We Don’t Know Ourselves by Fintan O’Toole review – sweeping account of Ireland’s evolutions

“For all my life until about 1980,” Fintan O’Toole writes, “I had been told to think of myself as the end of something and the beginning of something else.” While his sweeping, authoritative and profoundly intelligent book sees modern Ireland through the lens of his own life and that of his family, it also offers sharp and brilliant analysis of what form change took when it arrived in Ireland.

Ireland, he writes, “emerged into the world of the postwar boom as a backwater and an irrelevance”. It had a high emigration rate and a shockingly low marriage rate. Between 1949 and 1956 the GDP of the countries of the common market had grown by 42%, Britain by 21%, Ireland by only 8%. The population was at an all-time low of 2.1 million in 1961, by which time Ireland had to decide whether “to open itself to free trade or remain as a protected but even more isolated space”.

In 1958, the year O’Toole was born, TK Whitaker, the secretary of the Department of Finance, who might be called the architect of modern Ireland, produced a document called Economic Development that set out a plan for an open economy that would lead to growth. In theory, this would have led to the modernisation of Ireland, but instead it helped to modernise the economy; it took more than a single document to drag the country itself into the future.

If O’Toole’s book has a thesis, it is that nothing can easily be pinned down, no fact fully trusted. And no lie can be completely untrue. About a politician found saying the opposite to what he had previously stated, O’Toole writes: “Usually with political mendacity, there was a truth out there somewhere waiting to be discovered and the lie is merely the opposite of that truth. But here the lie was a free-floating entity, two opposite signifiers with no real signified.” Of a weird political scandal involving a murder and the resignation of the attorney general, he writes: “The truth itself lacked credibility.”

The young politicians who supported economic change could not be trusted on other matters. In 1962, Charles Haughey, then seen as a reforming politician, visited the archbishop of Dublin “to express his disgust and revulsion” at Edna O’Brien’s novel The Lonely Girl. Haughey’s “mastery of hyprocrisy”, O’Toole writes, “was mesmerising, exquisite, magisterial”.

In this book, O’Toole charts the sheer strangeness of Ireland’s relationship to the US. When Ireland got its own television station in 1961, more than half the programmes were imported from America. Thus the Cisco Kid, Donna Reed, a talking horse called Mister Ed and Bat Masterson entered our dreams. When John Kennedy attended a garden party at the Irish president’s official residence in June 1963, the crowd mobbed him. It was, one newspaper reported: “a demonstration of uncouth bad manners, ignorance and bad breeding”. O’Toole writes: “A rising middle class, not knowing what to do with itself, was a force beyond control.”

As the economy improved, a good deal of repression remained. O’Toole quotes the testimony of a woman pregnant outside marriage: “I learned that babies like the one I might have are usually placed in brown paper bags and left in a toilet and I resolved to do this. For that reason, I started to carry around the one penny I would need to get into the toilet to have the baby.”

When change came, however, it appeared in contradictory guises. As a student of the Irish language, O’Toole went to West Cork, where he saw Seán Ó Riada, who transformed traditional Irish music, leading the local choir: “The melodies were long and linear and seemed, because they were sung in unison, utterly simple. But as you listened, they released themselves into gentle, unshowy ornamentations and then curved back into line.” At the same time, country and western music was sweeping over Ireland, with dancehalls offering versions of Nashville plus the latest hits. “By the mid-60s there were almost 700 professional bands making a living out of the ballroom circuit in Ireland.”

“We believed that the south was free,” O’Toole writes, “the north unfree.” But any sentence like that in this book is set up to allow ironies, ambiguities to emerge. As Irish feminists discovered when they campaigned for access to contraception in the south, the north had moved light years ahead in some respects.

O’Toole is aware that his own moving away from nationalism reflects a change in the wider society in the south which in the 20 years leading to 1980, he writes, “had gone from being an agrarian economy where cattle was king to one that could be understood as part of the international industrial order”. In 1972, Ireland exported £35m worth of electronics; by 1982, these exports were worth up to £1bn a year.

The economic change was fuelled almost exclusively by foreign investment. In 2017, “US direct investment stock in Ireland totalled $457bn, a greater investment stake than in Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Belgium, Denmark and Sweden combined”. Gathering statistics in Ireland, however, especially ones based on annual GDP, was never easy. In 2015, Irish GDP rose by 26% but, it was, as O’Toole writes, “a miracle that was mostly a mirage”.

But in O’Toole’s analysis, a mirage itself can be a mirage. Some other statistics are, oddly enough, real: the overall value of Irish exports did indeed double between 1995 and 2000, and between 1988 and 2007 the number of people at work also doubled.

Towards the end of the book, O’Toole writes: “The old was imploding but the new was not fully born.” His book finds a shape for the strength of the implosion and offers a coherent and intriguing way to understand the mixture of mayhem, strange energy and puzzling order in the Ireland of the past 60 years.

Comments are closed.