, fearing actual revolution – and less than thirty since the German state, led by world history’s superlative tyrant, had unleashed epochal violence on the continent, is perhaps worth mentioning. As historians like Tony Judt, Frederick Taylor and Richard Evans have shown, denazification was a much slower process than we tend to assume; former card-carrying Nazis continued to occupy prominent roles in the (West) German state well into the late century. Where O’Toole does reference the Nazis, it is of course to point out Irish Republicanism’s desperate attempts at collaborating with them against their mutual enemy, Britain. Nevertheless, it was “a great achievement of Irish diplomacy to present the country as normal”. Other powerful European states were self-evidently so, it seems, their recent histories of expansionist war, genocide, widespread collaboration and colonial violence notwithstanding.
Again, this is not to deny the reality that Ireland was both intensely Catholic and nationalist. Nor is it to downplay the extent of violence present within its borders, or its relative lack of economic development (no trente glorieuses reached these shores). It is, however, to point out where a Europhile O’Toole courts stereotype: not only was Ireland apt to be seen as too poor, too underdeveloped and to unreliable to join what he affectionately dubs “the club”, it was also potentially too “volatile” and “unpredictable”. Curiously, he then claims that opposition to Ireland going “into Europe”, which was especially prevalent among “artists and intellectuals” (these included Hubert Butler, John B Keane and Michael D Higgins), “was rooted in a paradoxical lack of confidence in the existential condition of Ireland”. Yet on O’Toole’s own terms, keen as he is to stress the country’s backwardness, surely this lack of confidence was warranted? Moreover, he again frames this opposition as a matter of emotion – “a lack of confidence”, an “intellectual and cultural angst” – rather than being based on substantive or policy-oriented concerns, however misguided.
My own reading of all this is that the narrative O’Toole presents is simply a bit more dramatic for the purposes of the kind of book he has written; our ascent to “normality” and relative wealth comes off as all the more remarkable because freakish. Somewhat ironically then, his coming-of-age account of Ireland’s Europeanisation is remarkably Hibernocentric: unlike other states on the continent – “proper western countries” – we apparently faced unique psychic headwinds in the form of our “culture of silence”, wilful collective amnesia, and a “particularly Irish form of doubleness”. Yet France and Germany, Spain and Italy – indeed most European nations – had demons of their own to exorcise, many of which were equally, if not more, troubling than our own. A still divided Germany wrestled with the question of whether something essential in its “national character” had primed it for Hitler – a debate that resurfaced in the acrimonious Historikerstreit (quarrel of the historians) of the early 1980s. France struggled (and still does) with its “syndrome de Vichy”. The notion of Italiani brava gente (“Italians are decent people”) has died hard. One could go on and on. Is there anything specifically Irish, then, about the “structures of feeling” that O’Toole identifies? The bleak truth is that it would be hard to name a single European society not afflicted by a culture of forgetting, evasion and myth-making; to suggest otherwise is to indulge in what the Dutch cultural historian Joep Leerssen calls “auto-exoticism”: the habit of being fascinated by one’s own apparent singularity, a trait usually associated with the kind of nationalism O’Toole (quite rightly) deplores. If in the mid twentieth century Ireland was abnormal or out of sync with other “developed” European nations, it was so firmly on economic and political – not psycho-cultural – grounds. Unfortunately, such imprecisions become unsurprising in a book in which “modernity” is synonymous with “modernization” and “Europe” simply means the EU. The overall effect is ironic: O’Toole’s analysis is in the end hamstrung by parochialism, precisely the limitation he so elegantly shows the country repudiating.
We Don’t Know Ourselves is far more successful when dealing with the particular, especially with personalities. O’Toole’s dissections of Charlie Haughey and Larry Goodman’s extraordinary venality are journalistic writing of the highest order: both attentive to detail and narratologically engaging. So too is his treatment of Gerry Adams and his Machiavellian “talent for ambiguity” (in this case, psychologising makes for incisive analysis). Unlike JFK and Ó’Riada, off whom O’Toole reads Ireland’s mythical past, figures like Haughey presaged the country’s Celtic Tiger future: one defined by the market’s animal spirits, fantastical levels of economic growth, and an attendant – and dangerous – sense of invulnerability. In this regard, Ireland was actually sui generis when compared with other European nations. Rather than developing “indigenous industries that could trade in world markets”, we seduced the world’s multinationals with our infamous and now endangered corporate tax regime. Ireland was “made to look incredibly rich”; the system created “astonishing spikes in GDP, most spectacularly in 2015, when Irish GDP grew by 26 percent”. “Leprechaun economics” indeed, as Paul Krugman, put it. Of course, we all know how this, Ireland’s “end of history”, ended.
Such has been the mixed bag of “modernisation”, a process whose legacy is still playing out. With the crash now behind us but with other challenges afoot, Ireland continues to boast some of the highest growth figures in the OECD. At the same time, support for Sinn Féin, a party which, on paper at least, is committed to political and economic change, has skyrocketed. For voters, appearance is clearly not matching reality. This is in part because, as O’Toole writes, Ireland failed to do what other “European states had done as part of their modernizing process: create robust systems of public provision of housing, healthcare and education.” Again, it is on this rather grim basis that Ireland might be considered unique vis-à-vis its neighbours.
As the country’s most distinguished public intellectual, O’Toole will no doubt have much to say about political change over the coming years, not least because a government led by Sinn Féin and the still unresolved issues around Brexit will bring into play many of his abiding concerns, including the constitutional status of the island of Ireland. For sure, there will be no shortage of eloquence. We should hope too that this next political generation’s dramatis personae will be subject to O’Toole’s formidable scrutiny as a journalist. However, whether he continues to rely on some of the more dubious psycho-historical frames deployed in this book and others – especially his Brexit-bashing bestsellers – remains to be seen.
Luke Warde recently completed a doctorate in French at the University of Cambridge. His essays, reviews and criticism have appeared in The Irish Times, the Sunday Independent, The Stinging Fly and Eurozine (www.eurozine.com). He is books editor of Totally Dublin. He is currently a research fellow in French at Trinity College Dublin.