Book Review by Frank O’Shea
WE DON’T KNOW OURSELVES. A Personal History of Ireland since 1958. By Fintan O’Toole. Head of Zeus 2021. 616 pp. h/b $40
The secondary title of this book describes it perfectly. The word ‘personal’ is a warning that while the facts are beyond questioning, their interpretation will often be subjective. This does not take from what is written, because Fintan O’Toole is one of the most influential Irish journalists of the last half century.
Assuming you are of a similar vintage to this reviewer, you will find yourself recalling events from your youth, thinking ‘I was 17 that year’ or ‘That was the year we lost the final’. The book starts in 1958, the year in which the author was born; succeeding chapters deal with one year or a group of years. Early on we meet the social changes like the rise of the showbands and country/western music. ‘In the mid-sixties, there were almost 700 professional bands making a living out of the ballroom circuit in Ireland,’ he writes.
Also in those early chapters we meet the Baluba massacre in the Congo and the siege of Jadotville (now the subject of a Netflix movie). There is a chapter on the arrival of television and the role of people like media star Gay Byrne; another on Sean O Riada and his music. Later we meet Frank Stagg, Malcolm Macarthur, Bishop Eamonn Casey and Annie Murphy, Sean Doherty, Larry Goodman, Albert Reynolds and his dodgy connections with Iraq, Riverdance, Ben Dunne, Bertie Ahern and of course Charlie Haughey. If some of these names are less familiar, the author tells their story well.
The book has two main villains: the Catholic church and the Fianna Fáil party. We are reminded of the many years when the archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid was the real king of the country, the person whose approval was needed for all significant social changes and many political ones. By the time the book starts, de Valera has more or less faded from importance, while the party he started would be running the country for most of the years covered.
The Troubles in Northern Ireland appear throughout, ending with a chapter on the Belfast Agreement of 1998 and the role played by Bill Clinton and ‘the saintly George Mitchell.’ The various elements of the agreement are not much easier to read about than they were for George Mitchell to achieve.
A crucial part of the process was the exploitation of Gerry Adams’s own talent for ambiguity. To spend time with him, as I occasionally did, was to be more deeply baffled by him, to understand even less than before what he really thought or felt.
Earlier, the book deals with the hunger strikes and the dirty protest, though it threatens in some places to descend into an obscure philosophical analysis of the motives of the IRA, described by the author as
the fertility of ambivalence. This was why the IRA could not respond to the pope’s plea. Its system of classification was not objective but subjective. In their different ways, the British and the pope used a taxonomy based on action – what was the deed that had been done and how did it fit into the legal codes or the Ten Commandments?
See what I mean?
In places, especially when he is writing about the Catholic church, you may feel that you are being lectured about your lack of insight, berated for not realising that the Church and the whole 1916 thing had you in their malign clutches. Just as you are beginning to feel that you are being beaten over the head for Ireland’s religious and political culture, we are reminded of the paedophile priest Brendan Smyth and his ilk, the cruelties of Artane and Daingean and the Magdalen laundries.
And then we meet the chapter on the Ansbacher accounts and the long-time corruption of the Irish financial system, something in which Charlie Haughey was understood to be the leader. In many ways, this justifies the strong element of negativity throughout the book. For example, the author refers to the monies collected for Brian Lenihan’s treatment in the Mayo clinic in America. The cost of the treatment was borne by the VHI, ‘Other expenses amounted to about £70,000. So he [Haughey] helped himself to most of the money ostensibly raised for the operation: about £200,000. He spent it on handmade shirts from Charvet in Paris, dinners with Terri Keane at Le Coq Hardi and the general upkeep of his extravagance. The cheques were signed, blank, by his acolyte Bertie Ahern.’ Is it any wonder that FF is now the half-party it appears to be? If you are one of the many Irish people who disdained Charlie Haughey and all that he stood for, this book will malevolently delight you.
This is a difficult book to read in places. Partly because of the author’s fondness for statistics (the one that had me sitting up straight was that in 2016, the second most common language in homes in Ireland was Polish), but also his quick move into philosophy and economics. That said, as a summary of the sixty years just gone, it is a reminder of how far Ireland has come.
Frank is a member of the Tintean editorial collective.